Poor Argentina: the team’s camp is a converted women’s dormitory at Qatar University. Migrant workers who guard this place like a presidential palace fade in the sun. The Dutch are a dormitory together, but given the isolation of each team, they could be a planet away.
Argentina’s players and staff are holed up in this cream-colored barracks-style building, with endless hours to ponder the risk of being kicked out of the World Cup after a humiliating opening defeat to Saudi Arabia. Argentina’s media is calling Saturday’s second group game against Mexico the “final.” Lose and the team’s campaign and Lionel Messi’s 17 years in blue and white are over.
The Albiceleste They landed here on a 36-game unbeaten streak, but as with many teams at World Cups, their first contact with the reality of the tournament forced them to abandon all their certainties. In the dormitory, there are conversations between players and staff about what they should do. Coach Lionel Scaloni plans to make numerous changes to his initial starting line-up. Can Argentina save itself, or are they doomed because of their ancestral flaws?
First of all, let’s say that they were unlucky to lose to the Saudis with a score of 2:1. Expected goals, a metric that measures the quality of a team’s chances, was 2.45 for Argentina and just 0.21 for Saudi Arabia. Statsbomb analytics team. But the Saudis scored twice from impossible positions. To conclude that Argentina are a bad team from the result would be an exercise in scoreboard journalism. They have assets: Messi remains the best player in the world, goalscorer Lautaro Martinez can act as his foil, and in most positions Argentina has players who are at least upper-middle, if not football’s global elite.
Still, even if they improve, they won’t become the world-class team they thought they could be a week ago. Their isolation from advanced European football was worsened by the coronavirus pandemic and UEFA’s creation of the Nations League, which further limited Argentina’s ability to meet European teams.
The experience of their players in European clubs is not enough. Except for Messi. Most of the 13-year-olds who arrived at Barcelona grew up in Argentine football at least until their late teens, and when all come together without the fertilizing influence of foreign team-mates and coaches, they demonstrate the collective flaws of their country’s football upbringing. This alarmingly uncreative team is more Argentinian than global: skilful, rigid, undynamic and playing a step below the likes of Spain, France or England.
Until Tuesday’s defeat, the Argentinians liked the style of their team. La nuestra (“Ours”) they call it a horizontal, slow game that harkens back to the great San Lorenzo club sides of the 1940s (and is still revered by Argentina’s Pope Francis).
However, as in the last World Cup, Argentina’s defense against Saudi Arabia struggled to see and execute routine forward passes. Midfielder Giovani Lo Celso, the rare player who can reliably provide for Messi, misses the World Cup through injury. Without it, their reasonable advances give opponents plenty of time to mount the wall.
Argentina have long wished for Messi to do it on his own – to become a soloist like Diego Maradona, who led an equally mediocre Argentina team to World Cup glory in 1986. But Barcelona turned Messi into a European collectivist footballer who wanted to join others. Alternatively, Argentina wish they had a linkman with 100 touches a game like previous player Juan Román Riquelme. Albiceleste generation. But neither can Messi: at 35, he is probably treating his final tournament as a battle of endurance.
A win would require him to complete six more games in 24 days. As with his clubs in recent years, he maintains his strength, but calls for the ball when he gets the chance for a decisive moment. As Argentina creates few chances, he rarely makes calls and mostly follows the work of his teammates. Let’s hope he’s energized by his visit to the hostel of his entire clan on Wednesday – his parents, siblings, wife and sons.
Against Mexico, Scaloni is expected to overhaul his defence, sacking frustrated defenders Nicolas Tagliafico and Nahuel Molina and bringing in Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez, who is capable of hitting a crucial pass out of defence. Their Mexican opponents are, ironically, coached by an Argentine: Tata Martino, former manager of his native country and close friend of Messi from his hometown of Rosario.
A group stage in a pop-up stadium in Doha may be no way to end Messi’s international career, but as he has learned in four previous tournaments, World Cups are brutal.