And then, there were 23. Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni whittled down his provisional Copa América squad in record time ahead of the deadline to finalise his list on Wednesday, springing a few surprises but generally sticking with the project of mild renewal the novice tactician has been carrying out ever since he replaced Jorge Sampaoli at the helm following last year’s World Cup.
Scaloni’s picks represent somewhat of a compromise between several competing ideas, from those who wished to see an entirely new group of players go to Brazil and gain experience ahead of preparations for Qatar 2022, the overarching objective; to observers for whom only success at the Copa will suffice and who therefore insist on seeing established names among the squad.
Ten players remain from Sampaoli’s Russia call-up, several – Sergio Agüero and Ángel Di María included – of whom are yet to feature under the new trainer. With them are a smattering of fresh young faces hoping to make up the core of the team three years from now, while there was also a nod towards César Menotti’s wish to make the side predominately a showcase for the Superliga.
Six players from the local top flight made the cut, two more than in 2018, with River Plate providing four of those names in a reflection of their fine standing following victory in last year’s Copa Libertadores.
Milton Casco’s inclusion was one of the bigger shocks, as was the identity of one of the strikers picked alongside Lionel Messi and Agüero. The decision to put Matías Suárez, at 31 hardly a name for the future and not exactly a prolific goalscorer even at the best of times – ahead of a seasoned European star like Mauro Icardi – is only understandable given the latter’s recent dip in form amid bitter contract wranglings with Inter, but the ex-Belgrano man did at least show signs that he could do what most Argentina players have patently failed to achieve and link up with captain Messi when the pair shared a pitch in the recent friendly defeat against Venezuela.
Menotti himself joined Scaloni to defend the coaching team’s picks, a grave, wizened presence sitting alongside his rather more inexperienced colleague. “To arrive in good standing to the Qatar World Cup and rebuild relations with fans,” the Albiceleste team manager replied when asked by reporters what his hopes were for this upcoming tournament.
“I am full of dreams, as if I were 20,” El Flaco, one of only two men on the planet to have led Argentina to World Cup glory (albeit 41 years ago), continued. “The dream is for us to enjoy this national team and for there to be enough time for the team to develop the coach’s ideas.”
What those ideas may be, admittedly, remains something of a mystery. Such has been the dizzying array of names that have lined up for Argentina over the past 12 months – Agüero became Scaloni’s 54th callup on Wednesday, with 48 of those seeing game time – that it is hard to argue that this national team has or is even capable of having its own recognisable style.
The coach himself gave some hints: he would like to see a side rapid in the transitions, that moves the ball forward in some haste and that does not prioritise possession. “Controlling the ball for the sake of it sometimes does not make sense,” he told reporters, breaking a tradition of Argentine coach at the very least paying lip service to the idea of dominating the flow of games à la Barcelona. “When we have the ball, the first thing we should be thinking about is the opponent’s net.”
After such chaotic preparations for the tournament, and with just one friendly scheduled as a dress rehearsal prior to Brazil, that pragmatic approach might be Scaloni’s only option. Things could certainly be worse for Argentina going into the Copa; but even with the likes of Messi and Agüero onboard, this is a squad that fails to raise great enthusiasm and much less hopes of the trophy in what promises to be a stern challenge over June and July.