How semi-final disappointment led to the interim coach Lionel Scaloni getting the Argentina job
The history of national team football contains few more bizarre selection decisions than one that Argentina took in the 2006 World Cup. The right-back Javier Zanetti stayed at home. Lionel Scaloni went in his place. A hack for a thoroughbred – it made not the slightest sense.
13 years later Scaloni finds himself at the centre of a similar eccentricity. He is Argentina’s coach. After spending the last year in caretaker charge, all of the pointers coming out of the Copa América are that he has been handed the job on a definitive basis. For all their recent problems, Argentina remain one of the top teams in the global game – they came close to becoming world champions just five years ago and lost the final of the Copa América in a penalty shootout in both 2015 and 2016 – and they can count on some of the biggest stars around, including the player frequently cited as the greatest of all time. And this team have been put under the command of a man with no relevant qualifications.
It is hard to think of any other field of human activity in which something like this could even be conceivable. The apprentice does not normally get promoted ahead of the sorcerer. But in a sleight of hand, with a mixture of expediency and delirium, Scaloni starts his coaching career with the Argentina national team.
It could conceivably work. His job is far less technical than that of a brain surgeon or rocket scientist. The factors that make a football team work are open to multiple analyses. The similarly inexperienced Dunga, for example, did not do badly in his first spell in charge of Brazil between 2006 and 2010.
On that occasion though, there was more clarity in the decision, less muddling through. Brazil’s diagnosis was that the superstars had got out of control in the 2006 World Cup and they turned to Dunga as a symbol of a shift of approach, someone who would prioritise the collective over the individual. It helped that he had a defined idea of play. It was not pretty – by the standards of Brazil’s past it came across as snarling and mediocre – but the commitment to the counter attack was clear and, for a while, successful.
Scaloni, in contrast, is not a symbol of anything, and there has been plenty of stumbling around over the last few months. But the position is his – and he owes, it, initially, to the fact that he came cheap.
The 2018 World Cup left Argentina with short-term and long-term problems – neither of which had been improved by the expensive decision to appoint Jorge Sampaoli the previous year. For all of his merits, this was a foolish option.
Sampaoli’s triumphs have come from an obsessive dedication to a model of play that was entirely unsuited to the resources at his disposal with Argentina. With Chile, Sampaoli had picked up the pieces pre-formed by his mentor Marcelo Bielsa. He inherited a team both capable of and accustomed to defending high, creating pressure and establishing numerical superiority in the opponent’s half of the field. Argentina, meanwhile, have a long running lack of defensive pace – and also a dearth of quality goalkeepers, especially those who are also proficient with their feet.
2018 Argentina were simply not cut out to play the Sampaoli way. The result was a predictable disaster – made worse by the temperament of the coach. Frequently over-excitable, under the pressure of poor results Sampaoli cut an appalling figure, hurling abuse at a Croatia player on the touchline in the closing stages of his team’s 3-0 defeat.
His task was not eased by the failure of Argentina’s Under-20 system. Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina won the Under-20 World Cup five times. More importantly, they produced a conveyor belt of talent for the senior side. Thereafter, youth work collapsed – a point made from a position of strength by coach Sergio Batista after he had taken Argentina to the 2008 Olympic gold medal. The probable root cause was an inability to deal with the realities of the globalised game – of looking no further than a quick sale, of falling behind standards in western Europe and living in denial about it. In consequence, Argentina took one of the oldest squads to Russia 2018. Sampaoli was the wrong man for a long-term fix – in his time with Chile he had very little to do with their Under-20 team. And so, after the disaster of last year’s World Cup, there really was no reason to retain his services. But he was on a long-term contract. So he was paid off, and Scaloni, who had been on his staff, came in as a cheap and temporary replacement.
There was no rush. With Qatar 2022 not taking place until the end of the year, World Cup qualification does not start until March 2020. There was no need, then, to hire an expensive coach – especially as, with Lionel Messi poised to take a little break, Argentina would receive less money for the friendlies in September, October and November of last year. Scaloni, then, would take the team to the 2019 Copa América.
The caretaker came in full of bold talk. “I’ve always been in favour of direct, vertical football,” he said last August. “In the World Cup it was clear that the teams that won were those who specialised in rapid transitions. France and Croatia won possession of the ball and were in a position to shoot within three or four seconds. That’s the way football is going, it’s what I like and it’s the right time to implant this style in Argentina as well.”
And so he set up his team with two wingers – while Leandro Paredes, the new king of central midfield, was expected to play the ball quickly into the space down the flanks.
There were some morale boosting wins in the friendlies – 3-0 against Guatemala, 4-0 against Iraq. It was probably just as well, though, that Messi was unavailable. Because Scaloni’s idea of play could not possibly include Argentina’s outstanding player. There was no way Argentina could field two high wingers, a centre forward and Messi. It would be a ludicrous throwback. Scaloni realised this, so when Messi returned, for a match against Venezuela in Madrid last March, the formation was tweaked. How could he include Messi and retain his width? The answer was to field a back three. That way he could have a pair of attacking wing-backs plus the link-up between Messi and a centre-forward.
It may have looked fine on paper. But it soon collapsed on the pitch. Argentina’s back three could not handle Salomón Rondón – or the pace of Venezuelan wingers, given room to run behind the Argentinian wing-backs. A 3-1 defeat forced the abandonment of the back three – and leads us to Argentina’s dreadful Copa América opener against Colombia.
By this point Scaloni was lost. He still wanted his two wingers – but one of them had to be sacrificed for the inclusion of Messi. In an attempt to retain width, Giovani Lo Celso, very strongly left footed, was moved out towards the right flank, with Ángel Di María high and open on the left.
At this point it was entirely unclear what Argentina were trying to do. Were they looking for rapid transitions to the flanks or attempting to work the ball through the middle? Poor Di María was taken off at half time and roundly criticised for making little impact. But if he was expected to play high and the ball never came, what was he to do? Colombia broke out in the closing stages to win 2-0, and Argentina were facing group phase elimination when Derlis González stepped up to take a penalty for Paraguay. It was saved, Argentina drew and lived to fight another day.
On the way, though, there were signs of improvement – principally because they could hardly get much worse. Scaloni can perhaps be credited with a lack of dogmatism. In that magical effect of the tournament – when time speeds up and teams start to click or to fall apart – Argentina started to bear little relation to the blueprint of their coach. Instead of the obsession with verticality and rapid transitions to the wings, there were signs of a circuitry of passing involving Messi through the middle.
It is one thing, though, to conclude that the team improved in relation to the opening game against Colombia. It is quite another to decide that what happened in Brazil 2019 was good enough for the inexperienced caretaker to be handed a permanent contract. The leap between the two positions is provided by a highly dubious interpretation of the semi-final against Brazil, in which Argentina were beaten 2-0.
The game was certainly closer than many had expected – far closer, for example, than the 2016 meeting in World Cup qualification on the same Belo Horizonte pitch, when Brazil’s 3-0 win threatened to become a rout.
In part, the reasons for this have to do with Brazil. In the first golden 18 months of the reign of coach Tite, Renato Augusto helped the team establish a midfield control they have struggled to enjoy since injury took the edge off his game. And for this match, Brazil chose to deploy the centre-forward Roberto Firmino in a deeper role, seeking to stifle at source Argentina’s passing moves. Brazil, then, were not at their most proactive.
And then there is the thorny question of the two penalties that Argentina were not awarded – one for a block by Arthur on Nicolás Otamendi at a corner, the other for a challenge by Daniel Alves on Sergio Agüero near the breakdown of the move that led to Brazil’s clinching second goal. In the context of the competition, Argentina were probably unfortunate that the video resource was not used to take a prolonged look at these incidents. Were they penalties? In the current regulatory confusion, who can tell? What is clear is that there was no direct threat of a goal at the time that the challenge took place. In a pre-VAR age, these clashes would not even have been noticed, let alone been used to create a parallel reality in which Argentina were robbed deserved victory.
The truth is that Argentina were a goal down before any of the controversial incidents took place – and that, just as in the matches against Colombia and Paraguay, their slow defensive line had been exposed.
After the game, Argentina took refuge in the old South American standby, the grand conspiracy. In Brazil, for example, it is often taken as irrefutable fact, without the slightest need for proof or debate, that Conmebol is run by Argentina with the express purpose of harming Brazilian interests. It is a belief that has been used to run away from unpleasant realities about the standard of the Brazilian club game. Now the same belief was wheeled out by the Argentinians to explain the 2019 Copa. The whole thing was set up for Brazil – the opinion voiced by Lionel Messi, in his unlikely new role as team spokesman.
Messi’s red card against Chile was clearly absurd. But it had nothing to do with any scheme to aid Brazil – this was already the third-place play-off. Rather, it had more to do with an out of his depth referee making a foolish attempt to play strong and re-establish his authority. Foul- ups happen, errors are made, marginal decisions are taken with which not everyone will agree. Bundling all of these together into a giant conspiracy against one’s self is not only a mistake: it is a way of avoiding responsibility. And if Argentina were the victims of a scheme, then their performance must have been satisfactory, and so Lionel Scaloni can stay.
He is helped, of course, by the unwillingness of leading candidates to take the job. Mauricio Pochettino and Diego Simeone are happy in European club football and the talented Marcelo Gallardo is still with River Plate, although he could be a contender in the near future.
Scaloni, then, is the man in possession. Messi appears to back him, and he has passed the audition. The right-back who was extremely fortunate to go to one World Cup has got even luckier. Now he will have to learn how to be a coach as he plots a path to Qatar.