The overriding reaction in Argentina on Tuesday was one of relief. After four World Cup 2018 qualifiers without a win, the national team's 3-0 victory over Colombia didn’t just lift them back into fifth in the CONMEBOL group—the play-off spot for progression to the tournament in Russia—it also restored a measure of belief.
With most struggling nations, there is an underlying thought that it might simply be the players. Maybe this particular generation just isn’t good enough. Argentina doesn’t have that. This generation lost in the final of the World Cup in 2014. It lost in the final of the Copa America in 2015. It lost in the final of the Copa America Centenario in 2016. These players are clearly good enough—and that creates its own issues.
There is a tremendous sense of pressure. Argentina haven’t won a senior international trophy since 1993, but between 1995 and 2007, they won five of the seven Under-20 World Cups, as well as claiming Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008.
That drought isn’t just frustrating. There’s an increasing realisation that the conveyor belt of talent, which had seemed so reliable, has slowed. The generation that won that second Olympics—Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria—will all be 30 or older by the time of the next World Cup.
Freakish things can happen in football. As Cote d’Ivoire showed by winning the Africa Cup of Nations in 2015, success can sometimes come just as a golden generation shuffles off and expectation begins to diminish, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the 2018 World Cup probably represents Argentina’s best chance of winning a trophy for some time. That they’re struggling even to get there is a desperate humiliation.
Beating Colombia, though, offers some reassurance. In the circumstances, an early goal was exactly what Argentina needed, and they got it from a 10th-minute Messi free-kick. Messi then laid on further goals for Lucas Pratto and Di Maria.
Ending a run of four qualifiers without a win, particularly in such emphatic style, should bring a renewed sense of purpose, and there is now also a siege mentality, which can stimulate a feeling of togetherness.
Every player in the squad lined up behind Messi at the press conference following Tuesday’s win. The team captain announced the players would no longer be speaking to the media after Radio Mitre journalist Gabriel Anello suggested in a tweet that forward Ezequiel Lavezzi had been left off the bench after being caught smoking a joint in the team camp. Lavezzi denied the allegation and threatened to sue.
Perhaps for now the win alone is enough, but one obvious doubt lingers after the win, which is that, yet again, Argentina were reliant on Messi’s inspiration. They have taken 12 points from the five qualifiers in which he’s played in this campaign and seven from the seven in which he has not.
Argentina games at the last World Cup were characterised by everybody waiting for Messi to do something. Against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, Nigeria and Switzerland, he did conjure something eventually, despite being generally out of sorts, but not even he can do it all the time. In the two Copa America finals, Chile showed how if you shut down Messi, you have effectively shut down Argentina.
For some countries that’s understandable. If you have only one great player—Liberia in George Weah’s prime to take an extreme example—then of course it makes sense to play through him most of the time. But this is Argentina, a national team blessed with an extraordinary generation of attacking talent.
Of course, for a long time that’s been the problem, as manager after manager has tried to find a way of squeezing in as many as possible of Messi, Aguero, Di Maria, Lavezzi, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Pastore, Carlos Tevez, Ever Banega, Paulo Dybala.
The chaos of Diego Maradona’s final game as manager when Argentina went out of the 2010 World Cup to Germany with Messi, Higuain, Maxi Rodriguez, Tevez, Aguero and Pastore all on the pitch, all getting in each other's way, showed the folly of that way of thinking.
But every manager since, even the dour Alejandro Sabella, has had to fight the same urge. Even when a balanced lineup was selected, the temptation was there to switch one forward for another just because he hadn’t been an instant success.
Edgardo Bauza, the Argentina coach, is, like Sabella, a pragmatist. He inherited a demoralised group of players angered by the inefficiencies of the football federation and a floundering campaign, and his early impact was limited. But there are signs he is beginning to impose his personality. Persuading Messi to reverse his decision to retire was a big step. Dropping both Higuain and Aguero for the game against Colombia was even bigger.
On Tuesday, Bauza selected striker Lucas Pratto of Atletico Mineiro for just his third cap. The 28-year-old is tough, good with his back to goal and deceptively quick. He is largely unsung in this gilded generation of Argentinian attacking talent—and in some absolute sense is probably not as talented as Higuain or Aguero—but he can be relied upon to engage defenders physically and so relieve some of the pressure on Messi. That he also scored his second international goal with a fine header from a Messi cross was a welcome bonus.
Whether Pratto retains his place ahead of Higuain in the longer term is debatable, but it clearly helps to have another physical option. And perhaps this is now Bauza’s plan: just as the Brazil of 1982 had Serginho or the France of 1998 had Stephane Guivarc’h, he uses a target-man to occupy opposing defenders and create space for more obviously skilful players behind him—in his case, Messi, Di Maria and Banega. Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia then hold at the back of midfield.
It may not be complicated, but international football often isn’t. If the selection of Pratto demonstrates Bauza’s willingness to look beyond reputation to what works tactically, then the win over Colombia could be a significant step in an Argentinian resurgence. The next step is to reduce the reliance on Messi.