It’s become clear across two disjointed, slow and one-dimensional performances in Qatar, if it wasn’t clear from looking at their similarly workmanlike squad list, that Argentina lack the quality to be considered genuine World Cup contenders.
Although they’re well short behind Brazil, Spain, France and England, who seem to be the tournament’s four strongest sides, the Albiceleste remain one of the stronger teams in the tournament overall. And, with Lionel Messi, anything is possible.
Coach Lionel Scaloni made five changes for the Mexico win following the shock opening defeat to Saudi Arabia but his team’s team’s performance arguably worsened overall and was saved by two moments of individual quality as Mexico’s weakest World Cup offering for 40 years offered zero goal threat and no coherent game plan. Gerardo Martino’s team are effectively a less talented version of Scaloni’s.
Getting the best from Lionel Messi, the conundrum every Argentina coach has faced for the last 15 years, is the key. After a poor first season at PSG Paris coach Christophe Galtier offers a solution. Messi now lacks the burst of pace to pair with his era-defining dribbling skills that made him unstoppable for so long at Barcelona but his passing, interplay and ability to shift the ball to create space for a typically low and precise shot, like his goal against Mexico, remain just as well-honed.
Galtier has helped Messi return to something approaching his best in France by playing him centrally, placing fellow forwards nearby and getting him as close to the goal as possible while allowing the now 35-year-old to roam when he sees fit.
Not able to slalom in off the wings as often as during his peak, playing Messi centrally opens up the pitch to exploit his passing and interplay with having Neymar and Kylian Mbappé close by in PSG’s narrow 4-4-2 diamond setup allows Messi to combine in tight spaces and work openings via his teammates around a congested penalty area rather than asking him to repeatedly beat several defenders as he used to.
Playing as a striker alongside Mbappé, with Neymar at the diamond’s tip, puts Messi in sight of the goal more often when receiving the ball, encouraging him to use his best remaining abilities – combination play and engineering a shot from around the D – rather than the slowing forward having to force the issue from a deeper position.
Scaloni should mimic PSG’s setup if he wants Messi to replicate his recent club form. Although lacking Mbappé’s pace, Lautaro Martínez, Argentina’s premier finisher, would play the foremost role, occupying opposition centre-backs and combining with Messi to create openings, large for Martínez to score. Messi would play alongside as a second striker allowing him to create shooting angles close to the goal while Pablo Dybala would play the Neymar role, utilising space between lines and offering a dynamic third central option in tight spaces to create in combination with Messi. The width would come from full-backs.
Argentina have shown little sign they have the quality or fluidity to win this tournament but using Galtier’s solution to a long-standing problem would give Scaloni’s side their best chance.