The appointment of Edgardo Bauza as Argentina coach will have excited El Patón far more than it has any followers of La Albiceleste.
However, there is little time for the 58-year-old to enjoy his moment as the real work starts now. The problems at the Argentine Football Association are out of his control but there are a number of challenges that demand Bauza’s immediate attention. How he deals with them will make or break his tenure as coach.
Little time to ponder first squad
There is no easing his way into what is without question the biggest challenge in Edgardo Bauza’s career, no casually taking in matches to keep up-to-date with the form of his players or scouting opponents – El Patón is immediately in at the deep end. Argentina face Uruguay in a vital World Cup qualifier on September 1st and so in less than two weeks, Bauza must name his first Argentina squad.
With other pressing matters to occupy his time, it is unlikely that Bauza will leave much of a mark on the squad to be announced, and the two-time Copa Libertadores winner confirmed as much already.
“I won’t make major changes in the first call-ups. It’s important that these players lead the way, more than anything because we have little time. After that, we can talk about some names that may not have been called up before but it’ll mostly be the same ones which have recently been called-up.
“There are a lot of players. But I don’t want to get into mentioning names because even though in my head we’ve started working, the problem is that we have very little time and we need results right away. It’s for that reason I don’t think we will have big changes. We need players that are used to playing in the Qualifiers.”
So for the upcoming Uruguay and Venezuela qualifiers Bauza will work more or less with the hand that Gerardo Martino left dealt but with one colossal exception. Which brings us swiftly onto his next challenge….
Luring Messi out of retirement
Few genuine fans want Lionel Messi’s lasting contribution to international football be his missed penalty in the Copa América final and although his pain over another missed opportunity was very real, the suspicion is that his retirement was borne out of frustration with the AFA as much as it was the team’s agonising shortcomings.
It is likely that Bauza’s first squad will come too soon for Messi but it will not stop the new coach travelling to Spain for talks with the five-time Ballon d’Or winner in an attempt to change his mind.
“I’m optimistic about Messi. I hope the chat with him will help for him to carry on in the national team. I want to explain to Messi what my (tactical) idea is. The least of my worries is his position on the pitch. There’s no need to convince Messi of anything, the plan is to talk about football,” explained Bauza.
Marcelo Bielsa was rumoured to be Messi’s preference of Argentina coach and the AFA is still plagued by incompetence so it isn’t clear yet whether Bauza’s optimism is misplaced or not. Certainly Messi remains an instrumental part of the side and securing his return would be an enormously positive step.
World Cup qualification
Argentina’s qualification is somewhat back on track after what was a disastrous start to the campaign but it remains so tight that with just one or two bad results, La Albiceleste will be plunged back into crisis.
Lionel Messi missed the first four fixtures through injury while the side picked up just one win and although his return coincided with back-to-back wins against Chile and Bolivia in March, moving Argentina back up into the automatic qualification spots, the Barcelona star will almost certainly be missing next month and the side are still currently only two points ahead of Paraguay, down in seventh.
The visit to Mendoza of a rejuvenated Uruguay, currently sat top of qualifying, is not the the easiest of opening matches and then an awkward trip to Venezuela are two potential banana skins for Bauza that he can ill afford to slip up on.
Finding a system that plays to Argentina’s strengths
Argentina still finds itself in the midst of an almost eternal debate between the win at all costs mentality of Carlos Bilardo and the freedom of expression and artistry of César Luis Menotti and while Gerardo Martino wisely chose to walk a middle ground in which he hoped, “the team stands out for the way it plays but also because of the final result,” he failed it seemed to successfully form a style of play with Argentina.
A disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, Martino’s side looked to control possession but his team selection was often too defensive and against opposition defences that retreated quickly, Argentina looked devoid of ideas and dependent on individual brilliance.
Alejandro Sabella, his predecessor, was a little more bold and used Ángel Di María in a midfield three to help counter at pace and this brought relative success but also at times left El Pachorra unable to watch with his defence wilfully exposed. Finding a balance with an Argentina squad that is in nature top heavy with attacking talent remains the challenge.
Bauza made immediate reference to this in his first interview as Argentina coach: “The issue is how we can organize the team defensively. I think that’s the part we have to work on. Argentina has plenty of options offensively, but we have to organize defensively for the team not to get worn down and to recover the ball as soon as possible. I have an idea in mind but for that, we have to talk to the players, explain the idea and work on it.”
The AFA may have been after an attractive, attacking coach but what they got in Bauza was a pragmatist, who will first look to build a structure with which Argentina are organised and tough to beat. This more often than not results in Bauza being labelled as negative.
“I don’t care about being labelled a defensive coach. A team can be solid and still unbalanced because it dedicates itself to defence, attacking badly or not at all.
“Balance is defending and attacking with the same possibilities — or with the possibilities that the squad provides.”
Despite all of Bauza’s success at club level he certainly has never had the embarrassment of riches available to him that he has now and so how the two-time Copa Libertadores winning coach achieves the balance will be of great interest.
Incorporating the next generation
Alejandro Sabella took the oldest average squad to the World Cup in 2014 and there hasn’t been a great deal of change under Gerardo Martino. Now that isn’t to say that all the squad are old, it is really just a fact that it still relies heavily on the all conquering youth sides that contained the likes of Messi, Agüero and Di María.
The result has seen the next crop find it increasingly difficult to break into the squad and if Edgardo Bauza eyes a long term plan with Argentina he must start trying to introduce some of these players.
El Patón made it clear that the upcoming squad will not be an opportunity to do this but did confirm that, “we will start integrating young players.”
Wholesale changes are not required and arguably a nervy World Cup qualification process isn’t the ideal moment to bed in some of these players but there are plenty of examples well versed in the rigours of playing at the highest level and coping with pressure. The likes of Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi, Ángel Correa (who Bauza knows well from San Lorenzo) and Matías Kranevitter should all be pushing hard for a place not only in the squad but applying pressure to the more established names of the starting eleven.
Working for the AFA
Perhaps the biggest challenge of any Argentina coach and the reason why so many were not interested – the AFA.
An organisation in complete institutional chaos, that has required the goverment and FIFA to appoint a Comisión Regularizadora (Normalisation Commission) after a presidential election ludicrously produced a tie despite there being 75 delegates and to investigate the misappropriation of funds.
Gerardo Martino was reportedly not paid for months and eventually had enough when he found compiling an Olympic squad virtually impossible but Bauza remains enthusiastic.
“For many it might be an unnecessary risk, but I wouldn’t mind setting my feet on the mud with Argentina. I was born in the mud,” the 58-year-old declared when first linked to the role.
Bauza may well need all of that positivity when dealing with the AFA but at least for the time being he seems satisfied with his conversations with Armando Pérez.
“It’s the most important challenge of my career and I told Armando Pérez that I’m grabbing onto this and giving it my all.” How long this lasts, only time will tell.