Though qualification for the World Cup was assured last month in agonising fashion, the mood around the Argentina national team is far from relaxed and upbeat right now.
Two friendlies against Russia and Nigeria this week demonstrated that while the talent is there to make a splash in 2018, there is a lot of work to do before Jorge Sampaoli’s charges can be considered one of the favourites for the trophy.
The Albiceleste received a sneak preview of what life will be like in Russia with games in Moscow’s resplendent 80,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium and the Stadion FK in Krasnodar. The World Cup hosts were dispatched in a laboured 1-0 victory, but Argentina came unstuck with a spectacular collapse to fall 4-2 at the hands of Nigeria. The conclusion is clear: Sampaoli’s team is far from the finished article. There were positives to take from this mini-tour, however, which was made even more difficult by several key withdrawals beforehand and later by Lionel Messi’s return following the Russia game.
Sergio Agüero cemented his claim to the centre-forward spot with smartly taken goals in each encounter and showed the movement and urgency that Sampaoli is desperate to see from his strikers. Cristian Pavón shared top billing with El Kun, a welcome surprise for all involved, making the Boca star a tantalising prospect for 2018. Elsewhere Enzo Pérez proved a diligent force in the midfield while Nicolás Otamendi at the back showed every sign of being the defensive leader Argentina so sorely require.
Unfortunately the lasting impression will be one of disappointment. A defensive horror show in the second half against Nigeria – quick, direct but not exactly complex in their approaches – raised questions about the effectiveness of the nation’s three-man defence, shorn as it is of pace and extremely liable to be ripped apart on the counter. Ángel Di María once more negotiated an international break without showing any reason why he should be considered an automatic starter and in midfield, Pérez a noble exception, Argentina continue to jam square pegs into round holes in an effort to balance defensive cover with offensive creativity.
Above all it remains clear that when Messi is not on the pitch the Albiceleste will struggle to create chances with any sort of regularity.
“My biggest worry was when the team went behind,” Sampaoli said in reference to that horror show against the Super Eagles. “I am worried about what happened today and against Venezuela in the second half. These are things we have to work on from the coaching side.” The coach’s words were easy to interpret. When Sampaoli’s Argentina have the ball and are allowed to play their own game the impression given is largely positive; but when the chips are down and they must chase a game all the coach’s best-laid plans seem to descend into anarchy. Even with the pressure of making the World Cup lifted the side is still all too willing to lose their heads and shape as soon as the opponents take the lead.
This week’s double-header was still a valuable learning experience. With precious few matches to impose his own style on Argentina – a team that, lest we forget, has suffered immensely from the chopping and changing of coaches over the last three years – Sampaoli is keen to experiment as much as possible to find the right players for his tactics. In Agüero, Pavón and Pérez he may have filled satisfactorily three of those contested spots, while other players – the ineffective Darío Benedetto in particular – may now be allowed to fall by the wayside after failing to make the cut at this level.
These are the lessons, rather than the predictably hysterical reaction of some observers that followed Tuesday’s capitulation, that the team will take home from Russia and work on ahead of 2018. But while the Albiceleste need time and practice to become a team, they will have little of either. The heat is on, and by the evidence of last week much needs to be improved before they revisit Russia in June this time for the big event itself.