Argentina still searching for defensive answers under Batista
Argentine coach Sergio Batista favors the use of a 4-3-3 formation
Batista has experimented by using Lionel Messi as a center forward
Argentina has an urgent need to find a new generation of defenders
There is no place for Carlos Tevez or Sergio Aguero in the Argentina squad that coach Sergio Batista brings to New York for Saturday's friendly against the U.S.
Injury has kept Aguero out of some recent squads -- he has not played for his country since coming on as a substitute and scoring against Spain last September. But he is currently fit. Tevez has picked up a minor injury, but only after the squad was called up. The official line, it seems, is that he is being punished for pulling out of the squad to face Brazil last November, only to play for Manchester City a few days later.
Conspiracy theorists may have noted that the two strikers have close connections with the previous regime. Aguero is married to Diego Maradona's daughter, while Tevez and Maradona share a "poor kid born on the wrong side of the Buenos Aires tracks" bond.
Sacked after last year's World Cup, Maradona was never likely to go quietly. He campaigned in an effort to keep his job, and then attacked his old teammate Batista, who was originally appointed on a caretaker basis.
Indeed, Batista was anxious from the start to differentiate himself from Diego. He said that the players favored a low profile coach, an obvious dig at Maradona's flamboyance -- Diego's retort, funny but a little harsh on a World Cup winning midfielder, was that it is easy for Batista to be low profile, since outside Argentina he is a virtual unknown.
Those who Maradona had controversially left out of his World Cup squad (Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Ever Banega -- whose omission kicked up less of a fuss but was arguably the most glaring of the three) were brought straight into the team by his replacement. By leaving out Tevez and Aguero for the matches against the U.S. and Costa Rica, is Batista taking further steps to distance his regime from that of Don Diego?
Perhaps, though there is some tactical logic behind his choices. "I like 4-3-3," said Batista toward the end of last year, "with the two other midfielders close to the holding midfielder in the middle. I always think about having three up front, but I have some variations. I can have two in midfield and push the other one forward to link midfield with attack."
This is a fair description of what he has done so far. The basic system has been 4-3-3, with Banega and Cambiasso either side of captain Javier Mascherano in the midfield line. The relationship between Banega and Lionel Messi is especially interesting, promising to become as important for the national side as the Xavi-Messi partnership is for Barcelona.
For November's 1-0 win against Brazil the absence of Cambiasso made way for the introduction of Javier Pastore to play the more advanced link role that Batista mentioned. Mascherano and Banega held central midfield, Messi and Angel Di Maria dropped slightly either side of Pastore, and Argentina went with 4-2-3-1, with Gonzalo Higuain as the lone out and out striker.
Higuain took the target man role in the 4-3-3 formation used in Batista's first games in charge -- Diego Milito started in October's 1-0 defeat to Japan, but picked up an injury and was replaced by Higuain. Both are injured at the moment, allowing Batista to repeat against the U.S. the experiment that he tried last month against Portugal.
"We're going to base our game around Lionel [Messi]," said Batista in December. "We can use him anywhere up front or in midfield. We have to identify the weak point of the opposition and use him against it."
In an imitation of the role he now plays for Barcelona, Messi played as a free ranging forward against Portugal, dropping back to combine with Banega, surging forward in search of a breakthrough. Maximum space is created for Messi if he is flanked by a pair of quick strikers adept at working in wide spaces. This is where Ezequiel Lavezzi and Angel Di Maria come in. One is right footed, the other left, both are comfortable on either flank and can therefore swap positions and keep setting different problems for the opposing defense. Lavezzi and Di Maria are more suited to this role than Tevez or Aguero, and look set to gain another chance to form Argentina's attacking trident with Lionel Messi against the U.S. In the 2-1 win against Portugal they combined beautifully for Argentina's first goal. Sergio Batista, then, has another opportunity to judge whether this type of attack, rather than one with a traditional center forward, is the way to get the best out of Messi in an Argentina shirt.
But the coach will also be glancing anxiously at the other end of the field. In attack Batista has plenty of options. His task is to choose the most effective. In defense he is not so blessed. His problem is one of personnel.
Despite a proud tradition in the position, the goalkeeping post has been a problem for Argentina for a while now. Over the last 18 months the promising but occasionally untidy Sergio Romero has emerged as first choice. Injury keeps him out this time, and so there is a chance for Mariano Andujar, safe but not outstanding, to stake his claim.
In front of him, both the center back and the full back positions have question marks hanging over them. In recent times Argentina have found it very difficult to produce top class full backs, making Javier Zanetti's exclusion for the last two World Cups very hard to understand. Zanetti is still around, though he will surely not make the 2014 World Cup -- and the reserve right back against the U.S. is Marcos Angeleri, all the way from the Sunderland substitutes bench.
Marcos Rojo was given his debut at left back against Portugal. A tall figure, he attacks with purpose but looks vulnerable defensively. This match will be an important occasion in his quest to establish himself as first choice.
Batista is well aware that there is a need for renewal in the center back positions as well, hence the fact that he has stopped calling up the likes of Martin Demichelis and Gabriel Heinze in order to have a look at younger defenders. One of his favorites, Nicolas Pareja, is unavailable through injury. Last month against Portugal he went with a combination of Nicolas Burdisso and Gaby Milito. It is not clear, though, whether either of them will still be around for the next World Cup -- Milito, for example, is injury prone and already past 30.
This could be the moment to test the new generation. Nicolas Otamendi, unwisely used by Maradona at right back, could feature in his true position, while also in the squad are the giant Ezequiel Garay and lanky 2007 World Youth Cup winner Federico Fazio.
There are places up for grabs, not only in the next World Cup but also in July's Copa America on home ground where Argentina will hope to win its first senior title in 18 years. The U.S. can do Sergio Batista a real favor on the way, putting Argentina's new defenders under pressure in New York and allowing its coach to judge if they are good enough for the challenges ahead.