Argentina have, at best, underwhelmed in Qatar so far. The shock loss to Saudi Arabia was barely improved upon in a one-dimensional display 2-0 win over Mexico – a game won by two moments of individual quality rather than any coherent and effective style or plan.
Lionel Scaloni’s team feels like an exhibition XI – a group of players thrown together at the last minute featuring a handful of headline names to distract from a host of workmanlike players there to make up the numbers. Chances of the World Cup win Lionel Messi craves seem slim but there is a competitive team within an uninspiring squad.
Firstly, Scaloni needs to emulate PSG’s 4-4-2 diamond to get the best from Messi by playing him closer to the goal as part of a front two alongside the squad’s premier finisher Lautaro Martínez, with Pablo Dybala the most creative and dynamic option to fill the Neymar role at the tip of the diamond, allowing the Roma man to play close to, and combine with, Messi.
That leaves a back four and a narrow midfield three. Centre-back Nicolás Otamendi optimises recent Argentina World Cup teams – physical and committed but aging, slow and lacking in dynamism. The scrappy Lisandro Martínez of Manchester United and Tottenham’s Cristian Romero, Argentina’s best pound-for-pound defender, both 24, should be the first-choice pair. Nicolás Tagliafico, arguably Europe’s best defensive full-back, is a reliable option at both ends while Atlético Madrid’s Nahuel Molina is preferred on the right over Gonzalo Montiel. Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martínez is comfortably the strongest goalkeeping option.
The narrow diamond formation means wide forwards would be removed, with some of the width provided by the full-backs, meaning Ángel Di María would be, at last, dropped. Despite quietly running PSG’s attack for some time, the now 34-year-old has noticeably slowed in the last 18 months and, with his passing and crossing often intermittent while offering increasingly minimal goal threat (27 in 126 internationals), Di Maria’s time has passed.
Benfica’s 21-year-old midfielder Enzo Fernández, linked with Liverpool, is likely to define the longer-term future of the national team and, not least because of the lack of quality otherwise, should start as the foremost of the midfield three. Leandro Paredes’ range of passing and midfield tenacity should see him paired with Guido Rodríguez at the base of the midfield as the more defensive-minded pair.
Although this team lacks height, older, tiring players like Di María and Otamendi would finally be phased out. Argentina would retain their typical tenacious and physical attitude while offering defensive solidity and a fluid, vibrant attacking trio, supported by the exciting Fernández. It’s one which PSG have proved gets the best from Lionel Messi at this late stage of his career, which, for Scaloni, is the only realistic route to success for Argentina in Qatar.