The problem is not that Argentina are too centered around Messi. The problem is that they are not enough
In the wake of Argentina’s abject performance against Croatia on Thursday night that left them on the brink of elimination from the 2018 World Cup, there will continue to be much speculation and debate over whether their star Lionel Messi – peripheral on the night – let down his team-mates, or his team-mates – shambolic to a man – let him down.
In truth, this is a false dichotomy, and neither question truly captures the essence of the Argentine failure.
At the end of the day, the blame for this shambles can clearly be laid at the feet of one man: the coach, Jorge Sampaoli.
Let us consider the evidence.
This is a coach who switched from a 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-3 formation after the first game, thus shattering whatever continuity and momentum the team might have had.
In 180 minutes Argentina used 18 different players and shuffled their line-up countless times.
They made three changes from game one to game two, but not one of the three players used as a sub in their first game started game two.
Arguably their most effective player against Iceland and certainly the most impactful substitute, Ever Banega, didn’t even get off the bench in the Croatia match.
It was an utter shambles from beginning to end.
Which brings us back to the question of how an international side should best use a talismanic talent such as Messi and whether the Argentina side is too dependent on him or too focused on him.
I would suggest that the opposite is more true.
The big problem every international player faces is that rarely does their national team play in the style and formation of their club side, and often players are asked to play a completely different role to what they typically do during the regular season.
Typically, in order to accommodate a team made up of disparate talents, players just have to make the best of it and slot themselves in to meet the national team’s needs, whatever they might be. This is a perennial problem that many top club performers have to contend with and that has derailed not a few international careers.
But is this an entirely wise course of action when you have a unique talent such as Lionel Messi – unarguably one of the finest players the world has ever seen, and who has shown for a decade that with the right support he can be unstoppable – at your disposal?
What I don't understand is that when you have a player of the calibre of Messi, why has Argentina never built its national team around him and his skills, the way Barcelona is built.
That means playing a 4-3-3 with him operating essentially as an inside forward. Aguero is perfect in the Suarez role, leading the line. Either Pavon or di Maria can play inside left.
And the rest of team is picked according to their ability to adapt to this structure.
Granted it is not typically a good idea to do this, but when you have one of the finest players of all time, doesn't it make sense instead of trying to shoe-horn him into the rest of the team, especially if trying to do so has yielded such poor results, year after year.
It's true that Argentina suffer from not having someone like Iniesta or Xavi to feed Messi, but forcing Messi to play from further back and have him essentially try to play that role instead of doing what he does at Barcelona so well is a self-evidently poor tactic that almost cost Argentina qualification for the World Cup and leaves them after two matches hanging on a prayer to survive.
The closest that Argentina have to this kind of player is Ever Banega, and it is striking how much the team improved after his introduction against Iceland. Almost inevitably, he was not even used against Croatia.
In short, the problem is not that Argentina are too centered around Messi. The problem is that they are not enough.