Poor Argentina: the team’s camp is a redesigned women’s hostel at Qatar University. Migrant workers who guard the place like a presidential palace wither in the sun. The Dutch are a hostel, but due to the isolation of each team, they can be as far as a planet away.
Argentina’s players and staff are locked in this cream-colored barracks-style structure, spending endless hours wondering if they could be knocked out of the World Cup after a humiliating defeat to Saudi Arabia. The Argentine press calls Saturday’s second group game against Mexico a “final”. Lose and the team’s campaign and Lionel Messi’s 17 years in blue and white are effectively over.
The Albiceleste landed here on a 36-game unbeaten run, but like so many teams at World Cups, their first contact with the reality of the competition forced them to shed all their certainties. In the hostel, there is a conversation between the players and the staff about what to do. Coach Lionel Scaloni plans to make several changes from the initial starting lineup. Can Argentina save themselves or will their ancient mistakes doom them?
The first thing to say is that they were unlucky to lose 2-1 to the Saudis. Expected Goals – a measure of the quality of a team’s chances – was 2.45 for Argentina and just 0.21 for Saudi Arabia. Statsbomb Analysis Group. But the Saudis scored twice from unlikely situations. If we were to conclude from the result that Argentina is a bad team, then we would be practicing score reporting journalism. They have the assets: Messi is still the best player in the world, the skilful goalscorer Lautaro Martinez can be his defender, and in most positions Argentina has players, if not from the global elite of football, at least from the upper middle class.
But even if they improve, they won’t be the world-class team they thought they were a week ago. Their isolation from top-flight European football was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and UEFA’s creation of the Nations League, which further limited Argentina’s opportunities to meet European teams.
Their players’ experience at European clubs is not enough. Apart from Messi. who arrived in Barcelona aged 13, most were raised in Argentine football until at least their late teens, and when they all come together without the leavening influence of foreign teammates and coaches, they show the collective flaws in their nation’s football education. This frightening creativity is more Argentinian than global: skilful, tough, undynamic and a notch below teams like Spain, France or England.
Until Tuesday’s defeat, the Argentinians liked the style of their team. La nuestra (“Ours”) is called a horizontal, slow game that harkens back to the great San Lorenzo clubs of the 1940s (and is still revered by Pope Francis).
But as in the last World Cup, Argentina’s defense struggled against Saudi Arabia to spot and execute routine forward passes. Midfielder Giovani Lo Celso, a rare player who can reliably cover for Messi, will miss the World Cup through injury. Without him, their logging gives their opponents plenty of time to concrete the wall.
Argentina have long longed for Messi to go it alone – to be a soloist like Diego Maradona, who led an equally mediocre Argentina team to World Cup glory in 1986. However, Barcelona turned Messi into a European collectivist footballer who wants to play with others. Alternatively, Argentina wish they had a playmaking link man with 100 touches like previous Juan Román Riquelme. Albiceleste generation. But Messi can’t do that either: at the age of 35, he is treating his probably last tournament as a fight for endurance.
You need to complete six more games in 24 days to win. As with his clubs in recent years, he maintains his strength, only calling for the ball when he sees an opportunity at a crucial moment. Because Argentina creates few chances, he rarely makes calls and mostly just watches his teammates work. We hope he got some energy from Wednesday’s visit to the hostel of his entire clan – his parents, siblings, wife and sons.
Against Mexico, Scaloni is expected to overhaul his defence, dropping disappointing full-backs Nicolas Tagliafico and Nahuel Molina and bringing in Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez, who can hit the much-missed pass out of defence. Their Mexican opponent, ironically, is coached by an Argentine: Tata Martino, the former manager of his native country and an intimate of Messis from their hometown of Rosario.
Group play a pop-up stadium Doha would not be the end of Messi’s international career, but as he has learned in four previous tournaments, World Cups are cruel.