Enzo Perez Argentina Selection Is Unlikely Tactical Masterstroke from Sabella

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Enzo Perez Argentina Selection Is Unlikely Tactical Masterstroke from Sabella
Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella cuts a curious figure from the sidelines as his nation plays.

He certainly will not go down as one of the most dashing or aggressive figures to walk through the halls of Argentina's impeccable history, with a team that values stability and balance across the pitch over offensive abandon. 

When directing the team throughout the current World Cup he has provoked more than a few laughs from the television studios. The little ex-Sheffield United player is a diminutive character, dwarfed by his assistants and substitutes. He remains on his feet throughout every game, turning the air blue with choice Rioplatense curses and suffering so much it appears that a heart attack is inevitable. 

Indeed, the impression one can take from outside is of a kindly yet exasperated retiree, trying desperately to instil some kind of order in the local park while his naughty grandchildren run rings around him. 

Impressions can be very misleading, however. If it was ever in doubt before the tournament started, in taking the Albiceleste to the World Cup final for the first time in 24 years Sabella has confirmed a deserved reputation as one of the most astute tactical brains in international football. 

Almost every big decision he has had to make so far, barring a bizarre experiment with five at the back in the opening game that was quietly shelved after 45 minutes, has proven a winner.

Nobody believed in Monaco reserve Sergio Romero as a top-class keeper, but just three goals conceded in six games and two heroic penalty saves against the Netherlands has Argentine fans grovelling in front of both El Chiquito and his coach. 

Marcos Rojo has emerged as a left-back of the highest quality, while Martin Demichelis, he of the calamitous mistake in 2011 that gifted Bolivia their first-ever draw on Argentine soil and prompted his international exile, was brought back into the fold and responded with arguably the most complete silencing of Arjen Robben in recent years.

But the unlikely ace up the trainer's sleeve is Mendoza native Enzo Perez. 

When the World Cup squad was announced back in June, the Benfica midfielder was at best received as mere filler to complete the roster of 23. At worst, he was the personification of Sabella's alleged nepotism in relying heavily on the 2009 Estudiantes team which won the Copa Libertadores and was an injury-time goal away from taking down Barcelona in the Club World Cup. 

How he has proven those doubters wrong.

Perez entered in unfortunate circumstances. Angel Di Maria's awkward turn while shooting from outside the Belgium area forced the winger off in the first half, and Sabella's ex-charge in La Plata got the nod to enter in midfield. 

Finishing the game against Belgium and starting against the Oranje, the Benfica man logically did not provide the same kind of attacking thrust as Di Maria. But then the Real Madrid star is a talent without parallel in the current game.

What Perez did provide was another unerring force in midfield. According to WhoScored.com, he has average a 90 percent passing rate during the World Cup, up there with Javier Mascherano as the side's most confident distributor. 

His connection with Pablo Zabaleta against the Netherlands opened up a new attacking outlet for the Albiceleste. When the full-back overlapped, he knew that Perez's accurate through balls would more often than not open up the flank in between the opposition back three and advanced wing-back Dirk Kuyt.

The strategy did not lead to many clear-cut chances, but it kept the Europeans pinned back and unable to push forward as they have done so effectively throughout the tournament. 

Victor R. Caivano/Associated Press

Sabella's Estudiantes team, of which the young Perez was an integral part, was successful for a reason. The La Plata giants gave their opponents no space to manoeuvre while attacking effectively and doing enough to keep winning.

The coach has continued that philosophy during his time with the national team. Sides weak at the back or too willing to push bodies forward have been punished mercilessly, while stronger line-ups have been successfully nullified. 

Benfica's revelation in the centre of midfield during 2013/14 faces an anxious wait to see if Di Maria recovers in time for the final on Sunday. But even if the winger is declared fit, he may have to wait for his appearance as an impact substitute. 

For now, Argentina have discovered an industrious, cultured midfielder who can take on the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger in the centre without sacrificing too much attacking potency.

And nobody, except for the wily old Sabella, could have guessed the identity of that trump card. 

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