My series on the look and shape of the new Argentinean National Team continues, this time on the exciting topic of midfielders. Due to the number of players covered, they've been divided up into three categories - defensive, attacking, and playmakers. At the end I'll sum up their possibilities of being involved with Basile's Argentina and to which extent.
Abbreviations: WYC = World Youth Championship, the U-20 tournament run by FIFA. Held every 2 years and won by Argentina in '95, '97, '01, '05 since Maradona first led his team to win it.
Esteban Cambiasso (Internationale, Italy) was one of former coach Pekerman's most trusted players, even if he was playing a bit deeper for Argentina than he does for his club. Most of this was due to Mascherano's injury lay-off which forced Cambiasso into the holding role. Arguably plays much better in a more central midfield position, making tackles, linking play and even scoring the odd goal. Etched his name into World Cup history by scoring the 24-pass goal against Serbia and Montenegro and then missing the penalty which sent Argentina crashing out. I still remember Cambiasso crying and murmuring "why did it have to be me?" repeatedly as his teammates tried to counsel him. It's all the poignant given that he was once one of the greatest young prodigies of his generation - a member of the '97 WYC-winning 'golden generation' team, signed by Real Madrid in his teens. Now 26 and a definite starter for Inter, he should definitely be part of Basile's plans for the next four years.
Martin Demichelis (Bayern Munich, Germany) rather infamously declared that he had lost the will to live after being omitted from the '06 World Cup squad. (Yes, I'm still miffed about that. You're young, what's the hurry?) He does have some cause to feel despair, though, having been called up quite a few times when Mascherano was injured but as far as I know only getting to play once or twice. In Pekerman's team he was firmly behind Mascherano and Cambiasso in the battle for the holding midfield position, despite Cambiasso arguably not actually being a natural holding midfielder. At Bayern he faces competition with England's Owen Hargreaves for a starting place, playing more than 30 games last season and scoring the odd goal. If he continues to start for Bayern he should certainly be considered for the holding midfield role, despite fierce competition for the position. Unlucky at 26 years old to be amongst a crop of great young players all competing for the same role.
Javier Mascherano (West Ham, England) is Argentina's first choice holding midfielder at the moment. Coming up through the youth teams, he put in impressive displays first in winning the South American U-20 Championship and then as the first choice in the '04 Olympics-winning squad. In the past Mascherano has been a hallmark of consistency, with crucial, tidy tackling, great passing ability and a cool head in spite of his 22 years. I fear that the dispute with Corinthians which led to him missing training and the subsequent weight of expectations surrounding his move to the Premiership have disturbed his consistency. He played badly in the friendly against Brazil, the first time I've had cause to say that about him. Mascherano needs to get back to top form for West Ham soon or he may find that the position he had made his own will be slipping away.
Fernando Gago (Boca Juniors, Argentina) is perhaps the biggest threat to Mascherano's future dominance, despite the presence of the more experienced Cambiasso. A member of the '05 WYC-winning squad where he shared playing time with Biglia, both putting in impressive demonstrations in how to dictate play from a defensive midfield position, Gago's star has definitely risen faster in the aftermath. This is primarily thanks to the good work of former Boca coach Basile who has helped him develop into the kind of player who earns rave reviews and comparisons with the great Redondo. The 20 year old has yet to be capped for Argentina, but surely it's just a matter of time especially since the coach who helped him become a great player is now coaching the NT.
Lucas Biglia (Anderlecht, Belgium) has perhaps fallen behind the race with Gago to establish themselves in the NT with his move to Belgium last year. In one sense, the move is earning him more playing time than he would get at a big European club in one of the bigger leagues, but it's also keeping him out of sight. Apparently Biglia is putting in great displays in the holding midfield position for Anderlecht, as he did when they came to the Bernabeu to play Real Madrid in a pre-season friendly. I kind of hope he'll do well in the Champions League and maybe a mid-sized club in Spain snatches him up. In the '05 WYC squad Biglia played alternately with Gago, and was arguably the more impressive by a hair. They are very similar players, both 20 years old, so with Gago's current ascendancy it's hard to see Biglia getting the call ahead of him. Maybe in the future, though.
Daniel Bilos (Saint-Etienne, France) has only ever played two friendlies for Argentina. So why is he here? Well, he was arguably the most impressive player for a sorry Argentinean side in the friendly against Brazil, and Basile likes him. Many people would like to see him get called up again, especially after he renounced the chance to play with Croatia, his other nationality, to try and get into the Argentinean NT. I'm sorry that I don't know much about his displays for his new club so far, but early feedback has been good. Has a good chance of featuring, if only because the coach rates him, and because he's a good combination of experience and energy at 26 years of age in what may be a very young midfield.
Federico Insua (Borussia Monchengladbach, Germany) is another player I don't know much about who has been on the fringe of the NT for a bit but has seen his stock rise because Basile rates him. Played a bit against Brazil and was just as good as the rest of the team - which is to say, not very. He did very well for Boca last season, scoring 11 goals. May very well be called up again despite being somewhat out of sight because of his choice of club as a substitute for the two below, who I expect to start over him.
Maxi Rodriguez (Atletico Madrid, Spain) saw his stock rise dramatically during a great World Cup in which he scored one of the goals of the tournament. Many thought he would move to a bigger club, but he has chosen to stick by calamity-prone Atletico, for whom he has been often been the lone spark in an uninspired mess last season, scoring 10 goals. A member of the '01 WYC-winning squad, Maxi was on the fringe of the NT for much of World Cup Qualifying and was somewhat of a surprise inclusion in the final squad. After the World Cup, no one is doubting his claim to be a starter, bringing his complete array of skills - defensive and offensive - to either side of midfield. 25 this year, with any luck he could feature well into 2010.
Luis Gonzalez (Porto, Portugal) was the other 10-goals-a-season midfielder in the World Cup squad, playing on the opposite side to Maxi when he wasn't busy being injured or squeezed off the starting eleven by Cambiasso. 'Lucho' has settled well at new club Porto, claiming the captain's armband after just 3 months there and helping them to the title last year. Apparently Barcelona are monitoring him, although I can't see where he'd fit into Rijkaard's system. He plays a similar game to Maxi, combining defensive workrate with good vision and long-range shooting. A key member of the '04 Olympics-winning squad and the NT through World Cup Qualifying, Lucho has seen himself become perhaps more of a fringe player due to a combination of factors since then. His unimpressive display in the friendly against Brazil will not have helped, although I think the 25 year old will continue to stake a claim for a place in the side.
Neri Cardozo (Boca Juniors, Argentina) is the youngest of this young bunch, a vital member of the '05 WYC-winning squad playing mostly as a striker. There have been doubts over him because no one was sure where his best position was - in attacking midfield or as a forward. He's pretty good at both, but was at risk of becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. Basile has done some great work with him and he has really found his place as an attacking midfielder at Boca. Probably a good thing, as his finishing was very suspect in the WYC - not good if you're being used as a striker. 20 years old and one for the future, it remains to be seen how he will develop.
Pablo Aimar (Zaragoza, Spain) is an undoubtedly brilliant player who has been blighted by everything from inconsistent form, endless injuries, trouble with management to viral meningitis (yes, meningitis) and prevented from reaching the heights he touched in River Plate for former club Valencia. Being rather pocket-sized by birth, a lot of people feel that he never really adjusted to the greater physical demands of La Liga, and it is indeed true that he typically runs out of steam at around the 75th minute mark. Still, when he's on form, Aimar is one of the most entertaining and graceful playmakers around. Free-kicks, corners, great passing vision and an eye for goal - everything that Riquelme offers he can do in about equal measure; add to that pace and great dribbling skill, and you have 'El Payaso' on a good day.
However, Aimar has rarely been that consistently good for Argentina since orchestrating the '97 WYC victory alongside Riquelme and Cambiasso. There were many flashes of brilliance in various Qualifying matches, but the team crashed and burned at Japan-Korea despite his best efforts after coming in as a replacement for a below-par Veron. Due to Pekerman's preference for Riquelme, Aimar has mostly languished as a substitute under him, but he has somehow notched up 40 caps for Argentina in between being injured and being left out. Now 27 years old, the retirement of Riquelme would seem to be a good chance for him to get back into the starting line-up, and that seems to be what a lot of people wants as well. On the plus side, he's in good form with Zaragoza. On the minus side, I'm not sure Basile rates him, there's a lot of competition, and a side built around Aimar would have to contain almost as many safeguards as the team built around Riquelme.
Personally, I would prefer that he be at least given a chance to dictate play for Argentina again. Obviously no one is asking my opinion, so here's an almost definitely impossible idea - how about a double-playmaker system using Aimar and perhaps Messi? They've combined well in all the times I've seen them play together - not surprising since Aimar was Messi's childhood idol. I'll explain my reasoning for this further down, along with why I think Messi should play in midfield and not as a striker.
Andres D'Alessandro (Zaragoza, Spain) would probably be the one I'd nominate as the perfect substitute for Aimar. because they're similar enough that one would slot right into a system designed around the other. Unfortunately he's had the same run of luck as Aimar despite starting just as brightly, failing to settle at Wolfsburg and then Portsmouth in a couple of miserable seasons.
D'Alessandro was the midfield general earning accolades alongside Saviola in the all-conquering '01 WYC team and repeated this success as the playmaker in the '04 Olympics squad three years later. He's only been capped 13 times for the NT, though, playing some World Cup Qualifying games and friendlies as Pekerman tried him out as a Riquelme substitute without much success. That's fairly predictable considering the fact that they are in no way similar. He's far more of an Aimar-type playmaker, using pace and dribbling as well as passing to break down defences.
So far this season D'Alessandro seems to be getting a new lease of life at Zaragoza, playing well and finally back in an environment that makes him comfortable. There's no reason he shouldn't be tried as a playmaker alongside Aimar (similar to how they line-up for Zaragoza) or as his substitute when Aimar runs out of steam. There are questions over his temperament and reliability in big games, but that can change with time and experience - and he's only 25.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona, Spain) is actually not a striker. No, really. I have a hard time convincing people of this very obvious fact. The role he occupies for Barcelona on the right wing is more like that of a cross between a playmaking midfielder and a winger than a striker - a strange, difficult to nail down position first patented by his 'big brother' Ronaldinho. It suits Messi's characteristics well and doesn't ask him to deliver what he is currently incapable of (goals in every match). My contention is that the Argentinean NT has up until now not used Messi in his best position, with the possible exception of the friendly against Croatia and the World Cup match against Serbia and Montenegro. Sure, he plays well as a striker, but not as well as he could be playing.
But anyway, before I get into all that, an introduction to 'Leo' for those who don't know him. Messi lifted Argentina to the WYC in 2005 while picking up the top scorer and Golden Ball awards - all at the tender age of 18. I can say without exaggeration - and many would agree - that Messi was half of that team. At least, he scored half their goals and set up quite a few of the others. Acting as playmaker, Messi ran games with his maturity, leadership, great passing vision, ball control and eye for goal, not to mention great ability at deadballs including two 'ruthlessly' well-taken penalties in the final.
In between being injured and being disqualified from playing on the grounds of nationality, he helped orchestrate Barca's amazing 14-match winning streak in the league as part of an attacking trident alongside Samuel Eto'o and Ronaldinho, which included the famous 3-0 win in the Bernabeu. In one match Messi managed gain both admiration and infamy all over the world as he ran through the Chelsea defence like a hot knife through butter at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League, provoking Asier del Horno into an idiotic tackle for which he was sent off, and the ire of Jose Mourinho at what he perceived to be a dive.
All this excitement was dimmed, however, as he sustained an injury in the second leg at Camp Nou which contributed to Pekerman's decision to underuse him at the World Cup. Ever since there has been increasing calls from not only Argentina fans but also the neutrals for him to start for the Albicelestes - which brings me back to my point.
Of the 11 times Messi has played for the NT (mostly as a substitute) he has had good games in general. However, despite appearing for about 9 of those in a striker position, he only has 2 goals - surely unacceptable for a forward. Moreover, both of those goals came when he was playing further back. I think that's enough to prove that he isn't a natural striker. There have already been murmurs that he's suffering from 'Ronaldinho syndrome' - performing for club but not for country. I think that's not the issue at all. If Basile decides to use 4-3-3, then he can take up the same job he does so well for Barca on the wings, but if a different formation is going to be used Messi should really be playing just behind the strikers, using his talents to rip apart defences and set up goals. On the issue of playing him with Aimar, Messi's combined well with him when playing up front in the friendly against Angola and the World Cup match against Mexico, but imagine what those two could create with two lethal finishers in front of them.
You'll notice I haven't considered whether or not he'll be selected. One advantage of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world is that if you perform well, people will notice. He's only 19, but so what? International competition isn't going to be more testing than a Champions League game against Chelsea. I have faith in Leo having a good season, which would make it rather wasteful of Basile to leave him out, recalling what Pekerman did in Germany. And nobody wants that.
(Sergio Aguero would have gone here, but I've decided he's more of a striker, so he's going in the next post.)
unlikely to feature
none - I think everyone I've listed has a good shot at being in the team
likely to feature in Qualifying/Copa America
Esteban Cambiasso - consistency and experience
Martin Demichelis - as a substitute for either Cambiasso or Mascherano
Javier Mascherano - first choice, as long as he's in form
Fernando Gago - on a high right now
Daniel Bilos - good option to have, even on the bench
Federico Insua - Basile favourite
Maxi Rodriguez - previously underrated, now a hero
Luis Gonzalez - if he can keep improving for the NT
Pablo Aimar - at least a couple of chances to show what he can do
Andres D'Alessandro - Aimar substitute?
Lionel Messi - it would be criminal not to when he's on form
likely to feature in 2010
Lucas Biglia - good competition for Gago, hopefully
Neri Cardozo - if he develops well