The finalists of 2014 World Cup, Argentina find themselves on the brink of a group-stage exit.
Messi’s demeanour before the match against Croatia was weird. Yes, he likes to be quiet and calm. But on that day, he looked rather subdued. And when the camera panned into him during the national anthem, Messi’s image became one of the most haunting ones in Argentina football’s history.
Messi looked stressed. A man who was seemingly burdened by the weight of expectations. And broken. There couldn’t have been a more accurate foreboding for what was to come in the game against Croatia.
Argentina are on the brink of a group-stage exit in the World Cup this year. They might still go through, if they beat Nigeria. But they’ll have to rely on Croatia’s chances of beating Iceland. How did it come to this? How did the team, which boasts of one of the greatest footballers the sport has ever seen, and many star players, find themselves struggling against Iceland and Croatia in the World Cup finals?
Jorge Sampaoli, the Argentina manager, brought on Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala with desperation to regain momentum in the match, after their team was down 1-0. Almost immediately, Higuain created a chance and delivered the ball into the box. In any other match, Lionel Messi would be at the receiving end of the ball.
In this game, though, it was Max Meza.
It was no surprise that Argentina couldn’t score in the match, because this was how the whole match was played out. Lionel Messi, the best player in Argentina, one of the best in the World, was seemingly invisible on the pitch.
Against a team like Croatia, which boasts of one of the best midfielders in the world in Luka Modric, and the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Argentina made a blunder in not giving Lionel Messi a more central role. Instead, their midfielders exploited the ageing Argentine defence, and there was little they could do.
Much of the blame for Argentina’s poor performance in the match goes to Jorge Sampaoli. The Argentine went horribly wrong with his tactics, and his decision to shift to 3-5-2 for the second match turned out to be the worst in the tournament.
Argentina’s first game ended in a disappointing draw. However, Messi still had 11 shots on the goal. Against Croatia, however, he only had one shot on the goal, with merely 49 touches.
Sampaoli changed the formation for the second match, going to three in the back. Messi has had a dislike for the system, and the last time Argentina played in the system before the Croatia game, they were humbled 6-1 by Spain.
Lionel Messi was simply left waiting for the passes which never came. The Argentina number 10 was left so higher up on the pitch that it wasn’t feasible for him to be involved in the game, with the tactics Sampaoli framed for the match.
Ever Banega was also left on the bench for the game, which deprived Argentina of a proper midfielder. As Cesc Fabregas pointed out after the match, Argentina played with 5 defenders and 5 attackers, and that there was hardly any coordination within the side.
Jorge Sampaoli admitted that he made a blunder with his tactics, but he also deprived his side of quality. Angel Di Maria didn’t make an appearance against Croatia, and Dybala came on in place of Sergio Aguero.
Argentina can still make it to the next round. The question is, how long will Argentina survive in the tournament with such flawed tactics?