Taken from my preview article for WhoScored.com
“We are in a difficult situation but we know that qualification depends on us,” declared Edgardo Bauza in the aftermath of the horror show in Belo Horizonte on Thursday. While many had hoped that last month’s home defeat to Paraguay was the lowest point, the manner with which Brazil toyed with Argentina has caused a sense of panic among the media and supporters. However, amid the doom-mongers predicting a 2018 World Cup without La Albiceleste, the outlook could look very different after Tuesday. Brazil and Uruguay may almost look home and hosed but Argentina and Colombia sit two points apart in a group of six nations separated by just four points.
Colombia will feel that their goalless draw with Chile was two points dropped but José Pékerman’s side currently occupy third and although it is Argentina on the outside, down in sixth, a victory in San Juan could see La Albiceleste leapfrog their opponents.
Lionel Messi’s succinct appraisal of Argentina’s position perhaps said it best: “We’ve got to get out of this s**t.” Three points on Tuesday and when CONMEBOL qualification resumes in March, Bauza’s side will be back in the qualification places but defeat would plunge FIFA’s number one ranked nation into crisis and could spell the end of El Patón.
Argentina’s current level of performance is a valid cause for concern but any talk of crisis is far better aimed at the Argentine Football Association (AFA) rather than the World Cup qualification, for the time being at least. The issue here is that the institutional chaos at the AFA has appeared to have a negative impact and while Argentina’s two World Cup winning coaches, César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo, may represent different ends of the football philosophy spectrum both came to the same conclusion this week.
“The problem with the Argentina team comes from the leadership,” claimed Bilardo and while the stylish Menotti agreed, El Flaco was equally nonplussed with Bauza’s tactics and it’s this that requires immediate attention.
“I don’t understand how he [Bauza] attacks, how he defends. I don’t understand this team,” Menotti said damningly. “If [Lionel] Messi doesn’t score, [Gonzalo] Higuaín or [Ángel] Di María have to. [Alejandro] Sabella was able to correct mistakes and the team improved.”
This lack of goals and failure to adapt was evident in the defeat to Brazil. Despite the wealth of attacking options available to Bauza, only Bolivia (9) have scored fewer goals than Argentina (11), and while the strategy of playing a narrow 4-4-2 to nullify the threat of Neymar and Phillippe Coutinho appeared sound, there was a startling lack of contingency after falling behind.
In fact, Bauza’s immediate change of replacing Enzo Pérez for Sergio Agüero had the opposite effect. Possession, completed passes and ultimately shots on goal all decreased as the midfield virtually disappeared. Argentina’s problem has been finding a balance between defence and attack and it’s this that creates the dependence on Messi that forces the Barcelona icon deep to play a variety of roles at once.
The option to sit and play for a point is not available on Tuesday and so Bauza is expected to bring Éver Banega into the side to assist Messi and bring some creativity. Roberto Saporiti, who worked under Menotti in 1978, stressed that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner, “can’t do it alone. Messi needs someone like [Juan Román] Riquelme or [Andrés] Iniesta to make those incisive passes.”
The dearth of natural enganches to work in Bauza’s system is unfortunate and Banega is perhaps the best fit from the present squad but any problems are exacerbated by out-of-form strikers. Messi, having played only four matches and defender Gabriel Mercado are the leading scorers with two goals apiece so Lucas Pratto is expected to get the nod in San Juan.
With Argentina likely to be on the front foot, Tuesday’s clash looks set to come down to a misfiring attack against a reshuffled defensive unit.
José Pékerman is without his first choice central defence following the draw with Chile – Óscar Murillo is suspended and Yerry Mina is injured – and so a second string back line will be put to the test. Given Los Cafeteros have conceded double the amount of goals on their travels than in Barranquilla (and in a game less), El Profé is expected to bolster his midfield, reduce the space in front of the defence and use the returning Juan Cuadrado to spring the counter.
The last time Colombia won on Argentine soil was the famous 5-0 win prior to the 1994 World Cup but with a record in all competitions that has since been just three wins from 19 matches, a point from San Juan would be invaluable.
This will not be a luxury that is afforded to Bauza and Argentina. With five points from five matches, El Patón has made one of the worst starts of any Argentina manager and may not survive the long wait until the next round of World Cup qualifiers in March should La Albiceleste end the year outside of the top five.