Lionel Messi puts Sabella in shadows
Sometimes, in any group -- whether it's a team or an office environment or maybe even in the army -- the chain of command can be fluid. There's a guy at the top who is paid to make decisions. But his decisions affect the guys below him and his success depends on how they feel about what he chooses to do. So there are times when he defers to their judgment.
And so he walks a fine line between acting the boss and being bossed by the guys he's trying to lead.
You get a sense that just such a dynamic has developed between Lionel Messi and his (nominal?) boss with the Argentina team, Alejandro Sabella. In the Albiceleste's opener against Bosnia, he switched to a 5-3-2 formation and the team, despite being gifted an early lead thanks to Sead Kolasinac's own goal, had an absolute stinker in the first half. An unhappy Messi floated in no man's land, starved of service.
At half-time, Sabella made a couple of substitutions, reverted to the more familiar 4-3-3 and played objectively better, though the second goal only came courtesy of a world-class run and strike by Messi. After the game, several Argentine players hinted that "a message had been sent." Messi himself said he preferred the 4-3-3 formation, complaining that he was isolated in the first half. What happens? Presto!
Against Iran in Belo Horizonte on Saturday, Argentina will line up 4-3-3, the same system they used throughout qualifying. Is it a mere case of Sabella trying something different, discovering it didn't work and reverting to his bread and butter, while also putting his best player in his favoured role? Maybe. Or maybe, as the Argentine press have been speculating all week, Sabella's change of heart is a function of the manager bending over backwards to accommodate Messi.
Referring to his star player weighing in on Argentina's tactics after the Bosnia game, Sabella said: "Messi's words don't bother me at all. In fact, he was extremely respectful. I talk to my players about the game all the time, I think it's good to have a back-and-forth and compare ideas."
And so it is. But ... in public?
Former Argentina coach Alfio Basile has little doubt. "For me, it is bad," he told the newspaper Ole. "The manager must be the one in charge and things must be kept in the dressing room. Sabella will be annoyed."
Indeed, that's the part that sets off alarms. The ease with which the Argentine players -- not just Messi, but others speaking after the Bosnia game -- trashed the first-half formation. If you're going to complain, you do it behind closed doors ... if you have an open-minded coach who listens.
There are only two reasons you would take this into the public dominion. One is if you have no respect for your manager and want to make him look bad. (We hope that's not the case here.) The other is if you believe it's the only way to conjure up the moral suasion necessary for him to change his mind.
Maybe that's what it was. Sabella himself seemed uncomfortable speaking to the media on Friday.
"People can judge for themselves," he said. "If I don't admit that we made mistakes, then you'll say that I'm stubborn. If I do admit it, then you'll say that I'm weak."
The distinct impression -- and it is only that -- is that Argentina aren't exactly being run on a top-down basis and there's more than a bit of player power in the mix. Sabella's 5-3-2 backfired spectacularly in the first half against Bosnia, and switching to a 4-3-3 was the right decision every day of the week. But Sabella didn't opt for a 5-3-2 because he's a fool or a secret agent sent by Cristiano Ronaldo to ensure Argentina and, especially, Messi underachieve. They played three centre-backs because he genuinely thought Bosnia were going to go with the "twin towers": Vedad Ibisevic and Edin Dzeko. And Fernando Gago, Gonzalo Higuain and (for that matter) Ezequiel Lavezzi didn't start because they weren't fully fit.
Would they have been left out in a "player power" Argentina? Well, Gago and Higuain are scheduled to start against Iran, so you'd guess the answer is "no." And that's not a good thing, because players always say they're fine and fit enough to play. Assessing their form and fitness is best left to a manager. That sort of responsibility is part of the reason -- more so than players -- they tend to get sacked when they get things wrong.
We'll know soon enough how fit they are. The thing is, Gago aside, there is no pure passer in this midfield. (Or, rather, in terms of creativity and technique, it's a big jump from Gago down to guys like Lucas Biglia.) So if you're going to play the type of 4-3-3 Messi likes, he'd better be in there.
It's a similar story up front. Messi likes to play with Higuain and Aguero. He's less fond of playing with others (paging Carlos Tevez). Does it mean he still gets to play with them when they're not fully fit or underperforming? If the answer is yes, then Argentina have a problem. Because great as Messi is, he is not -- and can't be -- a player-manager.
The New Age-y, rule-by-consensus style has actually been around a while. The late Vujadin Boskov joked that, in his title-winning Sampdoria side, he had very little to do, because Roberto Mancini and Gianluca Vialli ran everything. So, of course, it can work. The issue is to what degree you bend over to accommodate your superstar. And whether Sabella is the right coach to embrace it.
A nice round win over Iran would calm things down, at least until the knockout phase. But sooner or later, this point will need to be addressed: whose team is it really? And can we please, please keep the sniping and criticism in-house?
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.