Argentina shows anxiety in opener, Chile impressive, more thoughts
Argentina's performance in its opener reflected a team that was nervous
Venezuela appears to have a new generation of far more talented youngsters
Even without Marcelo Bielsa, Chile remains committed to an attacking style
BUENOS AIRES -- Some thoughts after the first round of group games in the Copa America:
1. Argentina -- "The Copa has become treacherous: a win would bring to Argentina a gratification less intense than the frustration were they to lose," the columnist Andres Prestilio wrote in La Nacion last week, and the pressure to which he alluded was readily apparent in the host's opening game against Bolivia on Friday. When the opening goal failed to materialize in the first quarter of the game, anxiety took over and, as the coach Sergio Batista acknowledged, all cohesion was lost.
He criticized his players for becoming "too vertical," a term that, if not coined by Marcelo Bielsa, was certainly popularized by him. It refers to the habit of going too directly for goal, of playing in straight lines down the pitch, not necessarily with long balls, but with dribbles and runs as well.
In that Lionel Messi was as guilty as anyone, perhaps understandably given how frequently teammates misread his intentions. It is not in any way to deny his genius to point out that the environment at Barcelona allows it to flourish. With Argentina, he is like the kid who plays at state level having a run out in his school side, better than everyone else, frustrated when others squander what he has created, and blamed when things go wrong. Perhaps, given time, that mutual understanding could develop between Messi and his national teammates -- perhaps it even will over the course of this tournament -- but the lack of time to train together is precisely why, day by day, in terms of quality, international soccer falls further behind its club equivalent.
The one positive for Argentina is that, after Eduardo Rojas had put Bolivia ahead, it had the strength of character not to buckle, and Sergio Aguero's equalizer, volleyed in with 15 minutes remaining, was a reminder of the quality of Argentina's bench. Batista's job now is to decide whether those reserves should be given their opportunity given Carlos Tevez and Ezequiel Lavezzi had such disappointing games; all three will start against Colombia on Wednesday.
Pablo Zabaleta will come in for Marcos Rojo, and will take over at right back with Javier Zanetti moving to the left, but Batista may also consider the balance of his midfield, the trident of Javier Mascherano, Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiasso lacking the composure to pick through Bolivia's massed defense. He could start with Javier Pastore, or play Angel Di Maria deep, or it may be that on Wednesday, against a Colombia side that began the tournament with a comfortable 1-0 win over Costa Rica, he decides he needs the extra defensive capacity of the three who started against Bolivia.
2. Venezuela -- It would be easy to knock Brazil after its opening stalemate, and it is true that, like Argentina, having failed to find the early breakthrough it became too vertical, Ganso seemingly playing too far forward, rather than operating as a link between midfield and attack.
But credit should also go to Venezuela. This wasn't a side that just packed men behind the ball -- it played defensively, yes, but it also broke dangerously, particularly in the second half. Hamburg's Tomas Rincon was magnificent at the back of the midfield, breaking up Brazilian attacks and initiating attacks, carrying the ball at his feet more than would be usual for a European equivalent.
At 23, he is the leader of a young generation whose performances at the World U-20 championship two years ago suggested Venezuela could qualify for its first World Cup in three years (with Brazil hosting, an extra space is available to Conmebol sides -- four of the remaining nine South American nations qualify as of right, a fifth will enter a playoff). The 21-year-old Jose Rondon of Malaga is a mobile center forward who scored four times in that youth World Cup, while the 20-year-old midfielder Yohandry Orozco of Wolfsburg, who was restricted to the bench on Sunday, has pace and deft feet, and gained fame for his goal against Peru in the South American U-20 championship, in which he ran from inside his own half, beat five men and thumped the ball into the top corner.
3. Uruguay -- None of the three seeds won their opening game, but Uruguay was probably the least unconvincing in its 1-1 draw with Peru. Going forward in particular, there was a fluency there that Argentina and Brazil lacked, a sense that the front three of Diego Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez were playing together, rather than merely happening to be on the same pitch. Strangely, having looked so defensively sound during the World Cup, it was at the back Uruguay was suspect, Diego Lugano and Mauricio Victorino operating a suicidally high-line that let in Paulo Guerrero for an unexpected opener.
Thereafter, with the back four more cautious, the space between the lines of the back four and the midfield was too great, allowing Michael Guevara freedom as the linkman between the Peruvian midfield and attack, but despite conceding a couple of half-chances, Uruguay still looked much the more likely to find a winner.
4. Chile -- When Marcelo Bielsa resigned as coach of Chile, soccer breathed a sigh of disappointment. The Argentine coach is something different, a coach with a clear theory of how soccer should be played, who regularly tries the unconventional. At least for the neutral, he is fun. The fear was that his replacement, Claudio Borghi, another Argentine, would return to the orthodox, but he stuck with the attacking approach of his predecessor, and his 3-4-1-2 -- eventually -- had its reward in a 2-1 win over a youthful Mexico.
The pressing wasn´t quite as radical as Bielsa´s would have been, but there was a similarly attacking ethos about the team and, had it not been for Claudio Bravo´s misjudgement of Patricio Araujo´s header -- undone by the lack of pace, seemingly--- and a couple of poor finishes from Humberto Suazo and Alexis Sanchez, Chile would have won far more comfortably. The link up on the right between Mauricio Isla and Sanchez, in particular, must have encouraged Borghi.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.