Argentina’s ‘Scaloneta’ gave Lionel Messi and Co the foundation for World Cup glory
When Argentina face Honduras and Jamaica in the next friendlies, there will be little change in the Albiceleste team that has not lost a match for over two years. And why should there be? Since a 2019 Copa America semi-final loss to Brazil, Lionel Scaloni’s side have gone unbeaten in 33 games, won the 2021 Copa for their first senior title since 1993, qualified for the FIFA world 2022 in style and beat European champions Italy in June in a showpiece match at Wembley.
It would be remarkable under any circumstances. But it’s almost off the scale of the extraordinary when you remember two things. First of all, that Argentina were an absolute disaster at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Secondly, rookie coach Scaloni was named caretaker pretty much because he met the only criteria at the time – he wasn’t a big financial risk. And now his team is called in Argentina “la Scaloneta” – the house he built.
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Argentina had previously made a long-term bet with the high-profile and dynamic Jorge Sampaoli. It was a disaster that should have been foreseen. Argentina simply didn’t have the fast defenders and ball-keepers needed to play Sampaoli’s way. The aging team pulled away from Russia, where they flirted with first-round elimination. With a huge payout, Sampaoli was sacked. The money was missing, and so Scaloni arrived. He didn’t speak like a guard.
“[World Cup finalists] France and Croatia stole the ball and were able to shoot within 3 or 4 seconds,” he concluded after Russia. “That’s how football is, that’s football. I like it and the time has come to introduce it to Argentina. . We are going to be more direct and vertical.”
There was an obvious problem with this approach. It’s not a model of play that suits Lionel Messi. It started badly. Scaloni’s first competitive game was his 2019 Copa America opener against Colombia. Argentina were all tense and easily eliminated en route to a 2-0 loss. The rest of the competition was Argentina’s attempts to evolve into a more workable game idea. They played well in that semi-final loss to Brazil. But with Messi plus two attackers – Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero – they were very heavy and too easily hit on the counterattack.
Messi, however, was clearly on board. For the first time in his career, playing for the national team seemed to be the most important thing in his career. He had appeared as a distant figure for his Argentinian teammates, happy in his little world. Now he was a more vocal and encouraging figure, integrated into the group like never before. And by the time the World Cup qualifiers rolled around, Argentina weren’t straight and straight. They were a possession-based team, where the midfield trio of Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso could dictate the pace of play and bring Messi into play near the opposing goal. It’s the most coherent collective idea Argentina have had throughout Messi’s long international days. On song, once the game has opened up – like the second half against Italy at Wembley in June – they are a joy to watch.
Defense has long been a key issue. It was certainly four years ago in Russia, and it will surely come under pressure at times in Qatar. But there has been a newfound confidence since June last year when goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez and centre-back Cristian Romero entered the team together. The statistics are certainly impressive. In the last 12 games, Argentina have only conceded two goals.
It would be somewhat surprising if Honduras on Sept. 23 in Miami and Jamaica four days later in New Jersey made those numbers worse. But that’s not the point. These are just warm-up games, serving to bring the group together and make late adjustments – it could be interesting, for example, to see if Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister gets another chance in the midfield role more deep he played in the last game. , a friendly against Estonia in June.
But even a shock defeat on these FIFA dates is not going to derail the Scaloni project and it is highly unlikely to have an effect on confidence as Argentina prepare for the World Cup. Scaloni knows his side need to waste time – he cites Italy as an example, where a long unbeaten streak wasn’t enough to get them to Qatar. Given the choice between a long unbeaten streak and winning the World Cup on December 18, there’s no doubt Scaloni would choose. Maybe he can have both.