It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Argentina have a superabundance of high-class forwards—and for years it has held them back. What, after all, are you supposed to do with Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain, Angel Di Mario, Javier Pastore and Erik Lamela?
Do you try to ram as many of them into the team as possible...or do you risk alienating half the nation by leaving out players who are, understandably, crowd favourites at their clubs or former clubs?
At the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Diego Maradona initially tried to squeeze in four using a 4-2-3-1 with Tevez, Messi and Di Maria behind Higuain. Over the course of the tournament, he fiddled with that until, by the time of the 4-0 humbling at the hands of Germany in the quarterfinal, they were playing Higuain and Tevez as centre-forwards with Maxi Rodriguez, Messi and Di Maria in a line behind them—placing an impossible burden on Javier Mascherano as the sole defensive presence in midfield.
Maradona went after the tournament, but the attacking approach continued under Sergio Batista. He spoke of trying to replicate the Barcelona model—as though a style honed over years of training from a very early age could somehow instantly be reproduced at the international level, at which coaches have extremely limited periods of time to work with players—and started out with a front three of Messi, Tevez and Lavezzi in a 4-3-3.
Batista, too, changed over the course of the tournament during the 2011 Copa America. And when Argentina lost to Uruguay on penalties in the quarterfinal, they were playing a 4-2-3-1 with Messi, Di Maria and Aguero operating behind Higuain.
The 4-2-3-1 looked better balanced than the 4-3-3, but neither really convinced. Part of the problem was that Tevez and Messi repeatedly made the same run, occupying each other’s space (itself complicated by what seemed to be a battle of egos between the two).
That was fueled by the national love for Tevez, whose squat, tousle-haired looks seemed better to represent the tradition of the "pibe"—the urchin who has embodied the soul of the Argentinian game since the archetype was once famously outlined by journalist Borocoto in 1928.
So overwhelming was the Argentinian love for Tevez at that 2011 Copa America that, before the 0-0 draw against Colombia in Santa Fe (Messi’s home province) for instance, the match announcer described Messi as "the best player in the world," and Tevez as “the player of the people.” Messi was greeted with a polite cheer; Tevez with a great roar.
That effectively made Tevez un-droppable. Two things have changed that. First, Tevez missed the only penalty in the shootout loss in the 2011 Copa America quarterfinals, having had a tournament in which he generally seemed tetchy and petulant. Then, later that year, he took his six-month sabbatical from Manchester City after his touchline spat with Roberto Mancini in Munich.
That gave Argentina’s new coach Alejandro Sabella the perfect excuse not to play him. Sabella is an instinctively cautious tactician and, although he has tended to play a fluid front three of Messi flanked by Lavezzi and Aguero (apparently Messi’s preferred system), he also has the option of 4-4-1-1 with Messi tucked behind Higuain—which can still include the diligent Di Maria on one flank.
Sabella has even at times gone to three at the back. He is flexible and pragmatic, but that pragmatism might not have been possible had Tevez been available.
It will probably be a 4-3-3 again for Tuesday's World Cup qualifying trip to a Paraguay side that still hasn't recovered from the departure of manager Gerardo Martino in 2011 and lie bottom of the group. A win would guarantee them a place in Brazil next summer.