A few weeks ago we published my (very) early thoughts on some World Cup outright winners bets. The post went into detail on almost every team with a realistically viable shot at winning the tournament this summer in Brazil, except for one: Argentina. La Albiceleste are an intriguing proposition and oddsmakers have installed them as the second favorite behind host Brazil at 5-to-1, primarily because of the four-time World Player of the Year Lionel Messi.
The question to focus on when analyzing Argentina–where will it play Messi at the World Cup? Throughout his international career, which began in 2005, Messi’s place in the national team lineup has moved all around the field. Will 2014 finally be the time Argentina figures out how to properly use Messi and unlock the form he’s displayed at Barcelona?
Messi turns 27 on June 24, which will inevitably lead to even more comparisons to the country’s all-time soccer icon, Diego Maradona. Maradona was 25 going on 26 in 1986 when he almost single-handedly led Argentina to its second (and last) World Cup triumph. It’s worth remembering that Maradona in 1986 was probably the best individual display during a modern-era World Cup, aided greatly by coach Carlos Bilardo catering the entire team around his superstar player at the peak of his powers.
Saying nothing of his Goal of the Century (or ‘Hand of God’ goal vs. England), nobody in the modern game, even Messi, is going to be afforded the space Maradona received, making you wonder: how much impact can one man have every game in the tournament?
Messi’s relative lack of success at the international level remains puzzling, although not entirely his own fault. His goal-scoring record — 37 in 83 appearances — is below his rate at Barcelona, but still very respectable. In his previous two World Cups, Argentina reached the quarterfinals. Famously, coach Jose Pekerman opted for the immortal Julio Cruz over Messi as a second-half sub in the 2006 loss to Germany. Argentina and Messi’s best showing at a Copa America was a 3-0 loss in the 2007 final to Brazil. The high point in the sky blue-and-white kit is limited to a Gold Medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, playing on a stacked squad that included Angel dí Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi.
Given Messi’s ridiculously rich success with Barcelona — six La Liga titles, three Champions League wins, two Copa Del Reys — the easy thought is that should translate and rub off on Argentina. That sort of thinking is massively shortsighted given that Barcelona, with six trophies in 2009, staked its claim to the greatest club team in soccer history. With Argentina, Messi has never quite had the suppliers like Andres Iniesta or Xavi around him. Coincidentally, Spain — with a team comprised with the core of Barcelona’s team — has won the last two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup sans Messi.
Herein lies the rub with Argentina. Messi is on the short list of the best players in the world, but plays a position where Argentina is historically stocked with talent: striker.
Sergio Agüero (26 goals for Manchester City in 25 matches), Gonzalo Higuaín (21 goals in 36 matches for Argentina), Carlos Tevez (Serie A-leading 18 goals) and maybe even Rodrigo Palacio would be clear-cut starters at striker/central attacker/ forward for most international teams. As a result, throughout his 83-game international career, Messi has played all over the field, ranging from striker to wide forward to right midfielder to even a central midfielder.
In 2010 at the World Cup, Argentina — coached by Maradona — used Messi as an attacking midfield or “Classic No. 10″, dropping him further away from goal, in order to get two other strikers on the field. Messi played creator and was effective enough in the position and was on the short list for tournament Golden Ball, but didn’t score a goal himself and Argentina went out with a 4-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals.
Oddly enough, in eight World Cup appearances Messi has scored but once, in the 88th minute of a 2006 Group Stage drubbing of Serbia (Argentina won 6-0) after coming on as a substitute. Everyone would have easily assumed it was the start of many more to come, but it’s yet to happen. In 10 Copa America appearances, Messi’s only found the scoresheet twice — both in 2007.
Let’s take a look at his starting positions for Argentina, via Football-Lineups.com.
It offers up a simple question: what is Messi’s best position for Argentina?
The answer for Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella is equally simple: central attacker/striker/forward/whatever label you prefer to call it, which he’s played in recent, record-setting seasons for Barcelona:
It seems Argentina is realizing that best position to play Messi is the same as his preferred spot at the Nou Camp. Instead of trying to slide Messi further away from goal to shoe-horn Argentina’s more traditional strikers onto the field, the team should be catered around Messi and his sublime talents. It sounds simple, but it’s taken the better part of a decade for five different coaches to figure out. If Argentina is serious about winning, it should take a page from Bilardo and build everything around Messi, the ego of other big-name strikers be damned.
At Barcelona, Messi plays in front of goal and as a result has netted 240 goals in 271 lifetime games, becoming the club’s all-time leading scorer. In 2014 CONMEBOL qualifying, Messi still drifted toward the right, but was closer to goal than previous incarnations of Argentina. In 2013 friendlies, Messi lined up more as a central striker. Messi shouldn’t be used as a provider to set up his teammates, the rest of the Argentina team should be lined up to feed him and let him work his wizardry.
The team backing Messi in the midfield is mostly pedestrian with journeyman like Ever Banega, Fernando Gago, Lucas Biglia and even Javier Mascherano in central roles. Given Argentina’s attacking prowess, all it really needs it water-carriers, so to speak, to win the ball back in midfield and provide defensive cover.
If Argentina is smart, an attacking trident of Messi flanked by Lavezzi and Agüero — perhaps interchanging — might be the right combination that helps the world’s best player shine on the game’s biggest international stage. It shouldn’t be this hard or have taken this long but Argentina might finally have realized the optimal way to use its best player.
At Brazil this summer, Messi doesn’t need to be Maradona, he needs to be the Lionel Messi we’ve seen the last decade on the club level in Spain. This will be a lot easier to achieve if he’s lined up in the proper spot.
[Photo illustration by Evan Russell, USAT]