Argentina’s Lionel Messi is human and should be allowed to fail, but he is carrying the hopes of a great football nation in the World Cup.
As Argentina and Croatia lined up for the national anthem at Nizhny Novgorod, Lionel Messi’s gesture felt like he was suffering from a headache. The Argentina captain looked stressed. Maybe he had pre-empted the meltdown.
Croatia schooled Argentina during their 3-0 victory. Messi had just 49 touches of the ball in 90 minutes. In a match where Luka Modric rose to acquire the status of the new ‘LM 10’, the original master crumbled under pressure. Messi is human and should be allowed to fail, but he is carrying the hopes of a great football nation in the World Cup. And now, things have come down to pulling off the biggest miracle of his career.
An ordinary game against Iceland in Argentina’s World Cup opener followed by a virtual no-show against Croatia were not cases in isolation. By his impeccable standards, Messi is in the middle of a fairly lengthy bad patch. Roma probably triggered it during their Champions League quarter-final second leg against Barcelona back in April. The Italian club overturned a 4-1 first leg deficit to dump the Messi-led Barca. Messi had 61 touches of the ball in that game, but he hardly made an impact. He looked a dejected figure, as Roma scored their third goal and clinched the tie on away goals rules. And Michael Owen, in his role as a BT Sport pundit, tore into the Barca talisman after the game.
The Messi of Barcelona, however, is different from when he plays for his national team and an aborted move against Croatia served as a reminder. Messi had a layoff for Enzo Perez inside the area, just that the midfielder failed to anticipate the pass and a lovely build-up fell flat. At Barcelona, Messi would have found Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez or Philippe Coutinho following the ball, ready to slot home. Here, his teammate let him down.
Also, at Barcelona, Messi is not impeded by someone like Willy Caballero in goal and Nicolas Otamendi anchoring the defence. Caballero’s customary howler was the opening act of a sorry mess that his team would descend into against Croatia. The excellent Luka Modric toyed with Otamendi and company. In the midfield, the imperious Ivan Rakitic ran the veteran Javier Mascherano ragged. Ossie Ardiles’ pre-World Cup comment returned to haunt Argentina: “Messi and 10 more”.
Some critics, however, felt that at Nizhny Novgorod, Argentina became “11 minus Messi”, pointing towards the captain’s virtual non-existence in his own half when Croatia attacked. It was very much like the Roma fixture when Messi’s heat map in the Barcelona half had been described as ‘not found’—compare this with Cristiano Ronaldo who already has four goals in two matches, including a hat-trick, in the World Cup so far. Against Morocco, Portugal centre-half Jose Fonte was seen talking to his captain after the latter allowed a rival player to go past him almost unhindered. Then, as Morocco earned a corner, Ronaldo dropped down to mark an opposition forward at the near post. Just think about Messi taking such responsibilities. Don’t think actually, for it’s unthinkable.
Modern football is a collective art that thrives on system and organisation. Football is far more complicated than the weekly Barcelona sing-song on TV and the World Cup hype. Messi seldom hits top gear for Argentina because his national side puts the individual ahead of the team.
That Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli became a prisoner of his confusion didn’t help matters. The Juventus pair of Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala should have started against Croatia—attack is the Albicelestes’ strength—with Messi playing off the two centre-forwards. Sampaoli inexplicably ditched a simple 4-3-3 formation, going for a far more confusing 3-5-1-1 instead. He kept the likes of Ever Banega, Lucas Biglia and Marcos Rojo on the bench.
“The reality of the Argentine squad… it sort of clouds Leo’s brilliance. Leo is limited because the team doesn’t gel ideally with him as it should. As coaches, we need to realise these things and try to deal with them. I’m the one that needs to accept it,” Sampaoli said after the loss against Croatia.
And Ardiles took to Twitter to savage the Argentina coach. “Plan A for Sampaoli: Give the ball to Messi and wait for a miracle. If Plan A doesn’t work, Plan B. Err. There is no Plan B. Let alone C or D,” the World Cup-winner wrote while branding the current national team “the worst in Argentina history”.
At the CONMEBOL qualifying, Messi’s genius had papered over the cracks, eventually securing a World Cup finals berth for Argentina. Russia 2018 has laid bare the tattered fabric of an incohesive unit. Argentina are still not out of it yet, but it’s very likely that Messi will hang up his international boots irreversibly if his team exits with a whimper. Maybe that would be a blessing in disguise for the two-time world champions, with an eye to switch towards the collective.
PS: It’s a pity that Marcelo Bielsa is far afield in Yorkshire, plotting the English Championship side Leeds United’s revival next term, as the club’s newly-appointed manager. Argentina need a boss and visionary like him to reboot. Sampaoli is merely offering a star-struck presence at the dugout.