Argentina has drawn with Iceland. That’s no massive surprise. Although it should be. For anyone who follows Argentina, a comedy of errors and missteps was always a real possibility. Why, though? Why does a team possessing the best player in the world in the eyes of many and some of the best forwards around consistently stutter in big moments?
1. Sampaoli has a few screws loose
What does Angel di Maria do that justifies leaving Paolo Dybala out altogether? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. His choices were as much as catastrophe as anything we saw in the tie. Di Maria is usually a solid performer for Argentina, but Jorge Sampaoli’s inability and reluctance to properly integrate Dybala and Mauro Icardi is an indictment on the man who looks unrecognisable to the one who led Chile not so long ago.
That Ever Banega was a 54th minute substitute is an indication that either favourites are being played or Sampaoli isn’t a great judge of talent. What’s stranger is that Lucas Biglia was entrusted with getting forward from midfield. Sampaoli’s biggest challenge is striking a balance in this top heavy Argentina side. Weak at the back, as evidenced by how vulnerable and disorganised at the back they were the few times the Icelandic Vikings attacked, Sampaoli’s men are decidedly limp outside their attacking options. Willy Caballero seems capable of creating a goal out of nothing, which is sad, as he should be stopping them, and the slow backline is all over the place once threatened.
The decision to employ Javier Mascherano and Biglia in midfield said that the balance he wanted to strike was to be ultra-uncreative and solid at the back and in the middle of the park, while counting on the talent upfront to create special moments. Can his Argentina team live off moments?
2. Messi is trying too hard
Does Lionel Messi respond to pressure? This World Cup will go a long way to answering this question. Maybe it goes all the way. At the crucial moment, Messi missed a penalty. This is his Achilles heel. As much as he is the best individual to ever lace up boots, he’s very average from the penalty spot. Under pressure against Iceland, he slumped, not by disappearing, but by appearing everywhere. How? Messi took it upon himself to take the ball and try to create magic all by himself.
This was the wrong approach. If he’s to prove his unmatched greatness, not just show himself as an individual untouchable, he has to be able to elevate his team by leading from the front and by allowing his team to flourish with him.
In this sense, you get the feeling watching them play that Portugal plays for Cristiano Ronaldo while Messi plays for Argentina. This is a three-pronged problem of: system, of Messi’s lone soldier approach under pressure, and of his teammates who surely can do better to help the man out. Ronaldo has a steely eyed looked of arrogance, determination, confidence, and swagger over a game tying free kick that you sometimes need. It isn’t that he’s undoubtedly the greatest player to ever live; it is that he believes so. In Messi’s eyes, in Argentinian colours, you see the weight of the world. Can they turn it around? They have the individual quality to. Argentina’s problem has rarely been the presence of difference makers. It is that, too often, the sum of the individual parts is less than the whole. The road to changing that begins against Croatia.