Argentina improving at the right time
SAO PAULO -- As Argentina prepare for their first knockout game of this World Cup, there was some second-guessing surrounding their prematch news conference on Monday. Manager Alejandro Sabella had been talking enthusiastically about what Ezequiel Lavezzi can bring to the team in the likely absence of Sergio Aguero against Switzerland only to train with a 4-4-2 that didn't involve the Paris Saint-Germain attacker at all.
The team's variety of possible formations has provoked so much discussion at this World Cup, but it is not the biggest question surrounding the squad. In fact, it just feeds into a greater debate.
More than any other side in Brazil this summer, Argentina epitomise an eternally significant World Cup dilemma: Do teams grow into tournaments, and is that better than hitting the ground running straight away? Have the relatively unconvincing performances represented Argentina's actual level, or are they gradually developing? Is this just underperformance, and are they set to go into overdrive?
Sabella seems sure about the answer at least. He firmly believes that his team is improving. Having given them just a "six out of 10" for the opening 2-1 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Group F, the coach felt the 3-2 victory against Nigeria marked a step up that can be built on.
"I think we're better now. We're improving, and in my opinion, the last match would deserve a seven [out of 10]," Sabella said. "I have always said that results are important and performance is important. If we play like we did against Nigeria, we will have more opportunities, so we have to play better."
The rate of their development could define and decide this World Cup more than anything else. As Swiss manager Ottmar Hitzfeld insisted on the eve of the game, "They still have the potential to increase their performance."
There remains a feeling that Argentina have many more attacking possibilities than Brazil and that their clear defensive issues are more readily solvable than Germany's problems at the back. The question is how quickly they can prove that or whether they will get caught out before then.
The history of this competition illustrates that eventual champions rarely catch the right rate of pace immediately. Of all the World Cup winners since group stages were introduced in 1950, only Brazil 1970 and West Germany 1990 began their campaigns with commanding statements and continued from there.
Other than that, the majority -- especially Brazil 1958, England 1966, West Germany 1974, Argentina 1978, Italy 1982, Argentina 1986 and Spain 2010 -- started in rather stuttering fashion. Many of them had similar problems to Sabella's side.
Brazil 1958, England 1966 and Argentina 1986 couldn't initially figure out the right formation. West Germany 1974 and Italy 1982 didn't have some of their best players performing at anything like their optimum level. Argentina 1978 and Spain 2010 just couldn't raise the necessary application or intensity. All of that added up to something each of those teams shared: opening performances that weren't all that persuasive.
It has been much the same with this Argentina side. The question now is whether it can replicate all those champions in another way and can get performances exactly as it wants just when the tournament gets so exacting.
Sabella did argue that the very nature of the knockouts has already focused his players' minds.
"This is another stage, and there is no margin for error," he said. "In the group stage, there is always the possibility to recover. Not now. We know we have to be very concentrated. Every error now is more costly, also because of the level of the opposition.
"You have to be strong emotionally and psychologically. I think there's a philosopher who once said that one gram of brain cell is more important than any muscle in the body."
There is certainly an argument that Argentina have been made to think about their own issues at the right time. You only have to look at some of the teams those previous champions faced. Each of those World Cups had teams that clicked from the start only to get a little too comfortable with their quality or give superior opposition sides precise blueprints for how to prepare against them.
Yugoslavia 1974, Brazil 1982, USSR 1986, Denmark 1986 and Argentina 2006 are the clearest examples. Their dynamism became something that later sides could specifically work around. With Argentina, it would be difficult to be so specific, which is precisely where their array of formations becomes a potential strength. Hitzfeld mentioned having to prepare for a variety of possible attacks.
After all that, there is still Lionel Messi, the single player in this World Cup who is impossible to triple- or even quadruple-guess, let alone second-guess.
That more than anything else could be the key to finishing first and growing into something truly great.
Miguel Delaney is a London-based correspondent for ESPN FC and also writes for the Irish Examiner and others. Follow him on Twitter @MiguelDelaney.