Sunday, July 4, 2010
A question of management
On Friday afternoon Buenos Aires was treated to a symphony of car horns in celebration of Brazil's World Cup exit at the hands of Netherlands, and most Argentines were supporting Uruguay against Ghana, bizarrely. Twenty-four hours on the atmosphere here had turned. It's funny what raised expectations can do.
• Maradona considers quitting
• Gupta: Germany winning fans
• Blog: Undone by a proper team
Let's try and keep some sense of perspective here. This hasn't been a disastrous campaign as a whole from Argentina. Those of us who were sceptical about Diego Maradona's abilities suspected the quarter-finals should be the natural level of the squad he'd named, whilst there were those who suggested that even that was an optimistic view. A few, believing in Maradona's record as a player and his powers of motivation, thought Argentina could win the thing.
After an impressive start against opposition everyone recognised weren't of the level the team would face further on in the competition, plenty of people started to genuinely believe. I revised my own prediction upwards slightly, stating that playing as they were doing, Argentina could reach the semi-finals if they had the chance to dominate their quarter-final, and that from the semis anything is possible. And it has to be said, no one but the select few who were convinced Maradona had some divine link to the trophy thought Argentina would play as well as they have done.
In that respect Maradona's proved his critics wrong. Argentina have not at any point - not even against Germany on Saturday, believe it or not - looked as disastrously mismanaged as they did during the (many) lowlights of the qualification campaign. The sides they beat in the group stage weren't on Germany's level, but were at least as good as Peru (who almost forced a late draw in the penultimate qualifier in Buenos Aires) and Bolivia (who thrashed Argentina 6-1 in La Paz last year), for instance. The fact is, Argentina looked far more like a team than anyone who watched them in qualifying would have thought possible.
Maradona had improved as a manager between the end of qualifying and the start of the tournament. No one could explain it (even the man himself said he didn't know how or even whether it had happened), but it was there for all to see.
Except that in the final analysis, it wasn't. The defensive frailties that we weren't quite able to forget in spite of the team's dominance in attack were ruthlessly exposed by Germany. Nicolas Otamendi was a more stable option at right back than Jonas Gutierrez, but like Jonas he isn't a natural right back, and Joachim Low's decision to overload that area of Argentina's defence was a fruitful one - all three of Germany's second half goals came from that side.
Germany's early goal was a simply case of poor defending at a set piece, which any team could have conceded after a momentary lapse. What it did, however, was force Argentina to chase a game for the first time in this World Cup, and they couldn't. The main reason was the lack of creativity in the midfield. Maxi Rodríguez and Angel Di Maria are both fine players to have in a counter-attacking side, or as wide men in a midfield four (much as Di Maria's done his level best in this World Cup to dispel the idea that he's a fine player at all), but neither of them are creators. It was crying out for Javier Pastore or Seba Veron to be introduced and help set up the players further forward.
What happened in the absence of a playmaker was that Lionel Messi had to drop increasingly deep to pick the ball up, allowing the German midfield and defence to isolate the players beyond him, leaving him without much options. Messi played well - avoiding plenty of tackles and passing better than anyone for Argentina - but was unable to make the difference. Sadly, there are already signs that could be overlooked after his best performances for Argentina: Olé's website was running a story on his 'failure' at this World Cup within an hour of the final whistle.
Maradona's solution in the second half was to simply throw on more attacking players in the hope that something would click. By the end of the match, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Pastore, Lionel Messi, Carlos Tevez and Maxi Rodriguez were all on the pitch. Whilst it was interesting to see a side fielding two outside forwards, two inside forwards and a centre forward at a World Cup in the 21st century, it didn't look like it was a tactical masterplan that had been carefully thought through on the training ground.
In fairness to Maradona, he needs to be given credit for bringing the team together in the way he did. He's shown definite skill in motivating and getting them to play together, and in particular Messi is finally being accepted in the national side, the above-mentioned Olé article notwithstanding. Messi playing well for Argentina will make them a force to be reckoned with in the future, so as the manager who's finally made it happen, he deserves kudos. Questions will be asked though. Some players didn't show up in this match; Di Maria, Heinze, Otamendi, or the otherwise generally impressive Higuain. But seeing their manager seemingly close to tears on the sidelines can't have been a help, and the absences from the squad of Javier Zanetti, Esteban Cambiasso and Gabriel Milito, at least, might be raised again.
Questions are already being asked of the AFA President Julio Grondona. Maradona's proved the doubters wrong to some extent - Argentina weren't an utter embarrassment from beginning to end of the World Cup. But they were sorely wanting when the going got tough. And in the same way that Jonas Gutierrez was put at right back when he clearly isn't one, Diego Maradona was put in the manager's seat when he clearly isn't one. Who Grondona will choose to replace him could reflect more on the president than ever.