As Argentina got their 2018 World Cup campaign underway yesterday, within minutes you could sense the emphasis on playing through Lionel Messi.
This is a tactic that it understandable given the talents of an individual widely regarded as the greatest player in the world today, and in some circles the greatest of all time.
Therein lies the problem. Such is Lionel Messi’s talent that Argentina seemingly have to seek out the Barcelona star with every single attack. There were times yesterday, in their Group D opener against Iceland, when Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, and Maximiliano Meza were in space and seemed like the logical option for a pass, and yet the only outlet worth considering was to get the ball into Lionel Messi who was surrounded at all times by two or three of his Iceland counterparts.
This has become a long running theme for La Albiceleste.
In the 2014 World Cup in which Argentina were runners-up to Germany, once again they relied heavily on the little number 10 to help them advance through the tournament. Their opener in the group stages of that tournament was a struggle against a resolute Bosnia and Herzegovina in which a Messi goal proved decisive. And at the end of a dismal outing in their following fixture against Iran in Belo Horizonte, which if it wasn’t for a wonderful point-blank save from goalkeeper Sergio Romero Argentina could easily have fallen behind, it took a Lionel Messi wonder goal in the 94th minute to seal the victory. While there was to be narrow victories without a goal from Lionel Messi the over reliance on him to produce would hinder Argentina in the final, losing 1-0 to a Mario Gotze goal on extra time.
Fast forward to qualification for this year’s competition in Russia. Argentina were forced to go through a final group game versus Ecuador, in which Lionel Messi grabbed a hat trick, in order to make it to Russia.
In the fixtures in which Lionel Messi did not feature for Argentina, it almost appears as if La Albiceleste were short of another plan to see off the opposing teams.
Without Messi, Argentina went down 2-0 at home to Ecuador, were goalless in Paraguay, drew 1-1 with Brazil, had a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to a Lucas Biglia goal in Colombia.
With Messi back in the squad victories followed. He produced the assist for Gabriel Mercado’s winner in Chile, was heavily involved in Mercado’s first against Bolivia and scored the second to secure the victory. The winning goal was then scored at home to Uruguay.
He was out of the national side once again when Argentina could only draw 2-2 in Venezuela and drew by the same scoreline against Peru. Defeat at home to Paraguay followed, once again with no Lionel Messi involvement. You get the point. Messi would go on to be heavily involved in the following three games – two victories and a loss to Brazil – before a ban for abusing a match official would force him to miss the next four fixtures. In this time La Albiceleste would fall out of the automatic qualification places in their group, once again unable to rely on the genius of their influential captain to drag them through.
He would return for the all important final game in Ecuador. Lying in sixth place in their group and in need of a top four finish to qualify, once again Argentina had only one thing in mind. Give the ball to Lionel Messi. They did, and he did what he does with such ease time again. His hat trick after Ecuador took the lead ensured Argentina would not miss the World Cup for the first time since 1970.
To their opening group game of World Cup 2018. Minnows Iceland, making their World Cup debut are the opponents. For all their possession of the ball, all their attempts on goal, they couldn’t find what was required. The emphasis placed on playing through Messi is one that has the potential to seriously hinder this Argentinian team.
In Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain amongst their ranks they have match winners throughout the squad. Attacking talent the envy of most others at the tournament. Yet still Argentina continued to seek out Messi with every attack. Stood if marginal space, but with at least three Icelandic players ready to immediately smother, Messi should have become the decoy for the pass. The final ball that should have been landing at the feet of their other attacking options. Instead time after time the ball was forcing its way into the path of Lionel Messi, amounting to wayward attempts on goal while better options were available.
Messi’s failed spot kick was the result of this Argentine performance. The responsibility they have placed on their captain taking its toll. After drawing the game 1-1 against a determined and impressive Iceland, Argentina are simply going to have to work on a plan B, or C. The Messi option, as wonderful as it can be at times, should be just that. An option. One of many, not THE option. In many cases, the number 10 was forced to leave his position and drop to the halfway line in order to get the ball of a team-mate, such was their indecisiveness in finding an outlet elsewhere other than Lionel Messi.
If Argentina are to progress from Group D, of which they were overwhelming favourites, this over reliance on their maestro has to stop. As Aguero once again proved his lethality inside the 18 yard box, and with others around Messi capable of producing for La Albiceleste, it’s time for Jorge Sampaoli to unshackle the rest of his squad and relieve the at times insurmountable pressure placed on Lionel Messi.