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 By Michael Cox
Jun 25, 2014

Messi, Sabella now in tactical tandem

The ESPN FC crew discuss Argentina's World Cup potential and Lionel Messi's overall impact on the team.

It's a peculiar lark, this football management. Use a system that doesn't suit your best players, and you're considered an inflexible ideologue. Tweak your system to get the best players in the role they're happiest, and you're criticised for having no backbone.

Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella and his captain, Lionel Messi, have been criticised this week, after Sabella supposedly bowed to Messi's demands for the game against Iran. Having played a 5-3-2 system in their opening match against Bosnia, Sabella switched to a 4-3-3 for the Iran contest.

It's tough to work out which criticism is sillier -- the idea that Sabella is weak for listening to Messi, or the idea Messi was unprofessional for pointing out the obvious. The reality is simple: Argentina's use of a 5-3-2 against Bosnia was the managerial cock-up of the tournament so far.

There has barely been a disappointing game at this World Cup. There have been bad games, yes -- Iran 0-0 Nigeria, Russia 1-1 South Korea -- but we expected those to be bad. The closest thing to a genuine disappointment was the first half of Argentina's 2-1 win over Bosnia. The world tuned in expecting to see a Messi master class on the greatest stage, and instead we got a flat, lifeless, insipid Argentina performance. They were 1-0 up by halftime, courtesy of a fortunate own goal, but the display was horrendous.

Sabella's formation was astonishingly negative. Although he'd played a 5-3-2 occasionally in qualification, it was usually away from home in difficult games, often when the matches were played at altitude. There was no obvious reason for switching to that shape against Bosnia, who had themselves become much more defensive since qualification.

With Marcos Rojo at left wing-back and Javier Mascherano in midfield, Argentina started with five centre-backs vs. Bosnia.

It wasn't just the formation, but the identity of the players within the formation. Amazingly, it effectively featured five centre-backs: the back three (Hugo Campagnaro, Federico Fernandez and Ezequiel Garay); Marcos Rojo, who plays at centre-back for Sporting Lisbon; and in midfield Javier Mascherano, who plays at the heart of defence for Barcelona. Five centre-backs -- plus Pablo Zabaleta on the right. This was a ridiculously negative system.

At halftime Sabella changed shape to 4-3-3. Suddenly, Argentina were terrifying with the ball -- Messi had two strikers ahead of him and found more space behind, Angel Di Maria was more influential in the centre of midfield, and Argentina still had numbers at the back. Peculiarly, they drew the second half 1-1, having won the first half 1-0. But the difference was night and day, and while Sabella got it wrong from the outset, he was humble enough to admit his mistake by restructuring the side and making two substitutions at the break.

Sabella's only error was the starting system. On paper it made no sense against Bosnia, and considering Argentina played a very settled 4-3-3 throughout qualification, with an obvious first-choice XI all knowing their individual roles, it was also strange to disturb the cohesion.

Messi's views might have been forthright, but everyone who watched the game agreed with what he said.

"In the first half, we gave up possession to Bosnia and so I was too deep," Messi said. "I was alone and Kun [Sergio Aguero] was alone. It was very difficult. We like [the 4-3-3] better because when you go forward you have more possibilities of passing the ball and scoring. We strikers and forwards are favoured by this formation." Sabella, it seems, wasn't unduly concerned. "I was not hurt by Leo's comment, and he has said that before," he told reporters ahead of Saturday's 1-0 win over Iran. "He likes to play 4-3-3."

The Albiceleste coach continued: "They [reporters] asked him how he likes to play and he answered what he thinks in a respectful way. We respect each other; we have a very strong team spirit. It is good to have an open dialogue with my players. Sometimes players learn from us [coaches] and sometimes we learn from them."

This, basically, is the way it should be. It would be ludicrous if Sabella didn't listen to the thoughts of his star man, arguably the greatest individual at this tournament and one of the greatest of all time, too. There is a caveat here, of course: Messi shouldn't be speaking against his manager, or behind his manager's back. But if he'd already said the same to Sabella, why shouldn't he say the same to the press, when the difference in performance was so ridiculously obvious? Messi is often criticised for being robotic, for saying nothing. This was a rare example of him speaking his mind, and everything he said was true.

The problem, of course, was that Argentina encountered problems against Iran in the next match. They won only 1-0, courtesy of Messi's stunning late drive, having struggled to break down Team Melli.

Alejandro Sabella had no problem with Lionel Messi expressing that he favoured playing in a 4-3-3 formation.

But this surely wasn't a problem with the formation -- when you're playing against a team keeping nine outfielders behind the ball and conceding space in front, the formation becomes irrelevant to a certain extent. Besides, it's tough to imagine that playing the 5-3-2 would have been any better -- that shape consists of little more than taking out a centre-forward, Gonzalo Higuain, and bringing in a centre-back. The compensation, of course, is that the full-backs push on and become wing-backs, but Rojo and Zabaleta couldn't have been any more adventurous than they were against Iran.

It's worth remembering that Sabella has always put Messi first. The manager was appointed following the disappointment of the 2011 Copa America, a tournament at which Messi had been disappointing. Sabella's first task as coach was flying to Barcelona to meet Messi and Mascherano, and proposing that the latter should hand the captain's armband to the former.

"The question of team captaincy was important to me," Sabella wrote in his introduction to Messi's biography. "I considered it essential for everyone to know Leo was the leader and that he would lead in his own natural manner. It was vital that he was recognised as such by the players. ... Messi is our symbol, our standard-bearer."

Sabella has kept to that principle throughout. Messi is the main man, and his tactical analysis has been as accurate as his finishes.

Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He is based in London and writes the Zonal Marking blog about football tactics. He also writes postmatch analysis for the Guardian and contributes regularly for FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @zonal_marking.