People really don’t realize how much of a miracle it would be if Argentina won the World Cup.
Because this is “Argentina,” the land of two World Cups trophies won in iconic fashion, the country that’s produced three players—Alfredi Di Stéfano, Diego Maradona, and Lionel Messi—who convinced nearly everyone who’d ever watched them play in their time that they were the greatest player who had ever lived, it’s easy to heap expectations upon them that are based almost entirely on their past. Which is foolhardy, because this is decidedly not your father’s Argentina.
Any sober assessment of where Argentina are today, right now, would reveal that this team is a collection of unremarkable journeymen, of former greats who bear almost no resemblance to their formerly great selves, of completely untested new-comers who don’t even have the excuse of youth to justify their lack of experience, of emotionally shattered veterans who’ve had their hearts broken repeatedly in recent years by reaching the brink of success and failing, of a group of men either wholly unfamiliar with or already crushed by the gargantuan weight of the pressure coming from a nation of irrationally and rabidly demanding fans back home, and of Messi. The only things that would have anyone believing Argentina have a legitimate shot at winning the World Cup in Russia this summer are the faded memories of Argentina’s past, and Messi. That the belief that Argentina could feasibly win the World Cup this summer isn’t completely and utterly ridiculous is a testament only to the superhuman abilities of Messi.
Consider this: The vast majority of the Argentina roster will be traveling to their first ever World Cup when the Argentina squad embarks for Russia. Half the members of the team have ten or fewer caps with the national team. These aren’t promising youngsters, either, as only two from that group are under the age of 25. Besides that huge chunk of national team neophytes, the other big contingent in the squad are players with 50-plus caps. These are mostly older guys who either were never all that good or used to be great but now are varying degrees of washed. Only one player in that group will be younger than thirty by the time the tournament is over. Between the greenhorns and the elderly folks, there are but two players with between 11 to 50 appearances with Argentina. One of them is 31, the other, still in his prime at just 24 years old, will probably barely see any pitch time.
We can go even further. There are only two players in the probable Argentina starting XI who can be called great players still in their primes: Messi and defender Nicolás Otamendi. You could arguably make the case for a third player of that designation, depending on which one of Gonzalo Higuaín or Sergio Agüero starts, but Higuaín—who’s appeared completely crippled with anxiety every time he’s pulled on an Albiceleste shirt lately, owing no doubt to a couple agonizing misses in Argentina’s recent string of tournament final losses—hasn’t looked good for his country for years now, and Agüero—who hasn’t played a competitive game in months after getting knee surgery in April—never has.
Sure, there are a couple players with big reputations, like Paulo Dybala, Javier Mascherano, and Ángel Di María. But Dybala probably won’t play much at all, Mascherano is old as hell and has already more or less retired by joining a team in China, and Di María has seen the sands of time erode away most of the physicality, athleticism, and stamina that made him a great player back when he was one. And unless you’re a serious FIFA Ultimate Team player who’s tried to juice your squad chemistry by flooding it with Argie compatriots, it’s very likely you’ve never even contemplated the existence of guys like Marcos Acuña, Nicolás Tagliafico, Franco Armani, and Eduardo Salvio.
And yet. And yet there is still Messi, the little genius himself, the goat-loving G.O.A.T., the one player who could take a team of has-beens and never-weres and maybe possibly lead them to a World Cup title they otherwise have no business competing for. Messi almost managed that very feat four years ago, and that Argentina roster was miles better than the current one. The man on whose shoulders ride so much has himself been realistic about Argentina’s chances at the tournament, admitting that Argentina “are what we are” and that they are not amongst the big favorites to win the World Cup. The real favorites for the tournament—Brazil, Germany, and Spain—are each bristling with talented players at the peak of their powers at every position. If FIFA would allow instantaneous nationality switches, several players on the benches of the Big Three could suddenly become Argentine and walk right into the Argentina starting lineup without even practicing.
It’s clear that it will take a real miracle for Argentina to overcome all their shortcomings to win the World Cup. Luckily for them, the one thing Argentina have going for them is that the world’s foremost miracle worker is on their side.
Goalkeepers: Nahuel Guzmán (UANL), Franco Armani (River Plate), Willy Caballero (Chelsea)
Defenders: Gabriel Mercado (Sevilla), Nicolás Tagliafico (Ajax), Cristian Ansaldi (Torino), Federico Fazio (Roma), Marcos Acuña (Sporting Lisbon), Marcos Rojo (Manchester United), Nicolás Otamendi (Manchester City)
Midfielder: Lucas Biglia (AC Milan), Éver Banega (Sevilla), Ángel Di María (Paris Saint-Germain), Maximiliano Meza (Independiente), Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune), Eduardo Salvio (Benfica), Giovani Lo Celso (Paris Saint-Germain), Cristian Pavón (Boca Juniors), Enzo Pérez (River Plate)
Forwards: Gonzalo Higuaín (Juventus), Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Sergio Agüero (Manchester City), Paulo Dybala (Juventus)
La Albiceleste (The White and Sky Blue)
Nothing anyone can write about Lionel Messi compares even a little bit to the experience of watching him play. Those two things—reading about Messi and watching Messi—are things of completely different experiential classes, like the difference between writing about what a mango tastes like and the sensation of eating one in real life and then having an orgy with eight of the most beautiful people you’ve ever seen in your life.
During this World Cup—one of the biggest months in the storied career of the world’s greatest player—there will be more than enough time to waste a few thousand words trying and failing to encapsulate how Messi plays and what Messi means and all that jazz. Before the start of this thing, then, for now let’s just sit back and watch a collection of highlights from his most recent season, one that was as great individually as any that have come before, and enjoy what we’re in for as people blessed with the chance to watch Messi play, even for this bummy Argentina side.
It’s alarming how vanishingly few players likely to play a big role in Argentina’s World Cup make for compelling discussion. Which isn’t to say Argentina as a nation is devoid of great talents. I’d love to talk about the finer points of Paolo Dybala’s game and how they’ll support the Argentine World Cup cause, but because he is basically Messi-lite in every way—from the kinds of things he does with and without the ball to the areas of the pitch he naturally occupies—his redundancy will at best relegate him to super-sub status. Manuel Lanzini is really cool, but he just blew out his knee today and now will miss the tournament. Lautaro Martínez is a very exciting young forward, but he got left off the final roster. The slimness of the pickings here is indicative of how much of a struggle it will be for Argentina to live up to the public’s outsized expectations.
There is Cristian Pavón, though. Pavón is something of a unicorn in this Argentina squad: he is young and is very fast. Like, extremely fast. In fact his speed, and his ability to weave through defenders while running at top speed, are just about the only elite qualities the Boca Juniors winger offers at this point in his career. He does like to shoot, though not with much notable success, and his dribbling skills do get him into enough open space in the final third to where he can be a dangerous source of killer passes. But it’s his speed and his running that make him a dynamic threat in this team.
Which is perfectly fine, because having speed and the desire to flex that speed at every opportunity is more than enough to stand out in an otherwise lead-footed Argentina team when Messi is around. Messi loves a guy who will burst down the wing in behind the defensive line, as doing so frees up space for him to work in the middle of the pitch and allows him to dust off one of his favorite moves: the heat-seeking diagonal pass that flies dozens of yards over and behind defenders’ heads and onto the strong foot of an onrushing teammate. If you’ve ever seen Messi play with Neymar or Jordi Alba, you’ll know how much havoc Messi can wreak with a fast guy who loves to run. It’s not for nothing that Messi had this to say about Pavón just a couple weeks ago: “I found a new partner in Pavón.”
Look for the Messi-Pavón hookup to be one of the most common connections for Argentina this summer, should Pavón get the playing time he deserves. If Messi does particularly well at the World Cup, Pavón will likely do well, too. And if Pavón does really well, Argentina just might have the tournament they all want.
How do Argentina play? The only way they can. Which is to say, Argentina’s playing style is much more reflective of what the players on hand are capable of doing than of any strategic masterplan on the part of the manager.
Which is a shame, because after a long search for a national team coach capable of building a sophisticated tactical system that could get the best out of Messi, Argentina finally struck upon one in Jorge Sampaoli. He is one of the most respected international managers in the game today. An Argentine himself, Sampaoli oversaw a Chile team that won lots of games and even more plaudits with an electric, possession-focused, intense pressing attacking style—the exact style Argentina have needed for so long yet haven’t been able to implement. There’s little question that Sampaoli is just about the ideal man to lead a national team with Messi at the helm.
But while Argentina finally had Sampaoli and Messi when they united the two in 2017, what they didn’t have was time. Sampaoli took over almost exactly a year ago, at a time when Argentina were in dire straits in the World Cup qualifying process. There was no time to overhaul the tactical underpinnings of the prior, more defensive Argentina regimes, as the team needed to win points immediately. Once Argentina finally secured their place in Russia, it wouldn’t have made any sense to throw everything out the window and rebuild the Argentina roster and style of play from the ground up just months away from the World Cup. This is why Argentina are coached by Sampaoli but don’t really play like a Sampaoli team.
Argentina’s collection of defenders suck. Thus, Argentina will play an attacking style. They’ll look to keep possession of the ball to mitigate the age and slowness and lack of defensive understanding of their primary defensive players, and they’re more likely to win more games by a score of 3-2 than 1-0. The formation they’ll use is still sort of a crapshoot, because the team still hasn’t settled on a go-to starting lineup. The only certainty is that Messi will play behind a natural center forward, and he’ll be tasked with doing pretty much everything when Argentina have the ball. Today’s announced Manuel Lanzini injury is huge, since the West Ham man was set to play a crucial role as a counterweight to Messi’s movement, drifting out wide when Messi moved centrally, coming inside when Messi went to the wing. If there was one playing role that bore the marks of Sampaoli’s savvy managing, it was Lanzini’s. Now Lanzini is gone, and there isn’t really anyone with a similar skill set to pick up those specific pieces.
Argentina’s play won’t often look pretty, because it’s very hard for even a player as otherworldly as Messi to dominate a match with such a mediocre supporting cast. At times, though, it’ll be sort of sublime when you see just how in control Messi is and how good he is at pulling literally all the strings. The best anyone can reasonably hope for is Messi pulling those strings with such mastery that he puppets his teammates to a respectable finish in what will likely be his final tournament with Argentina.
All times Eastern
June 16, 9 a.m.: Argentina vs. Iceland at Spartak Stadium
June 21, 2 p.m.: Argentina vs. Croatia at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
June 26, 2 p.m.: Nigeria vs. Argentina at Saint Petersburg Stadium