When Argentina last won the World Cup in 1986, fourteen of the 22-man squad were still plying their trade in the country’s top flight but while European football has surged forward financially and technically, most of the nation’s top talents are plucked from their clubs before they have barely had the chance to pull on a shirt in the senior side.
The impact has been obvious and at the last World Cup only three of the 23 taken to Brazil were still playing in Argentina — Fernando Gago and Maxi Rodríguez, who had recently returned from careers in Europe and experienced third-choice goalkeeper Agustín Orion.
The more active scouting and comparatively cheap market has no doubt lowered the overall standard in the Primera and perhaps had the knock-on effect of Argentine players losing valuable experience at a young age, but there remain some outstanding talents and bargains for wealthy European clubs.
River Plate’s Lucas Alario and Racing Club’s Marcos Acuña are two that have recently made contributions under Edgardo Bauza and remain in the Argentina squad for the friendlies against Brazil and Singapore, along with five others and most are likely to find their way across the Atlantic at some point in the near future.
Diego Maradona was roundly mocked for calling up over 100 different players during his relatively short spell in charge of Argentina but the numbers were slightly skewed by a series of friendlies in which domestic squads were selected. With La Albiceleste now calling upon an increased number for the upcoming matches and Jorge Sampaoli suggesting he may also use this tactic to look at players, what might an all-Primera selection look like?
The lack of defenders initally named in the Argentina squad for the Brazil and Singapore friendlies raised eyebrows but since then, four of the seven Primera players added to the group have bolstered this area and so they make up the back line in the Primera XI.
Independiente captain Nicolás Tagliafico has been overdue international recognition and after Edgardo Bauza opted to overlook the 24-year-old, La Albiceleste’s new era begins with a deserved call for the versatile and fiercely competitive defender. Despite not having blistering pace or contributing a great deal in the final third, Tagliafico has a terrific engine, is strong in the tackle and in the air for a player not particularly tall and is a natural leader. Switching effortlessly to centre back this season for Ariel Holan’s young side, El Capitán looks set for another crack at Europe soon.
What Tagliafico might lack in speed and attacking thrust is certainly made up for on the opposite flank by José Luis Gómez. The 23-year-old was a vital part of Lanús’ title winning side and could provide the modern, attacking full-back to overlap Messi down the right that Argentina have craved.
Gómez’s selection suggests Boca Juniors’ Gino Peruzzi has slipped in the pecking order, as his development (at least defensively) seems to have stalled in recent years and perhaps Atlético Tucumán’s promising young full back Leonel Di Plácido would be the next best option.
Centrally there is plenty of experience and both players have been around the Argentina squad under recent managers. Despite being 34 now and gaining his first Argentina appearance ten years ago under Alfio Basile, Rosario Central’s Javier Pinola remains one of the top defenders in the Primera while Jonatan Maidana has been a constant in all of River Plate’s success over the past three years but seen his former central defensive partner Ramiro Funes Mori become an Albiceleste regular.
Jorge Sampaoli’s new squad looks to finally be looking to the future with the inclusion of Emanuel Mammana and so Pinola may not be one for the long-term but the likes of Germán Conti, Alexander Barboza, Jorge Figal and Lucas Martínez Quarta have all impressed over the past year and would be strong contenders in a Primera eleven going forward.
The last line of defence, in between the sticks, would presumably have been Mariano Andújar given his regular place in the squad since Alejandro Sabella’s reign but the Estudiantes goalkeeper’s absence for the upcoming friendlies suggests Argentina may now be looking elsewhere.
Gerónimo Rulli still looks destined to be the future number one but Talleres stopper Guido Herrera looks destined for bigger things and was rumoured to be on the shortlist for the recent squad. The 25-year-old leads the way for the Primera’s up and coming goalkeepers but competes with Godoy Cruz’s Rodrigo Rey, Boca Juniors’ Agustín Rossi and River Plate’s Augusto Batalla.
In midfield competition for places becomes even more intense but one certainty and a deserved call-up for the matches with Brazil and Singapore is River Plate’s Ignacio Fernández. Nacho’s talents were evident while with Gimnasia but the transfer to the Monumental has not only raised the 27-year-old’s profile but highlighted a far more well-rounded skill set. Hard-working and industrious in his defensive duties but dynamic and an excellent passer when going forward, Fernández compliments a more traditional number five perfectly and possesses a wonderful left foot capable of launching attacks from deep.
Over the past 18 months or so, the Primera’s best number five has been Iván Marcone and while Sampaoli may not have selected the Lanús midfielder for the most recent squad, the 27-year-old was given recognition by Edgardo Bauza when suspension ruled out a number of players for the World Cup qualifier against Bolivia. The Arsenal academy product is a fine ball-winner and efficient passer, who proved influential in El Granate lifting the Primera title in 2016.
While the older generation of midfielders like Fernando Gago, Fernando Belluschi and Román Martínez remain highly effective at their respective Argentine clubs, the opportunity with La Albiceleste has perhaps passed and so moving forward over the next few years, Sampaoli’s staff and European scouts are more likely to be running the rule over the younger players yet to fully break through.
Central midfielders like Estudiantes’ Santiago Ascacibar and Banfield’s Emanuel Cecchini look destined for Europe and the more advanced playmakers Ezequiel Barco and Emanuel Reynoso have already made an impact on the domestic scene.
Naturally the formation of any potential Primera eleven would dictate the line-up to some extent but three players deserving of a starting role in whichever system used would be Racing Club’s Marcos Acuña, Boca Juniors’ Ricardo Centurión and River Plate’s Gonzalo Martínez.
The three have excelled over the past year and would provide pace, trickery, creativity and goal threat in abundance. Acuña’s level of performances have already been rewarded by Edgardo Bauza but the Racing maestro remains in Sampaoli’s plans for good reason while Centurión and Martínez have been two of the most important figures in Boca Juniors and River Plate battling it out for the Primera title.
Pity Martínez has put his inconsistencies of old behind him to emerge as one of the Primera’s standout players both as a creative force and goal scorer while Centurión has ably filled the boots of Carlos Tevez at La Bombonera. All three provide genuine options for Argentina in wide areas, at a time when the likes of Ángel Di María frustrate, but have the versatility to play across a forward line.
Providing alternatives to stretch opposition defences in these wides areas would be Lanús’ experienced and talented Lautaro Acosta, Independiente’s eletric Emiliano Rigoni and Boca’s rapid Cristian Pavón. 29-year-old Acosta has been in or around recent squads and remains El Granate’s main offensive danger while the younger pair of Rigoni and Pavón have put themselves in the shop window for European clubs with impressive displays this season.
Which brings us to the centre-forward role, which Lucas Alario currently occupies by virtue of Edgardo Bauza referring to the River striker as Argentina’s future number nine and Jorge Sampaoli perhaps sharing the opinion given the 24-year-old remains in the squad.
Alario’s incredible goal record since moving to the Monumental from Colón, his tendency to score in the big matches and overall contribution to the attack make El Flaco a valid choice and an understandable big money target for European clubs this coming transfer window.
However, Alario’s place is by no means without competition and the Primera’s two leading scorers this season will be hoping that they can force their way into Sampaoli’s plans in the future.
Darío Benedetto’s 18 goals from 21 games not only has the 27-year-old at the top of the scoring charts but looks likely to fire Boca Juniors to the title this season. Despite plenty of initial doubts over the signing from Club América, Pipa is now being touted as the best Boca number nine since Martín Palermo and for a big money switch to Europe. Something of a confidence player earlier in his career, equally capable of the extraordinary and the anonymous, Benedetto has proved himself under the spotlight of La Bombonera as a centre-forward with the ability of scoring all types of goals.
Second in the scoring charts is Alario’s River Plate teammate Sebastián Driussi, whose rise from versatile squad player to prolific forward has been meteoric. Marcelo Gallardo has had the 21-year-old studying tapes of Luis Suárez to hone his talent and there is a certain similarity in his busy running into the channels and predatory finishing ability. Just like Alario, River are likely to have to fend off interest over the coming window if they are to keep Driussi.
And lastly but by no means least are Racing Club duo Gustavo Bou and Lautaro Martínez. The latter’s talents have been evident for the Argentina under-20s and so his time for Argentina will surely come in the future but for Bou, greater recognition is perhaps overdue.
The victim of being something of a late-bloomer, European clubs appear to have been put off La Pantera due to him not reaching his potential until his mid-twenties. However, still only 27, Bou is one of the Primera’s best forwards and the powerful striker can do it all. Comfortable with his back to goal, running in behind the defence or drifting out wide, what Bou has shown at Racing is not only his eye for goal but his leadership and versatility in attack.
Whether Sampaoli does go ahead with potential plans to field a domestic side in friendlies remains to be seen but for all the talk of struggling youth categories in Argentina, there is a strong squad available from the Primera División.