The ‘What ifs’ from Argentina’s disastrous World Cup campaign

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Jimmy Lee returns to Golazo to look back on some key moments, some bad luck and some poor decisions during Argentina’s World Cup campaign to ask ‘what if’…

After the back and forth and the will they, won’t they, between Jorge Sampaoli and the AFA, the dust has settled and the two have parted ways. What has been pitched as an amicable breakup was surely far from that. Rumors have been circling that Sampaoli would be out of his job ever since the second match of the World Cup. But the question still remains, was this the right decision?

Firstly and something that is indisputable, Argentina did not play well at this World Cup and with the exception of one magical goal scored by Marcos Rojo, this was overall a dreadful and forgettable performance. So, the answer to the above-mentioned question becomes clear, of course the AFA needed to call it quits with Sampaoli… but wait, did they?

For me, this will be a World Cup made up of small moments that could have changed the destiny of this team. Let me for one minute put myself in the mindset of an Argentine journalist and say something that I can guarantee has be said by one or many of them, if it were not for a few of these minor “what if?” moments, Argentina could have been hoisting the World Cup trophy yesterday instead of France.

I know that sounds ridiculous and absurd, but let’s review of few of these moments and see just how crazy that thought actually is.

Argentina vs Iceland 

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There were two moments in this match that could have turned the fate in Argentina’s favor. The first came for Iceland’s equalizing goal scored by Alfred Finnbogason. Willy Caballero had to do better than he did (keeper mistakes will be a common theme throughout this article), to be starting in a World Cup match, more had to be expected of the veteran keeper. If Caballero was unable to gobble up that ball, he needed to at worst, get a strong fist to it and send it out of harm’s way. What he did instead was roll it directly into the path of Finnbogason who easily put the ball into the net.

The even more obvious moment from this match came when a penalty was awarded to Argentina and Messi stepped up to the spot to take it. Messi has been the savior for Argentina too many times to count, but when it comes to penalties, he has far too often disappointed. Yes, the keeper guessed right, but Messi also hit that penalty without any power and made easy work for Hannes Halldorsson. If Messi could have converted, Argentina win the match and begins the campaign with an important three points.

Argentina vs Croatia

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This match will be remembered for one moment and one moment alone, but before we get to that, Argentina should have taken a 1-0 lead. For the first 30 minutes, neither team looked dominate, but Argentina looked a little better. In the 30th minute a ball ricocheted in the box which brought the keeper Danijel Subašić out from the net; the ball found its way right to the feet of Enzo Pérez who had an empty net; he missed. The first half ended goalless – while Argentina did not blow anyone away, they seemed the more likely to score the matches opening goal.

But 13 minutes into the second half, Argentina’s World Cup came to an end. Not literally, but I think everything hinges on this mistake from Willy Caballero. Gabriel Mercado was being pressured by Ante Rebic and played the ball back to Caballero. Instead of clearing it or playing it basically anywhere else on the pitch, Caballero tries to play a cute pass back to Mercado but gets nothing on it. The ball is picked out of the air by Rebic who plays the volley back into the net to give Croatia a 1-0 lead. And then Argentina gave up and lost the match 3-0.

Argentina vs France

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Early in just the 11th minute, Argentina’s lack of pace in defense was found out. Kylian Mbappe picked the ball up on his side of the midway line and ran past every Argentine defender which left him with a chance to test Franco Armani. His touch brought the ball wide of the goal and would have been tough for him to catch up to it and put the ball on net from a tight angle. But none of that mattered because the savior from the last match, Marcos Rojo, pulled Mbappe down and gave France a penalty.

Argentina would get a pair of goals on both sides of the half to take a 2-1 lead, the only time France trailed in this World Cup, but it only lasted for 9 minutes. Benjamin Pavard scored what may still be the goal of the tournament as he put his laces through a ball that never got higher than a couple meters off the ground and rifled past Armani for the tying goal. Pavard will never score another goal like that in his life, and it just had to come against Argentina in the World Cup.

France would add two more goals from Kylian Mbappe who had his coming out party in the World Cup against Argentina. Both well taken goals, but both could have been stopped if Armani reacted quicker. France was the better team and deserved to win this match, but if a few things go Argentina’s way, they could have found themselves taking down the eventual champs.

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This Caballero blunder was clearly the biggest mistake of the tournament, but the biggest what if took place before any ball was kicked. Within days of Jorge Sampaoli announcing his list of 23, Argentina’s #1 felt some soreness in his knee. Sergio Romero had his knee evaluated and was told that he would need surgery and the recovery time would be about three weeks. Argentina had just over three weeks until their first match against Iceland. Instead of moving forward with the procedure and keeping Romero around the camp, Sampaoli sent him home and promoted Caballero to fill his void.

What if Romero had recovered in time to start against Iceland? What if he helps Argentina win those opening three points? What if he kicks the ball back up the pitch when Mercado plays it back to him against Croatia? What if he saved just one of the two goals scored by Mbappe?

Romero was not the only starter injured for Argentina in the days leading up to the tournament. Manuel Lanzini ruptured his knee ligaments and had to be replaced by Enzo Pérez. If Lanzini hadn’t gotten hurt, could he have scored the opening goal against Croatia? Could he have been that piece so clearly missing from Argentina in their midfield?

If Argentina could have beaten Croatia, they could have found themselves matched against Denmark, Russia, and England and may have been in their second World Cup final in a row. If they could have beaten France, the road to another final would have been much more challenging, but we will never know what could have happened. This World Cup is full of what ifs for the Albiceleste that will never be answered.

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So, was this all Sampaoli’s fault? Maybe it was. Maybe he should have kept Romero around instead of sending him home. Maybe he should have found a starting 11 and formation and stuck to it. Maybe he should have started a striker against France instead of playing Messi as a false 9. Maybe he should have started Franco Armani instead of Caballero. Maybe he should have included Mauro Icardi or Ricardo Centurión in the 23. Maybe he should have given Giovani Lo Celso a chance in one or all the matches. Maybe he should have parted ways with Sebastián Beccacece back in December and promoted Pablo Aimar. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Maybe cutting bait with Sampaoli was the right move for the AFA, but maybe giving a manager a chance to build his own team with four years leading up to a World Cup instead of one would have proven to be fruitful. Maybe giving Sampaoli a chance to develop a squad outside of this current group of aging veterans he could have built something more competitive than what we saw on the pitch in Russia.

There are too many what ifs to ever know what could have been, but we don’t live in a world of what ifs, we live in a world of reality and what have you done for me lately. And Jorge Sampaoli did not do enough to keep his job. Which is exactly what people said about Didier Deschamps after France came up short in 2014 and 2016 – and how did it turn out for them keeping him around longer than many fans wanted? What if France would have fired Deschamps? We will never know.

Jimmy lived in Córdoba, Argentina as a teenager and is still an active Socio for his beloved club, Belgrano. He currently lives in Seattle, WA and loves to write about football when he has a break from work and family. He also runs the Belgrano – English twitter account.

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3 responses to “The ‘What ifs’ from Argentina’s disastrous World Cup campaign

  1. You are right to some extent, but I disagree with a lot of what you wrote. The biggest question that surrounds Argentina’s performance in the tournament is “who was in charge”? In my opinion, the answer is Messi/Masche at some points and Sampa at others. For instance, I think it is clear that Sampa was in charge (and by this I mean he selected the squad and laid out tactics) for the Croatia match. I say this because Argentina came out in a 3-4-3 formation with Meza, Salvio, Acuna, and Perez all included and they are Sampa type players. I think it is equally clear that Messi/Masche were calling the shots for the Nigeria match because it included Masche, Di Maria, and Higuain. For the Iceland match, I see evidence that there were compromises from both sides. I have no idea who thought to use a formation without a striker against France. All of this is to say it is unclear who was selecting the squad and tactics and that alone makes it a failure, but also hard to parse.

    In any event, I disagree with the idea that Argentina were a few breaks away from advancing in this tournament, let alone winning the trophy. It took some incredible luck to beat Nigeria and even make it out of the group and more importantly, the tactics against France were a mess. Playing without a central striker when that is the only strength of the team other than having Messi was peculiar, but the defensive plan was far more egregious. France had shown that they were going to sit back, absorb pressure, and hit on the counter with incredibly talented and fast forwards. Playing a high defensive line with slow aging defenders was inexcusable.

    The fact that Mascherano continued to play match after match while Lo Celso didn’t play a single minute is all the evidence I need to determine that this team never had a chance to beat an organized and talented team in the Round of 16. Honestly, how many teams does Argentina beat consistently from that group? I think the answer is 7 at most (Mexico, Japan, Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Colombia) of which only 2 advanced (Russia and Sweden).

    The only what if question I ask is, “what if a proper manager had taken control of the team and played sensible, balanced lineups based on performance rather than reputation”. There was a competitive team in this squad, but that team likely included Lo Celso and Dybala and not Mascherano or Di Maria.

  2. I agree that with this teams make up playing a high defensive line against France was dangerous. I don’t disagree with the false-9 concept. But you have to have wingers willing to pinch inward and make runs. Remember Argentina offensively had their best game against France. Scored three and and the role of the false 9 rotating from real #9 to false #9 is what created all that space for DeMaria’s goal. Some of Messi’s best games have been as a false-9 like when he went on the scoring rampage at the beginning of last year’s La_Liga season. But I still disagree with Samp’s starting line ups. He is the coach. He should have found a way to get Dybala (who is overrated) on the field. Aguero should have been in every game.. And even Higuain played well this tourney. Why he was playing Pavon and the other winger I have no idea. They were very ineffective.

  3. The biggest WHAT IF was Argentina’s very last play of the tourney. Messi is all alone and in a shooting position and the guy holding up the ball lays it off to the outside. Messi is accused of walking a lot. But if you watch the last play I’ve seen him use a slow pace to create space for himself. And there he was all alone in a position relative to the defense where I seen him make 10-15 goals a year. If Argentina was Barcelona on that last play the ball is laid off to Messi and it ends up in the back of the net He was so wide open.

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