It is not out of the ordinary for a team comprising one of the greatest players ever to lose, but the manner with which Argentina imploded against Croatia in a 2018 World Cup Group D match on Thursday bordered well beyond disbelief.
How has Argentina with Lionel Messi come to be so humiliated? Poor tactics, or poor performances from Messi in Russia so far, or poor performances from players around him?
In the end, it’s a combination of all the above – coach Jorge Sampaoli’s tactics blew back terribly to his face, and Messi has been subpar no matter how much his fans choose to overlook it.
Having seen his side struggle to a 1-1 draw against Iceland, Sampaoli’s decision to leave all of Angel di Maria, Ever Banega, Lucas Biglia, Cristian Pavón, and, to an extent, Paulo Dybala, left Argentina lacking grossly in quality on the field.
But since when has that stopped Messi? Same player who carried Argentina to Copa America finals in 2011, 2015, and 2016, as well as the 2014 FIFA World Cup final in Brazil – all with same set or similar quality of players.
Against Croatia, however, Messi was fairly anonymous as he posted fewer touches and passes than he is accustomed to, made just 75% of his passes, and saw his one chance at scoring blocked by a sliding Rakitic.
Indeed, Croatia deserve plaudits for stifling Messi’s influence, but with their creative fulcrum out of form in Russia, Argentina failing to have a second (and third) plan to fall back on has been their biggest undoing. And so far, the likely candidate to take on the responsibility for Messi – Dybala – has been left on the bench against Iceland and giving just a few minutes against Croatia.
Sampaoli stated that the team is not in sync with Messi’s “brilliance” but based on the first two games and Argentina’s displays heading into the World Cup, it is the coach who has been unable to get a formation which would work to Messi’s strengths.
The 3-4-3 Sampaoli deployed against Croatia saw Argentina devoid of midfielders who would provide the necessary support for Messi (and other attacking team-mates) to thrive. Instead, the Barcelona star was left having to come deep for the ball as the available midfielders provided little support for the attacking players.
What Sampaoli needs to do in order to still qualify is play the absolute best players available to him – including Di Maria, Dybala, Banega, and Biglia.
With these players as well as Sergio Agüero around Messi, it would be impossible to see Argentina not performing close to their potential at least.
Without Messi, those quality of players would be capable enough to go far at any competition, so why not with Messi? It’s a no brainer.
Problem is, Argentina’s next game is against Nigeria and *ahem, we absolutely do not want that!