ARENA CORINTHIANS, SAO PAULO — After what looked like a marked improvement against Nigeria in their final group game, Argentina seemed to go back to their predictable, old ways against Switzerland on Tuesday in the round of 16.
Too slow in their distribution of the ball and too static off it, Argentina certainly weren't helped by a hard, bone-dry pitch—or the fact that everybody involved was coming off a long club season.
But enough excuses—what is becoming clearer by the game is that this Argentina side seems to be made just for vital moments. They will never play good football and are resigned not to be able to.
On this occasion, it was Angel di Maria’s moment, albeit yet again thanks to a fantastic assist from you-know-who. Di Maria credited the goal to Lionel Messi, which is a bit too much, but you know where he was coming from.
Messi was once again man of the match—as he has been in every game so far—and on this occasion, he took on the role of provider rather than scorer. With the lottery of penalties looking inevitable, the Albiceleste sent their fans into rapture when Rodrigo Palacio robbed Stephan Lichtsteiner to find Messi, who danced past Fabian Schaer before finding Di Maria to smash the ball home.
Di Maria’s moment for the winner is certainly worthy of praise, but although he never stopped battling and was one of Argentina’s brighter lights, this was not by any means his greatest performance. The Real Madrid man made too many wrong decisions, often shooting when he should have crossed, and vice versa.
It could, of course, have turned out completely different. Switzerland could have scored first, playing a good counter-attacking game and nearly scoring. Unfortunately, when you give the initiative to Argentina, as every team has, then sooner or later, be it in the first, 12th or 118th minute—as it was here—the little wizard will undress you.
What is worrying from their point of view, however, is that apart from switching the positions of Di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi, coach Alejandro Sabella didn’t seem to have the first idea about what to do in order to break the deadlock. He is another man resigned to having one football team that is in reality two.
Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain both looked well out of sorts, and I know for a fact that this is a team that is physically and mentally tired, with some of its players carrying knocks. And that’s why Sabella wanted to play a system with five defenders, including three centre-backs, which would have permitted the full-backs to create width down the flanks.
With player power having blown that idea out of the water, it means he now has to work with a 4-3-3 system that doesn’t create enough spaces. And with not enough work being done along the flanks or between the lines, and not enough domination in midfield, it’s difficult to create superiority when teams defend so deeply, which is what Switzerland did. Just like every other team Argentina has played against at this World Cup.
Too many missed passes (55), too few times stealing the ball (33) and too many times giving away the ball are indicative of a side that is actually two sides in one: one attacking, the other defending—and nothing in between.
So the strategy is clear, and it’s as simple as this: Stay tight, don’t concede and wait for that one moment of Messi magic.
And despite the fact that this is not an Argentina side that is impressing the world, as many thought they would, it’s worth remembering that they are just two games from a World Cup final. In addition, they know better than anyone that in Lionel Messi, they have the ace of spades nestling in their hand.
This World Cup could still be the one in which the Maradona myth is finally laid to rest. Remember? The one about a man winning the competition on his own in 1986.
Do not bet against Messi, who's being helped by teammates that have given up on anything else but hoping he can take them to the top.