Thursday, 7 July 2011

No width and no wins for Argentina on home soil

After Friday’s frustrating 1-1 draw against Bolivia Leo Messi summed up the thoughts of a nation in a sentence, “it is not what we expected,” he said.

Harsher critics might argue that disappointment with the national team is something that Messi should be used to by now, after another poor performance in their 0-0 stalemate with Colombia it is certainly a feeling he is getting used to in this competition.

Indeed it could and should have been much worse for the hosts. Colombia have improved steadily over recent years but goalscoring has remained a cronic problem. With the proflic Radamel Falcao García leading the line they had hoped that finding the back of the net wouldn’t be such an issue in Argentina. Unfortunately with the chances not falling to the Porto man they took their ineptitude in front of goal to a new level in Santa Fe.

Twice in the first-half they passed up glorious opportunities. Firstly Gustavo Ramos spooned the ball over from three yards out after a slick counter-attack. Then after a horrendous backpass from Gabriel Milito let Ramos through on goal, Nicolas Burdisso slid in to deny the Hertha Berlin striker and was lucky not to concede a penalty as the ball rolled on to Dayro Moreno, with the empty goal gaping he fired wide.

Colombia didn’t create the same quality of opportunities in the second half but they were still the more dangerous side, particularly on the counter-attack against a horrifically slow Argentine backline. It says everything about La Albiceleste’s performance that goalkeeper Sergio Romero was by far their man of the match.

The essential problem for Argentina is that coach Sergio Batista has tried to force his square pegs into round holes in an attempt to replicate Barcelona’s 4-3-3 system. The idea – to let Messi feel as comfortable as possible – has had the completely opposite effect. Without the movement of Pedro and Villa ahead of him, the service of Iniesta and Xavi behind him and, an often overlooked part of Messi’s play, the outball to Dani Alves on the right, Messi looks lost and frustrated at not being able to produce his magical best. Moreover, by trying to accommodate the World Player of the Year Batista is making his other star players play in unfamiliar roles.

Carlos Tevez was expertly handled by Colombian right-back Camilo Zuniga and was far too predictable in cutting inside from his wide left position. Similarly Sergio Aguero, when he was introduced to replace Ezequiel Lavezzi, couldn’t have the influence on the game as he does at club level because he wasn’t playing from a central position, receiving the ball from the midfield and driving at defences. It was no surprise that the one Argentine substitute who did make a difference was Gonzalo Higuain who was played in his natural no.9 position.

The major consequence of playing forwards more akin to playing centrally than on the flank is a lack of width. This can be resolved by a pair of attacking full-backs (with holding midfielders in front of the back four to cover any spaces left by the full-backs pushing forward). It is a system the Brazil have mastered over the years but one that Argentina have never got to grips with as they have never produced the type of winger turned full-backs that their neighbours have churned out with spectacular regularity.

In the current Argentina side, the abundance of talent in the centre-forward, enganche (playmaking) and defensive-midfield positions has meant that the build-up play tends to bottle neck around the opponents 18-yard box and makes it much easier to defend against than it should against players of such quality.

One player who could make a difference and whose involvement has mysteriously been restricted to only 45 minutes across the two Copa matches so far is Angel Di Maria. The Real Madrid man will at least provide width that should in theory stretch the opposition and make it easier to play through the middle.

However, the other problem of this Argentinean side cruelly exposed by the Colombians comes far away from the opposition goal. An abundance of talent in certain areas has masked a dearth in others and with such a weak central defensive pairing as Milito and Burdisso even if La Albiceleste get their attacking mojo working in the next fortnight their 18-year trophy drought looks set to continue.

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