The World Cup in Russia in 2018 is seen by most as Argentina’s last opportunity for major honours with their so-called golden generation but having leaned so heavily on the same group of players for so long and falling just short on three occasions, Edgardo Bauza now faces the task of integrating and reshaping the national team.
La Albiceleste continue the marathon of South American World Cup qualifying against Peru on Thursday night and with injuries to Lionel Messi and Lucas Biglia it is likely that Paulo Dybala and Matías Kranevitter will be presented with another opportunity to audition for a more permanent future role.
Dybala’s sensational form over the past couple of years in Italy have had him on the fringes of the squad for a while and despite his red card against Uruguay last month it appears the 22-year-old will be tasked with filling Lionel Messi’s sizeable shoes in Lima. Matías Kranevitter meanwhile has found the transition to European football a little more testing with Atlético Madrid but has remained a regular in the Argentina squad and is still considered a long-term successor to Javier Mascherano.
Both players could arguably have made the step-up to the senior side far sooner and there are countless further examples of young players waiting in the wings. Injuries have forced the hand of Edgardo Bauza somewhat this week but is El Patón guilty of following in the footsteps of Gerardo Martino and failing to begin the process of evolution soon enough?
The changing of the guard
Firstly, it is perhaps unfair to already be calling for major changes from Edgardo Bauza given that the Copa Libertadores winning coach has had almost no time in the hot seat and Thursday’s match with Peru will be only his third in charge. And secondly, it must also be added that nearly all of the generation that have played a part in the three consecutive final defeats remain outstanding footballers at club level.
However, how much does three final defeats and some of the criticism received affect the mentality of these players? Gonzalo Higuaín, unquestionably the target of most supporters’ frustration, will likely plunder goals once more in Serie A this season but is he to be trusted in another major final?
The conundrum facing any Argentina coach is just how to go about implementing this transition to integrate a pool of younger players that will carry the side forward beyond Russia while ensuring that results in the present remain equally strong.
Alejandro Sabella took the oldest average squad to Brazil in 2014 and while Hugo Campagnaro at 33 was far from the oldest player at the tournament there was a noticeable absence of players from the generation post-Pékerman’s youth team revolution. Marcos Rojo, the youngest at 24, was hardly an inexperienced novice bursting onto the international scene and it represented a pattern set in motion when Lionel Messi and the other under-20 graduates began filtering through.
José Pékerman understood the importance of the youth system and under his guidance Argentina enjoyed a period of supreme dominance at under-20 level in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Three World Youth Cups had preceeded the two lifted under the stewardship of Pékerman’s successors in 2005 and 2007 but it is from this group that Argentina still draws from so heavily.
The Argentine Football Association’s (AFA) failure in this department and the subsequent nosedive in results at under-20 and under-17 level have unquestionably stemmed the flow and made this job much harder but it is no less vital now.
While in recent years the connect between youth divisions and the senior side has been virtually severed for the World Cup in 2006 it couldn’t have been more healthy with Pékerman himself moving up to coach the national team and an 18-year-old Lionel Messi and 20-year-old Javier Mascherano filtering through.
The average age of that Argentina squad in Germany was 26.1, four years on under Diego Maradona it had increased to 27.1, as a few more of those ’05 and ’07 youth sides graduated, and in 2014, it was up to 28.9.
Two years on and the starting eleven still looks very similar and while Gerardo Martino brought a couple of the younger players into the squad, none really integrated into the side with a view that they could be starting in Russia.
In his short tenure thus far Edgardo Bauza hasn’t made any noticeable changes although Paulo Dybala’s more prominent role is positive as is the inclusion of Lucas Alario, even if at this point is more for the 23-year-old to gain experience being around the squad. This gradual incorporation of the next crop is important over the next 18 months.
With virtually the exact same squad that lost in successive Copa América finals, Bauza could qualify for Russia but the average age would then probably be north of 30 and if Mascherano and Messi didn’t bow out in glory, Argentine football would suddenly require a complete overhaul and an inevitable period of adjustment.
Dybala and Kranevitter in addition to Ángel Correa, Lucas Alario and Érik Lamela point to the future and Bauza now needs to ensure their progression while also bringing through more.
Gerónimo Rulli, Emanuel Mammana, José Luis Gómez, Leandro Paredes, Giovani Lo Celso and Mauro Icardi are among those that could provide alternatives and would benefit from being allowed to develop within the group over time. A gradual passing of the torch rather than an abrupt jolt from one generation to the next, most likely in a time of a crisis under a cloud of negativity.
The AFA must aid the national team coach by fulfilling their role and ensuring the conveyor belt of talent keeps moving but in the interim the squads over this qualification period must reflect an Argentina side with one eye beyond Russia.