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Argentina’s preparations for the 2018 World Cup have been far from perfect. They reached the finals with just seven wins from 18 qualifying matches, and they have lost two of their last four friendlies, conceding four and six goals in those games. Pre-tournament meetings with Israel and Nicaragua have both been cancelled, and Manuel Lanzini – one of their key midfielders – has been ruled out through injury.
However, in manager Jorge Sampaoli, Argentina have someone who has World Cup experience and has also achieved success in the face of adversity. He led the Chile national team into the 2014 edition in Brazil, where they overcame reigning champions Spain to get out of an incredibly tough group that also featured eventual semi-finalists Holland.
Drawn in Group D with the overachieving Iceland, friendly conquerors Nigeria and a Croatia side whose squad is laced with individual quality, Argentina are likely to be heavily reliant on their manager this summer. It will be up to him to forge a cohesive unit from the players available, get the best out of Lionel Messi and lead them through a tricky first round. Fortunately, Sampaoli seems equipped for the task.
The 58-year-old’s playing career ended prematurely at the age of 19 due to injury, so he turned to coaching as his route into professional football. This pursuit led him around South America, where he managed in Peru and Ecuador before breaking into the mainstream with Universidad de Chile. During his time in charge, ‘La U’ won multiple domestic titles and the Copa Sudamericana, all while playing absorbing football.
Sampaoli’s tactical approach was built on aggressive pressing and fast, direct attacking play, all of which were also seen in the Chilean national team at that time managed by Marcelo Bielsa. So it was rather unsurprising, then, that less than two years after Bielsa quit, Sampaoli was appointed. Refining the work done before him, he took Chile to the 2014 World Cup, where they thrilled with the intensity of their play and almost knocked out hosts Brazil in the second round.
After taking Chile to their first ever Copa America title a year later, Sampaoli would make his first moves in European football with Sevilla. He spent just one season in Spain, but that solitary season was a success: he took the Andalusian club to their highest league finish in seven years, as well as the Champions League knockout stages.
As an Argentine who enjoyed a wonderful spell as Chilean national team manager, he has naturally been discussed as one of Bielsa’s disciples. However, his view of the game is more rounded, as he explained in an interview with Spanish outlet AS in 2016, prior to his joining Sevilla.
“I really liked Bielsa. Whenever I could I would watch the matches and training of Bielsa’s teams,” he said. “Later I have taken some things from [Pep] Guardiola. I like to use ideas from both Guardiola and Bielsa. When there are ten religions and you only follow one, you miss out on the other nine. I came to understand that as well as playing direct, you need to master possession.”
This openness to taking new ideas on board has been key since Sampaoli took the job of Argentine national team boss last June. At first he tried to implement the 3-3-3-1 system he used in Chile, though it never really convinced – the players were, quite simply, too different.
Learning from humiliating friendly losses to Nigeria and Spain, this year he has committed to a back four, bringing in a rough 4-4-1-1 system that is likely to be the team’s base shape for this summer’s finals. However, there has been little time up to now to work on strategy.
Speaking to World Soccer prior to the tournament in Russia, Sampaoli explained the difficulties associated with taking over so late in qualifying, and the resulting issues with implementing his ideas. “Time is what it is and you just have to adapt to it,” he said. “Because we’ve had so little time to work together we’ve had to dedicate a big part of every friendly to observing different players.”
Those observations have led to some controversial decisions. Internazionale‘s Mauro Icardi, one of the finest finishers in Europe today and a reported Real Madrid transfer target, has been left out of Sampaoli’s 23 for the World Cup. For many the call seemed harsh, though with Gonzalo Higuaín and Sergio Agüero already in the squad Icardi’s absence was perhaps more a case of ensuring a balanced selection.
Argentina will, after all, play with just one striker ahead of Messi, who will have a free role between midfield and the frontline. Their attacking game will be based on positional rotations to confuse the opposition and open up their defensive block, not shelling crosses or forcing through balls to a duet of unnecessarily similar frontmen. Mere individual talent is not enough for Sampaoli – systemic suitability is fundamental.
There is an air of Antonio Conte’s Italy of Euro 2016 about this Argentina team. Like that Italy side, they enter the tournament with doubts over their quality and their squad selections. Exceptional players have been left out, and friendly performances have been unconvincing. But there is a belief that, with several weeks of intense tactical drilling from a world class coach, they might just achieve something special at this World Cup.
Much of the focus will rest on Messi and his individual displays, but if Argentina are to reach the latter stages it will have a lot to do with Sampaoli’s ability to maximise his resources and make the most of a difficult situation. With that in mind it is he, not Messi, who will be the most important man in Argentine football over the next month or so.