Friday, October 13, 2006

Spain 2 Argentina 1 - A Dissection

First of all, I have to congratulate whoever decided to play the match in Murcia, on a newly re-laid pitch which led to two injuries and at least two more scares. Neither manager wanted to play on that pitch, and with good reason.

The most serious of these is the one that forced Maxi Rodriguez out of the game early on. Poor Maxi - his injury is a huge blow to both Argentina and his club Atletico, who are doing very well at the moment. The lastest news seems to be that he's going to be out for the rest of the season with knee ligament damage, which is truly horrific news. Atletico must be concerned about losing one of their best players for so long, and this is just awful for Maxi personally since he looked to be on track for his best season in Spain. Get well soon, Maxi!

The other injury that really got on my nerves is the one sustained by Carles Puyol in the warm-up. He'll hopefully only be out for a short time and might be back in time for the Chelsea game. The two scares I mentioned are Luis Garcia, who was set to start but instead came in from the bench, and Carlos Tevez, who played on despite a knee injury. Hopefully neither will turn out to be serious.


4-4-2: Reina; Sergio Ramos, Juanito, Pablo, Capdevila (Antonio Lopez 46'); Angulo (Fabregas 76'), Albelda (Xabi Alonso 46'), Iniesta, Xavi; Villa, Torres (Luis Garcia 57')

I'm happy for the Barca boys, especially captain Xavi, a wonderful player who I'm very fond of. His goal was a cracker, beautifully set up by Iniesta's run. Iniesta had a brilliant game overall, highlighting just how criminally underused he has been in the Spanish team. Granted, they have a lot of midfield talent - Fabregas, Albelda, Xabi Alonso, Senna, the aftementioned Xavi - but what a waste. His time will come, though, perhaps in the next World Cup. In the meantime, Aragones has proved me wrong about wingers - he doesn't seem to need them after all. That said, Argentina didn't exactly use the wings either, so it's not a foregone conclusion.



*replaced Maxi Rodriguez early when he had to go off with a knee injury.

After the subs -


Now, before I dig my nails into the whole thing, a caveat. It is no great disaster to lose narrowly to a team like Spain. Certainly this is a better result than the loss to Brazil. Having read the Brazilian media's complaints about the quality of opposition they've had for friendlies (New Zealand and Kuwait come to mind from recent games) I think matching up against top-quality teams like Argentina are doing is better. Even if we lose the experience gained is valuable. We have friendlies against the likes of France and Germany lined up for next year, which has to be a good thing for this young team. The overall reaction from Argentina fans seems excessively strong given the above. That said, there are some causes for concern.

Problems: Line-up

I wasn't happy when the starting line-up was announced, but kept quiet in the hopes that I'd be proven wrong. No dice. Let's start from the defence and work our way up, shall we?

To me, there was nothing particularly wrong with the backline. However, poor Arruabarrena is now being slated for his performance at left-back. The chattering classes do have a point in that if Basile was so desperate for a left-back that he recalled a 31-year-old whose last cap came quite a few years ago, he might have gone for former captain Sorin instead. Not that Arruabarrena is bad, it just smacks of an emergency choice given Basile's stated preference for young players. That said, Argentina do seem to have a bit of a problem at left-back. I can only think of Diego Placente and Leandro Cufre who can play in that position. Other suggestions are more than welcome.

On to the midfield, then. I really like Mascherano, and he's a great player, but in current form I really don't know why he started the game. Unlike the problems at left-back, we've got plenty of great holding midfielders, so it's not like there's a shortage.

A position where there seems to be a critical shortage right now is the #10. I realized that when I say 'lone playmaker' that's not actually getting the concept across properly. What I mean by that is the Maradona role, basically. In this game the team missed Riquelme, not the Riquelme of Villarreal's semi-final defeat to Arsenal, but the Riquelme of Argentina 3, Brazil 1, the man who could impose his will on a game. Even the Argentine press - who practically hounded him into retirement - have now admitted he's simply the best Argentinean player right now.

Both Basile's choices to replace him failed that test this time. Aimar should perhaps be given another chance since he didn't get enough time in this game to show what he could do, but Insua has tried and failed twice now. Two games don't tell the whole story, but the question has to be asked whether someone who hasn't exactly made a massive impact for Borussia Monchengladbach this season yet should be the center of Argentina's game. I'm being a bit harsh on the man, since he did set up the equalizer, but all of us expect so much more from our playmaker.

Aimar's situation is that he has both the talent and the form problems of Riquelme. I remain convinced that he can succeed as the #10 if Basile shows enough faith in him. The only thing he can do right now is to continue improving for his club and hope that Basile is watching closely.

Moving on to the front line. Tevez is a great player, but he is not in form right now, and therefore he should not have started. Compounding the problem is the fact that him and Messi are in some ways very similar players - both are more comfortable bursting into the box from out wide or midfield than playing as a central striker. Despite what Basile said about playing Messi in a free role, that's not going to work if he's running into the same space as the playmaker - who also has a free role - all the time and attempting to do the same work. Neither Messi or Tevez are clinical finishers in the 20 goals a season sense. In fact, both are more like a #10, as discussed above. Rather than pushing them forward, playing them a bit further back might actually work better. I understand that they're both not quite mature enough as players to be the playmaker just yet, but both would make good strike partners for a proper finisher.

Saviola and Aguero together make a touch more sense since at least Saviola has some of the qualities of a central striker. Aguero on the other hand is more like Tevez and Messi. He was Independiente's #10 before moving to Spain, where of course they don't use playmakers in the same sense, unless you're Villarreal. Basile knows what these players are like. So why was no replacement for Crespo called up? It's not as if Argentina only have him as central striker.

Problems: Execution

The midfield was pretty shambolic at times, nobody seeming to know what they were supposed to be doing. Neither playmaker could stamp their authority on the game. Insua was all over the place and Aimar failed to shine. Insua also ended up in the same positions as the forwards far too many times, especially Messi. Perhaps that was inevitable, since both forwards were playing like midfielders - dropping deep to win possession, running through the midfield and expecting whoever was on the end of the penetrating pass to finish. Maybe that's a hint to Basile to actually play them in midfield, but I digress. Both Messi and Tevez squandered absolutely golden chances to score off great passes from...each other, actually.


Zabaleta should continue to be called up. I'm convinced that he can develop into a really good player with more experience. Works hard, never gives up and has a mature head on his shoulders. Additionally, I'm convinced that this backline, even with the current personnel, can work well with a bit more training time together.

Bilos has done well against Brazil and in this game. More chances for him, please, especially now that Maxi's out for so long. There seems to be no need to worry about the midfield in general, with the notable exception of the #10 position. Even then, it seems to me that those who claim Argentina lack suitable candidates for the position need to look harder. We have plenty of options, it just depends on whether Basile wants to use them or not.

(Seriously, Messi or Tevez on the tip of midfield. Try it. If Basile's willing to give him a free role, then why not take the next step?)


In the end, the fundamental problem for Argentina is three fold. First, the bulk of these players are young. Some have played very few or no competitive internationals. Less than half the squad have Champions League experience. That is going to show when it comes to big matches.

Second, the forward line for this game was so lacking in height it was comical - the tallest, Sergio Aguero, is a hardly Peter Crouch-esque 1.72 meters. That in itself isn't a problem. The issue is more that of the four, only Javier Saviola could be said to be anywhere near being a center forward. That position is something Basile will have to sort out fast.

Third, some of these guys were meeting each other for the first time. They had 2, 3 days of training together, and then, bam, they have to play against Spain. It was the same versus Brazil. Argentina aren't going to win matches with this set-up. In this vein, I agree wholeheartedly with Basile's approach to the Copa, which is to get a group of players based in Argentina together to train regularly and add in some players from abroad. He won the Copa in '93 with this approach, so we know it works. That said, I'll still feel disappointed if he doesn't use certain very capable and deserving players who ply their trade in Europe. Roberto Ayala for example - if anyone deserves a trophy to go out on, it's him. It would be a nice thing for Crespo as well.

Logically, when a team built around one player loses that player, it falls to pieces. The job Basile is faced with now is rebuilding the Argentinean team entirely. It's certainly not an easy task. I wish him luck.

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