Argentina's failures at the Copa America are system-based
Lionel Messi has borne the brunt of the criticism for Argentina's poor play
The real issue is the use of three holding midfielders and no real link man
Argentina's players have also been guilty of overdribbling at times
One player has emerged from the first week of the Copa America with his reputation enhanced. Sadly for Argentina, that player is Spain's Xavi Hernandez.
Outside of the Barcelona support structure, without the tiki-taka legions at his back, Lionel Messi has looked worryingly ordinary. The doubts that Argentina fans had about him have been magnified by his performances in the draws with Bolivia and Colombia. This has been a systemic failure, tactical and mental, for Argentina, and the more Sergio Batista tries to calm the fury of fans and the media by insisting this tournament is primarily about preparation for the World Cup, the more loudly comes the response that the next stage of that preparation will be to get rid of him.
Against Colombia on Wednesday in a 0-0 draw, it wasn't just that Argentina lacked a little spark, as it had against Bolivia, it was that it was shockingly, crassly open at the back. Colombia's Adrian Ramos and Dayro Moreno were guilty of extraordinary misses, and three one-on-ones were wasted in the second half. Colombia should have won the game comfortably and, had that happened, Argentina would be facing Monday's game against Costa Rica needing a win just to be assured of third in the group.
"The worst moment under Batista," said La Nacion. "Batista is directing the Titanic into an iceberg," said As. "The national team doesn't start," said Clarin. It was shambolic. The pattern was similar to the Bolivia game -- 20 minutes of calm, measured if slightly toothless soccer, followed by 70 minutes of panic and chaos. And at the heart of it all, oddly glum, stood Lionel Messi. Anybody who still believes soccer is just about picking the best players and letting them get on with it needs only to look at Batista's Argentina to see how flawed that idea is.
Batista has done his best to retract the comment, but before the opening game he said he wanted his team to play like Barcelona: a 4-3-3 with Messi used as a false nine, dropping deep from his center-forward's position to create space for the wide forwards to cut in, and for players to make breaks form midfield. This, he had decided, rather than as a classic enganche -- literally "hook" -- between midfield and attack, was the way to get the best out of his best player.
That may be true, but soccer is a holistic game. Can Carlos Tvez and Ezequiel Lavezzi cut in from wide? Yes, they can. In that sense the front three should work, and there were indications against Colombia, most notably in the sublimely-weighted pass Messi slipped through for Lavezzi 10 minutes before halftime, that some sort of understanding was being generated there. These things, of course, take time: at Barcelona they have been worked out over a period of a decade or so at La Masia; note how it took even David Villa, coming in to a settled and successful side, four or five months fully to adapt. Batista doesn't have a decade -- he has had maybe three weeks -- and to that existent he is due the sympathy of any national coach in the modern era.
So let's move to the next layer. When Messi drops deep for Barcelona, he has Xavi and Andres Iniesta breaking beyond him; with Argentina, it's Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiasso. Banega and Cambiasso are perfectly serviceable holding midfielders. Cambiasso has even shown a certain knack for getting forward to score over his career, but they are hardly players of the wit, intelligence or movement of Xavi and Iniesta. When they get the ball, it stops -- as it does with Tevez and Lavezzi; this isn't the pass-and-move tiki-taka of Barca; it's something a little more ponderous, something, frankly, heretical as it may seem in Argentina, with too much dribbling, and it leaves Messi playing at a different rhythm to the rest of his team.
Then there is the issue of the fullbacks. At Barcelona, the wide forwards can drift inside knowing that they have a very attacking fullback overlapping, both providing width and drawing the opposing fullback. This is the beauty of Barcelona's system: when Messi goes deep a midfielder can go forward or a wide forward can cut in opening space for a surging fullback. One player's movement creates a vacuum and that generates the swirl of movement. Argentina simply doesn't have that. With Pablo Zabaleta, Argentina had a measure of attacking width from deep -- he certainly seemed far better suited to the system than Marcos Rojo had -- but he is no Dani Alves (after all, who is?), and neither can the 37-year-old legs of Javier Zanetti offer regular surges forward on the other flank. Moreover, when players do push on, the instinct to cover isn't there. Javier Mascherano drops in as a third center-back at times, as the holding player does for Barcelona, which should in theory liberate the fullbacks , but the mutual understanding isn't yet there -- and, with the players available, may never be.
Amid all the Batista-bashing, it should also be said that Colombia's coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, got it absolutely right tactically. The use of Carlos Sanchez as a holding player in a 4-1-4-1 meant that there was always a player in the space into which Messi wanted to move, so that he never had the opportunity to turn and run at goal from that dangerous central area 30-40 yards out. The use of Ramos and Moreno wide also helped dissuade Zabaleta and Zanetti from being too aggressive.
So what does Batista do next? He could, as he did in the final stages, field Gonzalo Higuain as an out-and-out center forward with Messi in behind in a 4-2-3-1. Or he could heed the calls of the public for Javier Pastore to be used in midfield and stick with his 4-3-3. In theory, the linkup between Messi and Pastore could be devastating, but the dangers are twofold, particularly given the lack of practice-time available. Messi and Pastore could effectively end up occupying the same space and/or Pastore, not being used to this style of 4-3-3, could play too high up the field become isolated from the two holders, as Ganso did for Brazil.
The bonus for Batista is that Costa Rica should provide limited opposition; this is a game in which there probably is scope for experimentation before the quarterfinals. Then again, everybody thought that about Bolivia.
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.