The WC qualifying campaign is approaching the final part of the schedule.
Only four games remain and Argentina is struggling in 4th place, the last automatic spot for the WC, facing the very real scenario of ending up in 5th place and having to play against a CONCACAF team for a spot in the world cup or worse, finishing below 5th place and not qualifying for the world cup.
This is where things stand as of right now.
WC Qualifying 2010 Standings
1. Brasil – 27 points
2. Chile – 26 points
3. Paraguay – 24 points
4. Argentina – 22 points
5. Ecuador – 20 points
6. Uruguay – 18 points
7. Colombia – 17 points
8. Venezuela – 17 points
9. Bolivia – 12 points
10. Perú – 7 points
Here’s my analysis of the WC qualifying campaign, the national team situation right now and the changes that I think need to be made.
I’ll begin with the man in charge of the national team, Diego Maradona.
After Alfio Basile’s resignation, AFA president Julio Grondona decided that he was not going to offer the national team manager position to Carlos Bianchi (at that time the favorite to replace Basile among most in the media and the majority of fans) because Bianchi had turned him down several times in the past and because of their own personal issues with each other.
With Bianchi out of the way, it was then decided that the time had finally come for Maradona to become Argentina manager.
The choice was made even though Maradona had very little experience as a manager (only two brief stints with Deportivo Mandiyu & Racing Club) and despite the lack of public support for Maradona.
It was an unusual move in the history of Argentine football to give the national team manager position to someone with as little managing experience as Maradona.
Maradona, of course, is not just anyone, he is after all MARADONA, and ever since he ended his playing career the question of him becoming the national team manager has never been an If, it’s always been a matter of When.
With Maradona all previous criteria used in the selection of the Argentina manager was never going to be applied.
Because he is the greatest Argentine football player ever and the biggest football idol ever in Argentina, the exception was made and he was given an opportunity to learn the job of national team manager while on the job.
Maradona’s lack of managing experience is, unfortunately, showing and is hurting the national team.
Some critical mistakes that were made in recent games:
Before the Bolivia game, Maradona decided to voice his support for playing in the high altitude of La Paz and minimized the issue of playing in those conditions. Consequently, the preparations for that game were handled in a very poor manner.
Maradona did not have the team prepared, ahead of time, to deal with playing in the high altitude.
As it turned out, it did affect the team as all the players, especially Mascherano, struggled enormously.
There was also the tactical error of having the team push forward to press Bolivia, playing at a quicker pace than necessary.
Because of the high altitude, Argentina should have focused on controlling the ball and establishing a slower rhythm to the game. Making the ball move up & down the field at a faster pace than that of the players.
Argentina did the opposite, it took the game to Bolivia and the players were eventuially buried by the high altitude.
Maradona did not prepare the team properly and did not read the game correctly as it unfolded.
The result, a humiliating 6-1 loss.
Against Colombia, the Colombians were tactically superior to Argentina.
Colombia was able to control the ball.
They were able to exploit the Argentina players positioning which allowed them to make attacking runs through every section of Argentina’s midfield.
In that game, Maradona decided to break up the central midfield partnership of Gago & Mascherano by placing Gago on the right side of the midfield. The move caused a big imbalance in the midfield, and it forced Gago to play in a position that he has rarely played in.
Switching a traditional Argentine central midfielder like Gago to the right side of the midfield is a huge positional change that requires a completely different style of play & tactical awareness from the player.
Because of the position switch, which was completely unecessary and senseless, Gago was not able to defend that zone effectively & was not able to participate in the play buildup, as he normally does.
Also in that game, Maradona put Messi, Aguero, Tevez in the starting lineup.
It did not work and will not work.
These three players are not compatible with each other.
Because of the similar characteristics that they have, they end up clashing with each other on the field, the team’s ball distribution is affected and all three players cause a big congestion upfront by making runs and positioning themselves near the same zone.
Instead of having 3 forwards, which never guarantees more goal scoring opportunities anyway, two should have played upfront and another midfielder should have been added to the lineup to provide much needed help with the playmaking and to free up space upfront.
Against Ecuador, the first 30 minutes were the best football that Argentina has played under Maradona.
That is all that the team has shown so far with Maradona as manager.
As hard as it may be to believe, Argentina is playing worse now than it did during Basile’s time as manager.
Even more worrisome than the bad managerial decisions that Maradona has made in these games is his inability, so far, to put together a well functioning team and his inability to establish a style of football around the national team.
Yes, WC qualifying campaigns are tough and leaving aside the football form being shown, it is not impossible for a manager to put together a well functioning team that displays a particular style of football.
Marcelo Bielsa has been able to do it, with less talented players, in Chile.
Why can’t Argentina?
One reason is the constant changes to the lineup & the formation that’ve been made by Maradona.
The lineup & formation is different in every game. That cannot continue.
Another is Maradona’s managing philosophy, which up to this point, can best be described as a mix of personal motivation & reliance on the players abilities to create individual plays that will somehow result in a goal scoring opportunity.
While tactics are not everything, it is an essential part of modern football and Maradona does not seem to have a great interest in thinking about tactics, let alone utilizing them.
Should that managing philosophy be acceptable from the national team manager?
The coaching staff is also a concern.
Maradona’s assistants are both very unqualified to be part of the national team’s coaching staff.
Alejandro Mancuso has never been a manager and Miguel Angel Lemme has very little experience as a manager.
The only qualifications they seem to have is that they are very good friends of Maradona.
Shouldn’t Maradona have experienced professionals on his coaching staff, instead of his friends, to help guide him, as he is currently in the process of learning the job himself?
Carlos Bilardo was appointed national team coordinator not just so that he can handle logistical issues, he is supposed to be someone that Maradona can talk to and consult with about tactics & managing.
It’s become clear that Maradona not only does not listen to Bilardo, he is not even seeking out his advice.
Maradona’s reliance on his inexperienced coaching staff for assistance with managing/tactics is a situation that will continue to be problematic for the national team.
One last point on the manager front.
Maradona continues to be synonomous with controversy.
It’s been one controversy after another with Maradona since he took over as Argentina manager.
Maradona has been involved in highly publicized disputes with Juan Roman Riquelme, Carlos Bilardo, U-20 manager Sergio Batista, the AFA president and with an entire club, River Plate.
All of these fights and resulting controversies have created a circus atmosphere around the national team.
Is that really helpful to the Argentina players as they are struggling to secure a spot in the next world cup?
How long should these public fights, with Maradona at the center of them, be tolerated?
It has become an embarrasment and there is no reason to believe that controversies will not continue to surround the national team as long as Maradona is the manager.
Maradona and the never ending controversies
Now, on to the team.
Maradona has been going back and forth between a 3 and 4 man backline.
Argentina should play with 4 defenders.
A 3 man backline requires alot more work & practice. The synchronization between 3 defenders is alot harder to accomplish.
In a WC qualifying campaign there is simply not enough time available (most players are based in Europe and arrive a few days before a game) to effectively work a 3 man backline.
Zanetti, Demichelis, Heinze, are all not in their best form right now and some decisions need to be made.
Who’s in, Who’s out.
Maradona made a good move by trying Otamendi as one of the center backs and should keep the Velez Sarsfield defender in the lineup.
The same though, cannot be said about Daniel Diaz & Emiliano Papa.
Their performances have not been good. They should not be on the national team.
Argentina’s backline is struggling and changes need to be made.
Maradona has plenty of defenders to choose from.
Maxi Rodriguez should return to the lineup. Maxi is the best player Argentina has to cover the right side of the midfield, he’s a versatile player that can defend his zone and make attacking runs & participate in the play buildup.
The Mascherano & Gago midfield partnership should remain in place.
They know each others movements, position themselves well and form a strong defensive presence.
Does Argentina need Riquelme?
I do not believe so. In my view, Riquelme is not the savior nor the solution to the team’s offensive woes and lack of collective play.
Riquelme’s overall track record with the national team has not been a good one.
Riquelme’s form has been inconsistent and he has failed to lead the team and be the difference maker when Argentina has needed him the most.
Riquelme’s had the opportunity to play an entire Copa America and World Cup with Argentina in the leading role of playmaker.
What has Argentina accomplished with Riquelme leading the team, leading the attack?
Argentina does not need Riquelme back on the team, controlling & distributing the ball at his usual slow pace while the other players move at a faster pace.
Also, Riquelme is a negative influence on the team, he is a divisive figure.
I believe that it is true that Messi, Veron and others do not want him on the team because of Riquelme’s habit of creating tensions, conflicts with other players and leading cliques within the team.
Riquelme’s return would create problems again in the dressing room and would divide the team, again.
Is that what Argentina really needs at this moment?
Argentina’s attack would benefit more by having someone like Maxi in the lineup, participating in the play buildup, from the right flank, with Messi and another midfielder who is not tied down in a set position, a midfielder who can move all over the field to link up with Messi, Maxi and Gago.
Though Veron is not my first choice, he is in the lineup and can play in that role.
That said, the team needs Gago to participate more in the play buildup, he can do that while still attending to his defensive duties.
Gago has the skills to do both things.
With Maxi, Veron & Gago actively involved in the play buildup with Messi, it would improve the team’s ball distribution and it would open up space on the field.
Is Riquelme the solution?
Another problem is the lack of goal scoring.
In the last 11 WC qualifiers only 12 goals have been scored.
Argentina is struggling to score goals.
Messi will remain in the lineup as long as Maradona is the manager.
The question then is:
Who should partner with Messi upfront?
Should it be someone like Tevez or Aguero – a fast, mobile, skillfull type player?
Should it be a more “in the box” type center forward?
or a combination of both.
Like Gonzalo Higuain.
How is it possible that Higuain has not received a callup?
Higuain has just completed his best season ever in Europe and is without question one of the best Argentine forwards in the world right now.
Does Maradona have the luxury of leaving him out of the team?
What does Maradona see in Tevez, Aguero, Milito and Lisandro Lopez that he does not see in Higuain?
Doesn’t Higuain deserve an opportunity?
Why does Real Madrid’s top goal scorer not have a place on the national team?
Finding the right player to play alongside Messi is an important issue that needs to be resolved.
As is the following:
Why is Messi a great player in Barcelona but not in Argentina?
Messi has not shown the same football form with Argentina as he has with Barcelona.
Messi’s performances have been mostly disappointing. Alot more is expected of him and he has not delivered yet. The Messi Superstar, well known in Europe, has not arrived yet in Argentina.
But the fact is that he trains with his club team every day, plays with his club team every week and knows his teammates very well.
The same thing cannot be said for the national team where Messi arrives every few months to train for several days and then plays a game and leaves.
Another reason is that with Barcelona, Messi is used to playing in a tactical formation that does not change from game to game.
Also, in Barcelona there are players on every line that pass the ball to him and Messi is usually positioned out on the right wing ready to receive.
In Argentina, Messi does not play in a set lineup & in a set formation.
Who on the national team consistently delivers balls to Messi?
How often does Messi make contact with the ball in games with Barcelona?
How often does Messi make contact with the ball in games with Argentina?
There’s a huge difference.
The national team does not have the lineup & system in place that can bring the best out of Messi.
Messi clearly, will not succeed with Argentina if he is surrounded by players that cannot deliver the ball to him consistently and if he plays in a system that prevents him from having frequent contact with the ball.
Still waiting for Messi Superstar to appear in Argentina.
So, what lies ahead for Argentina?
The rest of the WC qualifying campaign looks like this:
Because of Argentina’s place in the WC qualifying standings, this game will have an even bigger importance than usual.
It will be as big of a “must win” as any Brasil game has ever been.
Argentina has to win, any other result will not suffice.
Afterwards, the final home game against Peru and two away games against Paraguay & Uruguay.
The away games will be tough.
For more than ten years now Paraguay has been one of the top national teams in South America and the current team is still one of the best teams on the continent.
Needless to say, the clasico against Uruguay will be as always, very difficult.
There is also the probability that Paraguay & Uruguay will still be competing for a spot in the WC when the games against Argentina take place. A factor that will add even more pressure to these games.
And then there’s the following numbers to consider:
– In WC qualifying away games Argentina has only earned 5 out of 21 possible points
– The last time Argentina won a WC qualifier away was on October 16, 2007
Maradona has a wide range of problems to address & resolve.
Maradona needs to come up with a game plan that will help turn things around.
Unfortunately, his performance so far as national team manager has not been good but there’s still time and plenty of room for improvement.
The Argentina players will also have to step up, with football and with the pride & inner strength that is required of those that wear the Argentina shirt.
I believe that the game against Brasil will determine whether Argentina remains on track to qualify for the world cup or whether the team will fall off the rails and fail to qualify for the next world cup.
The emotional lift of a win over Brasil will give Argentina the big push that it needs to get through the rest of the WC qualifiers.
A defeat on the other hand, could signal the beginning of the end.
The WC qualifying campaign is hanging in the balance.