This will mark the beginning of a series of (massive) posts on the future of the Argentinean National Team after the retirement of Juan Roman Riquelme and new coach Basile taking charge. I've discussed bits and pieces of the issue here and there, but not in any systematic fashion. Here I'll take a look first at what shape the new team will take, then likely candidates for each position. Please excuse the European-centric view, it wouldn't be this way if I had more information about those who play their football in the Argentinean league. This post deals with the defenders.
formation and tactics
If Basile's last stint as coach of the NT and his work at Boca are any indication, he favours an all-out attacking style, which is good news for the spectacle-hungry fan. However, no one's sure if he will continue what Pekerman eventually settled on by keeping the 4-3-1-2, which he also used at Boca, or going for a more aggressive 4-3-3 like the NT that won the Copa America under him in 1993. Either way, he's got plenty of talent to call on.
(Abbreviations: WYC = World Youth Championship. Speaking of which, I'm going to compile some statistics at the end of this series - how many players have won competitions at youth level like the Olympics, the WYC and the South American Youth Championships, how many are from each league and so on.)
Profiles are in order of age, from oldest to youngest. At the end I'll put the players into three categories: unlikely to feature, likely to feature in Qualifying/Copa America, and likely to feature in 2010 and give short reasons (age, ability etc).
Roberto 'Pato' Abbondanzieri (Getafe, Spain) will probably continue to be the first choice for a couple of years, and deservedly so given his assured performance at the World Cup, but at the age of 34 the search is on for a good replacement with an eye towards the next Copa America and World Cup Qualifying. Right now, though, his great work especially dealing with crosses, distribution and impressive penalty shootout record (only 3 out of 5 penalties get past him) keeps him at the top.
Leo Franco (Atletico Madrid, Spain) had the misfortune of coming on for the injuried Abbondanzieri in the World Cup match against Germany, letting in the equalizer and then all 4 German penalties in the shootout. He can't really be blamed for any of the above, though, given the circumstances of each. A World Youth Championship winner with the '97 team that also contained stars such as Aimar and Riquelme, he has a good record with his club, although at the age of 29 he may just be discarded in favour of someone younger before the next World Cup.
German Lux (River Plate, Argentina) was also a WYC winner with the '01 team that contained Saviola and Maxi Rodriguez, picking up an Olympic Gold medal as part of the '04 winning squad's first choice 'keeper (during which he strangely had a shot on goal in the first match against Serbia and Montenegro). He was also first choice for Argentina in the Confederations Cup '05, but missed out on a place in the World Cup squad because of concerns over his mental state after a personal tragedy in the family. Has been first choice for River Plate since last season, and at the age of 24 is one of the contenders for first choice in 2010.
Oscar Ustari (Independiente, Argentina) is yet another WYC winner, this time with the '05 side of Aguero and Messi. He was the third choice goalkeeper in Germany, taken primarily to get a feel for the World Cup as he is seen as a great prospect by many. Only 20 years old, Ustari has been first choice 'keeper for Independiente since last season, showing great maturity and leadership skills despite his age. There are rumours that Barcelona have an eye on his development. Definitely one for the future.
Roberto Ayala (Valencia, Spain) has been the undisputed leader of the Argentinean backline for many years. Now 34 years old, he was a member of the Olympic Gold-winning team of 2004 and has been a mainstay of the NT for more than a decade, earning more than 100 caps and playing in the last 3 World Cups. There were doubts over his ability to keep up going into Germany, since he'd had an operation on his knee and missed large parts of the Liga season, but 'El Raton' proved his detracters wrong with a towering performance, combining great passing ability with dominance in the air, assured marking and his trademark headed goals. I think he'll be back to lead the team for at least a couple more years, since he's definitely our best central defender at the moment. To be honest, I wish he could defy age and play on for Argentina in 2010, but obviously that's not possible. Having won league titles in all the countries he has played in, as well as the UEFA Cup and European Super Cup, it's sad that his wonderful career will end without a World Cup triumph. Perhaps the Copa America would prove a consolation.
Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United, England) is one of Argentina's first-choice center-backs at the moment. After drifting through a couple of different leagues he's done very well settling in ManU and is first-choice there when fit. Arguably him going off with a long-term injury in their first European match last season played a part in them failing to get out of the group stages. Heinze's great qualities are his work-rate, courage and accurate tackling. I think he could become one of the best in the world with a bit more experience and maturity. A key member of the '04 Olympics squad, 28-year-old Heinze formed a solid defensive partnership with Ayala in the NT that was only blighted by occasional rashness. Could be a leader of the defence in 2010.
Walter Samuel (Internationale, Italy) was left out of the World Cup squad in '06 but recalled for the friendly against Brazil. He's actually only 28 years old, and was a member of the '97 WYC squad, but always somehow seems older to me. Maybe I've been affected by all the talk about him being past his best. Samuel was hailed as 'the Wall' at Roma, but bombed at Real Madrid and now performs inconsistently for Inter (as does the entire Inter team, it must be said). I don't see him getting back into the squad unless there's an absolute shortage - he's been on the sidelines of the NT for far too long, and hasn't performed that well when drafted back in.
Gabriel Milito (Zaragoza, Spain) has been a defensive mainstay for his club since joining from Independiente. Very impressive everytime I've seen him play, with great distribution, he's been kept out of the starting line-up of the NT by the Ayala-Heinze partnership, only playing a single game in both the Confederations Cup and the World Cup. Only 26, though, so he'll probably be an important member of the team for years to come.
Fabricio Coloccini (Deportivo La Coruna, Spain) can also play at defensive midfield and right-back, but he's mostly a center-back for Argentina so he goes here. Captain of the '01 WYC-winning squad and part of the Olympic Gold winning team, he featured mostly in the Confederations Cup and World Cup Qualifying for the full NT. Played two games in Germany standing in for the injured Burdisso at right-back, not very impressively it must be said. He's known for being somewhat inconsistent, perhaps owing to the fact that he's had a torrid time staying at a club for more than a season. Now that he's settled at Depor, maybe things will improve. Only 24 years old, so he could feature in the next 4 years, but I remain unconvinced that he should on current performances.
Gonzalo Rodriguez (Villarreal, Spain) was unfortunate to sustain an injury that kept him out of the World Cup, and yet another one that came just as he was about to break into the NT which will keep him out for most of the season. Won the South American U-20 title in '03 with a team that included new West Ham signings Mascherano and Tevez. Gonzalo played twice for Argentina in the Confederations Cup, but remained on the fringe during Pekerman's time in charge. He's one of Argentina's brightest defensive prospects, having put in impressive displays for Villarreal particularly in the previous season. Only 22 years old, but already attracting attention from the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, not to mention the inevitable rumours about Inter. Barring injury worries, he should definitely feature in the next 4 years.
Gabriel Paletta (Liverpool, England) was a member of the WYC-winning squad of '05, his performances there earning him a move to Liverpool in the last transfer window, where he has yet to feature in a competitive match. He's a bit rough around the edges, but has a great sense of positioning and what he can and can't get away with. Also scores the odd goal - an old-school Argentinean defender, in other words. Yet to be capped for the NT, but surely it's just a matter of time and of course getting himself some playing time at Liverpool. At 20 years old, one for the future.
Javier Zanetti (Internationale, Italy) was controversially left out of the World Cup squad that went to Germany. A well-respected former captain of the NT, both for his efforts on the pitch and great character off it, Zanetti is one of the most-capped Argentinean players having taken part in the France and Japan-Korea World Cups, the Confederations Cup and World Cup Qualifying this time round, only to be mysteriously left out of the final squad. At his best he combines skill and pace with great runs down the right and is a hallmark of consistency both as the captain and symbol of Inter and for Argentina. At 34 he's only got a couple of years in him left, but I hope that Basile can give him a proper end to a wonderful career by selecting him at least for friendlies and maybe Copa America.
Lionel Scaloni (Racing Santander, Spain) is only included here so I can marvel at how a comedy defender like him got into the NT, let alone the World Cup squad. Okay, the 28 year old is a WYC winner with the '97 team, and maybe he used to be good for Depor, but I've seen the phrase 'West Ham comedy defender' next to his name far too many times. Not to mention I've also seen his attempts at defending against Mexico in Germany, when Pekerman tried him out as a replacement for the injured Burdisso and found his efforts to be worse than even Coloccini's attempt at filling the same position, and the latter's not even a right-back. Joined Racing recently hoping to kick-start his career again, but hopefully won't been seen in the sky blue and white again unless absolutely necessary.
Nicolas Burdisso (Internationale, Italy) was a surprise inclusion in the '06 Germany squad, after a season in which he only played 16 games for Inter. Another member of the '01 WYC-winning squad and the '04 Olympics winning team, he hasn't really impressed for the full NT. Did his job well defensively but was criticized for his lack of ability going forward until Ruud van Nistelrooy fell on him in the match against Holland and his World Cup ended. He's only 25 but I don't really see him getting too many chances under Basile, unless as a stop-gap or substitute. Players who sit on the bench for their clubs are unlikely to be selected, after all. If he becomes a starter for Inter, then his adaptability could be an asset.
Pablo Zabaleta (Espanyol, Spain) is a player I've admired such he captained Argentina to the '05 WYC title, playing on the right side of midfield. Since signing for Espanyol after the tournament, he's been playing at right-back for them and doing admirably well, considering the wildly inconsistent form of his club in general. A mature, cool-headed player with perhaps more effort than technique in defence but very good going forward, perhaps reflecting the fact that he started his career as a striker but moved gradually back. He was the one bright spark in the friendly against Brazil which was only his second cap and put in a very good claim for being called up again. 21 years old and developing well, so I hope he continues to be selected and becomes a regular.
Juan Pablo Sorin (Hamburg, Germany) led Argentina at the World Cup, performing admirably with his barnstorming runs up and down the left, working well with then-club mate Riquelme. His illustrious career for Argentina began when he captained the '95 WYC winning side, going on to win 70 caps including almost all the matches in the Confederations Cup and 2 World Cups. Sorin's club career has been less impressive, drifting from league to league and probably setting a record for the number of countries a single footballer has played in (Argentina-Italy-Argentina again-Brazil-Italy-Spain-France-Spain again-Germany). Played well for Villarreal in the last two seasons as a left-sided midfielder before being told that he was surplus to requirements. He's done everything asked of him as captain, but probably won't feature much in the future, being 30 years old and not a favourite of Basile.
Diego Placente (Celta Vigo, Spain) seems to be the forgotten left-back these days, after appearing at the 2002 World Cup, Qualifying for '06, and at the Confederations Cup final. A crucial member of the '97 WYC team, he only moved to Spain last year after spending the last five seasons as a regular for Bayer Leverkusen in Germany. At 29 years old I can only see him filling in for the next few years, especially since he's been on the fringe of the NT for a while.
Leandro Cufre (Monaco, France) can reportedly play at right-back and center-back too, but I'm going by what I know - his performances at left-back for Argentina. Well, performance, really - he's only been capped 4 times, and played in a single game of note (the World Cup match against Holland, filling in for Sorin). You may remember him as the one who got red-carded against Germany for stamping on a German player in the after-match brawl, despite never playing in the game itself. A regular for Roma last season, he hasn't really impressed me from what I've seen, but maybe the move to France will suit him. 28 years old and yet another member of the '97 WYC-winning side, he may yet have further chances if he does well for his club, if only because of Argentina's current lack of left-backs.
Clemente Rodriguez (Spartak Moscow) was a surprise call-up to the NT for the Brazil friendly, having only featured in a couple of matches and the '04 Olympics squad until then. He's actually settled relatively well in Russia last season and has looked impressive for them so far this season. Basile loves a good attacking full-back and at 25 years old there's a high possibility that he'll be a member of the squad for years to come.
Unlikey to feature
Walter Samuel - hasn't been good for too long
Javier Zanetti - advanced age in a position that calls for speed, unfortunately
Lionel Scaloni - 'former West Ham comedy defender'
Juan Pablo Sorin - out of favour
Diego Placente - seemingly forgotten
Likely to feature in Qualifying/Copa America
Roberto 'Pato' Abbondanzieri - still first choice, still excellent
Leo Franco - seems to be default back-up for El Pato
Roberto Ayala - can't see anyone else leading the defence while he's still performing well
Gabriel Heinze - one of the first names on the team sheet when fit
Gabriel Milito - first substitute for both of the above
Fabricio Coloccini - useful as a versatile stop-gap
Gonzalo Rodriguez - Basile will be eager to bed him into the team
Pablo Zabaleta - seems to have earned himself a place with good displays
Nicolas Burdisso - versatile and fairly reliable
Leandro Cufre - because of the lack of experienced left-backs
Clemente Rodriguez - impressive so far, adds attacking threat
Likely to feature in 2010
German Lux - has shown promise already
Oscar Ustari - 'goalkeeper of the future'
Gabriel Paletta - if he lives up to his promise
Conclusions: Argentina currently have no truly world-class goalkeepers, a lot of central defenders and not enough great full-backs. What happened to proper wing-backs?