Thursday, October 12, 2006

Jose Pekerman's Argentina: A Retrospective

There's been various things said about Pekerman's performance as manager of the Argentinean team, especially now that he's been linked to the US job, and I wanted to clarify a few things as well as get my point of view across, speaking as an ardent Argentina supporter who still thinks that team was good enough to make the finals.

I think a balanced view of Pekerman's merits and weaknesses is probably best achieved by looking at his entire involvement with the Argentinean FA, starting with successes at youth level.

Pekerman coached the U20 Argentina teams until 2003, winning three World Youth titles in four attempts. Most of Argentina's finest players today came out of those teams, and have Pekerman to thank for kickstarting their careers.

Youth Success

In 1995 a solid team display from the team won them the tournament in Qatar with the only stand-out performer being captain Juan Pablo Sorin. He went on to become a fine wing-back who got to the Champions League semi-finals with Villarreal last season, and of course was captain of Argentina at the 2006 World Cup under Pekerman.

The 1997 team was a remarkable group of individuals who took the South American title before going on to win the world title in Malaysia, even bagging the fair play award in the process. This team was well organised and played great, clean football, characteristics which would continue to mark Pekerman's way of coaching. He also displayed exceptional skills in managing the personalities of the budding stars, famously starting his most heralded player Pablo Aimar on the bench in the final to teach him about patience, having encouraged Aimar's fragile mental strength all through the tournament by repeatedly assuring him of his excellence.

This group has thrown up most of the backbone of today's Argentina, including Pekerman's favourite player. I'm speaking of Juan Roman Riquelme, of course. Pekerman knew how to make Riquelme happy enough to perform and how he would function best. This was back before the Villarreal playmaker's ill-adviced move to Barcelona. In those days, Roman could do no wrong, and he would go on to lift a Boca Juniors team built around him to glory in the Argentinean League three times, twice in the Copa Liberadores and even in the Inter-Continental Cup, sweeping aside a Real Madrid side which was still on top of the world back then to leave the likes of Raul and Figo admiring his talents. Discussing his World Cup performance would take a whole other post, but let me just say that I was perfectly happy with his displays.

The second most talented player of that generation - and indeed from Argentina today, I would argue - is the aftementioned Pablo Aimar, now of Zaragoza. Unfortunately Aimar has similar problems in that he also needs the confidence of the coach to do well, and has had absolutely horrid luck with injuries and illness in the past couple of seasons. He was brilliant for River Plate in those days, though, winning the Argentinean League five times with a formidable team. Other good players from that squad include Esteban Cambiasso and Walter Samuel, now of Inter Milan, Diego Placente, now of Celta Vigo and goalkeeper Leo Franco, now of Atletico Madrid. All of them have had lengthy runs in the full national team.

Things did not go so well for the 1999 team, who were knocked out in the round of 16. This team still produced a couple of excellent players in the form of Gabriel Milito, now of Zaragoza, and Federico Insua, who now plays in Germany.

(By the way, 1999 seemed to be an amazing tournament for discovering talented players - look at this partial list of those who shone: Ronaldinho (BRA), Ashley Cole (ENG), Rafael Marquez (MEX), Roque Santa Cruz (PAR), Damien Duff (IRL), Robbie Keane (IRL), Gabri (ESP), Xavi (ESP), Diego Forlan (URU). Insane.)

Argentina hosted the 2001 tournament, which provided Pekerman's team a chance to reassert themselves, and they did it with aplomb. A brilliant team stormed through the tournament playing fabulous football in a flexible 3-5-2, scoring 27 goals in all and again winning the fair play award.

The greatest product of that team - or so it looked at the time - was surely Javier Saviola, who repeated a feat only Maradona had managed up til that point by sweeping both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot, as well as obviously a winner's medal. The record he set of 11 goals scored in that tournament still stands and probably will for years to come. Saviola was also part of that great River Plate team with Aimar, winning 2 league titles in his time there. His move to Barcelona didn't quite go according to plan, but he's back with them now and has a chance to finally fulfill his enormous promise. What he did in the World Cup as first choice, trusted ahead of Messi and Tevez was certainly very impressive.

A whole host of other great talent also came from that team, most noticeably Maxi Rodriguez of Atletico Madrid, who had such a great World Cup, along with the likes of part-time NT goalkeeper German Lux, defender Fabricio Coloccini (who was captain) and playmaker Andres D'Alessandro, who after derailing his promising career with a move to Wolfsburg now seems to be back on track at Zaragoza.

Time with the NT

Pekerman was asked to take over the NT when the previous coach surprisingly resigned in the middle of the world cup qualification campaign. He had a slightly rocky start but gained great credit with his insistence on sticking to a South American style, using Riquelme as sole playmaker, and for getting a victory out of a tough away game against Bolivia, which Argentina almost never wins because it's played at high altitude, by sending in a reserve team. Then came the possibly the greatest moment of his coaching career so far, Argentina qualifying for the World Cup in style by beating Brazil 3-1 at home. Riquelme was brilliant, the striking partnership of Crespo and Saviola was paying off, and Pekerman's Argentina was off to a great start.

They played some great stuff in the Confederations Cup but exhaustion ultimately took its toll, especially on Riquelme, who was irreplacable and hence played far too many minutes leading up to the final, where they were thrashed by Brazil. The Bronze Ball for Riquelme was no consolation, judging by his reaction to winning the award. And then, of course, there was the World Cup.

The World Cup and Beyond

You all know what happened - Argentina played wonderful football and won the heart of neutrals, even some who had previously disliked Argentinean teams, taking them for a bunch of hatchet-men and divers who just happen to play well. Pekerman's team changed ingrained perceptions of what Argentinean football is all about by - as one English journalist put it - kicking the ball instead of the opponent. They played beautifully at times and were generally one of the cleaner teams of tournament. After the debacle of 2002, Argentina supporters could finally feel that things were back on the right track.

That's why most Argentineans didn't want Pekerman sacked when the team went out to Germany. I've seen more neutrals - and Messi fans, although yours truly was not amongst them - calling for his head than Argentina supporters. The work he had done in helping these players become who they are today, and in molding the team into such a force cancelled out any tactical blunders he made.

Make no mistake, Pekerman does have tactical problems. The Germany game was not the first time he dismantled his team with about 20 minutes to go and lost the lead because of it. Anyone who saw the friendly match with England in Geneva will know that he did the same thing there, turning what would have been a great 2-1 victory into an embarrassing 3-2 last minute collapse. The same thing could have happened against Ivory Coast in the first group stage match if the Ivorians' finishing was better, after he took off both strikers and replaced them with one totally inexperienced at international level and a midfielder, completely changing the shape of his team.

However, despite that, I believe Pekerman had a positive effect overall. If it weren't for his team-building efforts it's doubtful Argentina would have got so far anyway. One incident will demonstrate what I mean by that. The 2002 World Cup squad did not get along with each other - everyone knew that. One enterprising Argentinean journalist even managed to listen in on the loud arguments inside the dressing room after they were knocked out by putting his ear to the wall. The same journalist had no such luck four years later, as the team was united even in the face of a difficult loss. There were bitter tears and commiserations, and an emotional apology from Pekerman, convinced he had failed them. None of the players blamed him, though, nor did they want him to leave.

So to sum up, thank you, sir, for making Argentinean football great again. Whatever your failings, the self-belief and footballing ethnics you installed in this extraordinarily talented group have more than made up for them, at least in the eyes of this Argentina supporter. Because you made me believe again.


There was going to be an article lambasting Luis Aragones here, but I'm superstitious when it comes to football and follow the rule that it's always inviting bad luck to laugh at the enemy before you play them. Murphy's law dictates that they will then humiliate your team, leaving you looking like an idiot. Don't get me wrong, I really like a lot of the Spanish players, but Aragones, no.

8 comments:

John said...

Linda,

This article is great tribute to Jose Pekerman. Some might say he was a failure in the last World Cup but overall I say he has done great job. I've notify this in Seba's blog, which I'm sure other Albicelestes lovers will certainly enjoy while reading it.

John
Malaysia

Saurabh Bhattacharjee said...

An excellent article. Your evaluation of Pekerman is spot on and a lucid acknowledgement of the debt that albicelestes fans all over the world owe to him.

It has surely lit up what otherwise would be a dark day with the news of Argentina's defeat being the first thing that I read this morning.

It would be interesing to have your views on the game since we could not watch the game in India and most internet forums seem to be unnecessarily vitriolic.

Saurabh
India

linda said...

Thanks, John and Saurabh. I felt like a measured defence of the man was timely. Now it feels even more so.

My report on the Spain game might have to wait a bit, as seeing the game will be a struggle.

Alex Camacho said...

Actually, most Argentinos wanted Pekermen gone, with Bianchi as the favorite. Though I agree Pekerman did more good than bad, the biggest concern I would have had with him remaining as coach is that even today he has claimed in interviews that he made the right substituting decisions. In my opinion and the opinion of most Argentinos, he definitely let us (his nation) down against Germany, but he (at least publicly) does not think so. I'm afraid that the problems you mentioned against England, Ivory Coast (and Croatia, you may remember) as well as in multiple WC qualifying games--his inability to adjust tactics midstream--showed no likelihood of abatement.

Still, gracias Pekermen for doing your best. Hopefully Basile will take us the next step forward (though so far not so good; we seem to be unable to string our trademark short passing, our defense is brittle and unassured, without Crespo we lack a true No. 9, and no enganche that has shown he is up to the task at international level. But that is a whole other story).

Alex Camacho said...

Saurabh,

The reports you have read are probably correct. People can play down the friendly, but Argentina looked as bad as I have ever seen them, certainly as bad as in 94 when we were thrashed against Colombia 5-0 before the WC. Are passing ability looked as bad as England's, seriously. There is certainly time for Basile, but we have many positions to be filled for which there is much to be concerned about.

linda said...

Yeah, my only problem with him is the tactical rigidity you mentioned, Alex. Unfortunately it proved to be fatal, but I'd still pinpoint El Pato's injury as the turning point in the Germany game.

Turning to Basile, I have to agree with your assessment of our problems - the post I'm drafting now is full of complaints about them, I'm afraid. That said, us fans do expect far too much out of our team - look at England fans.

Veronika said...

Linda,

Thanks a lot for this excellent evaluation of a man who won me over with the way he made his teams play and behave, but then plunged me into utter disappointment by making some needless tactical mistakes in the decisive moments, thus destroying what he had previously created himself.

Watching Pekerman on the touchline always made me feel kind of sorry because he seemed to suffer from immense pressure, and I think that's what forced him into mistakes. Much as I would like to consider him capable of winning major tournaments like the World Cup, I fear that he lacks what I regard as the essential feature of a winner's personality: the capacity to grow with pressure, which is inevitably linked to making courageous substitutions in the key moments of a game. Look at the coaches who made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup: They all had that.

Nevertheless, I keep admiring him for what he did at the youth level and for the inspiring performances of his national sides. His impact on the development of Argentinian football is remarkable.

Veronika
Germany

Saurabh Bhattacharjee said...

Alex, even the most ardent admirers of Pekerman cannot gloss over some of his tactical failings - as we saw in the games against England,Ivory Coast and Germany. However as Linda pointed out, his cause was not helped by Pato's injury. We lost a critical substitution there.

However, the positives in his tenure were too many. He was able to resist the immense media pressure to have Messi and Tevez and instead chose the less hyped but more effective combination of Crespo and Saviola. He took the national team to its traditional style of play which has made the team so popular all over the globe.

As far as Spain match is concerned, I cannot say anything since I have been able to watch the goals only. From all accounts, the team indeed played very poorly.

One can critique the performance, but writing off the players based on just two performances, as many despondent fans are doing, seems rather premature.