Argentina's defensive options don't match the class of its forwards
Argentina continues to churn out quality attacking midfielders and forwards
Argentina typically has a shortfall in the production of defenders though
No one has emerged to replace the legendary center back Roberto Ayala
One could make a very strong case that no other team in the world has forwards as talented as Argentina's, the team currently has no less than six world-class options -- Carlos Tevez even pronounced it with confidence after La Albiceleste's last pre Copa America 2011 friendly against Albania last week. But then, in the famous adage of former England midfielder John Gregory, strikers win you games, but defenders win you championships.
Argentina is renowned the world over for the sheer volume and quality of creative players it provides in midfield and forward, but the question that begs is -- what about the back? For years now, if not decades, the single most worrying issue for Argentina and its fans has been the weakness and lack of options when it comes to protecting the own goal.
Is the nation really as defensively challenged as the cliché suggests? Will this tournament in particular be adversely affected by the unequal distribution of talent on the pitch?
Starting at the very back, at goal, manager Sergio Batista has already come under intense mockery from his twitterati after he posted messages of support to goalkeeper Juan Pablo Carrizo -- a broken man following River Plate's relegation. The national squad cannot have a goalie from the nacional B! is the general gist of the most common outcry.
Carrizo, one of the three goalkeepers in the squad, sports the No. 1 on his shirt. Monday's news conference, the first of the tournament, should therefore have seen him and the No. 2 player addressing the media, such is the system devised to rotate the players. But in order to protect him, the decision was made to invert the direction. And so, the very first news conference started with players No. 23 and 22 -- Diego Milito and Sergio Romero respectively. Romero, the first choice goalkeeper during the World Cup, echoed requests for Carrizo to be treated gently, specially if he turns out to be a starter.
Anyone familiar with the lonely position of goalkeeping will vouch that the task is aided no end by solid defenders. So where there's a back line of consummate professionals, there's hope.
The most titanic task on the pitch wrote Oscar Barnade, vice president of the Research Centre for the History of Football [CIHF], was that of the No. 2 player, the old right back. In order to dominate the whole area, he had to be fast, courageous, and able to mark firmly. He was expected to cover the spaces left open by the half on the right and the other back on the left. He was the patron of the area.
The first maestro in that position was Jorge Gibson Brown, the legendary Alumni sides captain, but by the time Argentina started disputing internationally in the South American tournament, in 1916, Brown had already retired.
More recent exponents in Copa America: Ruben Navarro (1963), Iseln Ovejero (1967), Jose Luis Pavoni (1975), Jose daniel Van Tuyne (1975 Y 1979), Roberto Mouzo (1983). Current assistant manager Jose Luis Tata Brown was a starter in 1987 and 1989 (although playing a little more as a libero than a classical back as Barnade points out) and Argentina's last triumph in a Copa America, in 1993, saw Jorge Horacio Borelli in that position.
The household name for the last two decades has without a doubt been Roberto Ayala, "The Mouse," widely regarded as one of the best defenders of his generation. Ayala represented Argentina 115 times over the years. He played the Copa America in 1995, 1999, 2004 and 2007 -- 19 appearances which make his the third capped player in Copa America after Diego Simeone and Amrico Tesoriere -- but never won it. Arguably, no replacement for Ayala has since emerged.
The player with the most caps for Argentina, however, is Javier Zanetti with 137. His is the No. 4 strip (or right half as they used to be named in the olden days) a role which emerged according to Barnabe, in a line blurred by the modifications to the offside rule in 1925. The right half marked the rival sides' left attackers; the most dangerous.
Zanetti is still in the squad, a symbol of steady domination -- His natural home may be the right wing, but he can play on the left, a versatility that has earned him a place in the starting lineups of most international fixtures during the last 15 years. For a defender, his capacity to cover the ground is staggering,and the fact that wherever he's playing his production is outstanding and widely recognized.
"When you look at Zanetti's career," Adrian Maladevsky of Clarin newspaper told me some years ago, "you see that he's a guy who has always played." Daniel Passarella in 1995, Marcelo Bielsa in 1999 and 2004, and Basile en 2007 used him in both roles.
Under Batista, Zanetti will play his fifth Copa America. With 18 matches already under his belt, if he plays another 4 he will break a record in Argentine soccer, surpassing the 21 caps of Oscar Ruggeri and Jose Salomon. Zanetti, a consummate professional who has never been known to enter conflict with anyone -- "He's the good guy in the movie," as Maladevsky put it -- is not a player whose inclusion is ever controversial. "Mostly because he plays as a right winger, a position not many can fill. He can also come forward and play midfield on the right, but really not many have emerged since him who can do it. [Nicolas] Burdisso and [Fabricio] Coloccini haven't been that great there.
Coloccini didn't make it into the squad this time but Burdisso will be there, a fact which many don't find reassuring.
If the recent friendly against Albania is anything to go by: Burdisso and Gaby Milito (whom Arsene Wenger once confessed to local hacks he would love to buy if he could afford him) will be the center backs. Milito is a beautiful exponent of characteristic Argentine skill and ball on the ground control, but he has not been playing much recently. Pablo Zabaleta came on at halftime at right back, at which point Zanetti switched sides. Perhaps, this flexibility will be Argentina's saving grace.
In Zanetti's shadow international and local players who have excelled include Jorge Martinez, Hector Pineda, Nelson Vivas and Hugo Ibarra, Barnade says. But in these times in which the position is at risk of becoming extinct, Pablo Zabaleta appears the best exponent likely to retrieve the essence of the past in the future.
Argentina's Copa America squad
Goalkeepers: Juan Pablo Carrizo (River Plate), Sergio Romero (AZ Alkmaar) Mariano Andujar (Catania).
Defenders: Javier Zanetti (Inter Milan), Gabriel Milito (Barcelona), Nicolas Burdisso (Roma), Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Ezquiel Garay (Real Madrid), Marcos Rojo (Spartak Moscow), Nicolas Pareja (Spartak Moscow), Luciano Monzon (Boca Juniors).
Midfielders: Javier Mascherano (Barcelona), Ever Banega (Valencia), Fernando Gago (Real Madrid), Esteban Cambiasso (Inter Milan), Enzo Perez (Estudiantes, Argentina), Diego Valeri (Lanus, Argentina), Lucas Biglia (Anderlecht), Javier Pastore (Palermo), Angel Di Maria (Real Madrid).
Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid), Carlos Tevez (Manchester City), Gonzalo Higuain, (Real Madrid), Ezequiel Lavezzi (Napoli), Diego Milito (Inter Milan).