Alejandro Sabella's formation dilemma
There is a wonderful South American saying which holds that trying to find the right balance in a football team is like having a small blanket on a bitter night. Pull it over your neck and your feet freeze, cover your feet and your neck gets cold.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella lived with that dilemma in the Maracana stadium when his team opened up their World Cup campaign against Bosnia.
In qualification his team played a very open 4-3-3, with Lionel Messi operating behind Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Throw in Angel Di Maria in the midfield trio, and it was clear that the team was front loaded. As Sabella once memorably commented, there were times when the opposition was attacking when all he could do was shut his eyes and pray.
Such risks, he decided, were worth running because with such attacking talent at his disposal, Argentina were likely to outscore their rivals in an open game.
And then Sabella came to the World Cup and had a crisis of confidence. His team began with match against Bosnia with three centre backs, in a 5-3-2 system. This had been his fall-back position when Messi was injured. But now he used it with his captain in the side -- and the outcome was a dreadful first-half performance from his team, who were highly flattered by their 1-0 interval lead, courtesy of an early own goal.
It was a classic case of what happens when the coach loses the courage of his convictions. Messi thrived in qualification, for the first time showing his club form for his country.
There were two secrets to this. One was the presence of Fernando Gago behind him. The elegant midfielder has not been a success in Europe, and is now back home with Boca Juniors. But during qualification he was Argentina's second best player. His passing kept knitting the side together, and he was Messi's constant supply line.
The other secret was the presence of those two fine strikers in front of him. They were often thrown wide, stretching the opposing defence and creating space for Messi to run at the opposition.
Higuain was absent in the first half -- not 100 percent fit, but not replaced by another striker. With only Aguero in front of him, Messi was comfortably closed down in central midfield. And there was no Gago either.
With the protection of an extra centre back, Sabella decided to go with Maxi Rodriguez, in theory to supply attacking thrust. But it never came, and without his supply line Messi had to drop deeper, ending up miles away from Aguero.
Sabella has commented that if he could have chosen the characteristics of his players, his team would be different, with more controlled possession. Now, his cautious changes left the team between two stools; they had lost their exhilarating forward bursts, with groups of four going at pace.
But they had gained nothing in terms of control of the game. They were a reflection of the image left by Sabella in his news conference on the eve of the match. He came across as unhappy, under pressure, a man not enjoying the experience of taking his national side to the World Cup. And an uncertain coach produced an uncertain team.
In the first half, Argentina were a shambles, a team with no clear idea or identity. Sabella, then, was forced to confront his own doubts at the interval. And to his credit, he was quick to recognise his error. The 5-3-2 was ditched, and the team went back to 4-3-3, with Gago linking the play and Higuain giving them another striker. It was the same template as in the qualification campaign.
The risks in this approach were apparent in the Bosnia goal. When the current Argentina side play 4-3-3, they are always vulnerable in the space between the full back and the centre back -- the very gap exploited by Vedad Ibisevic to score Bosnia's first ever World Cup goal.
The chance, though, was clearly worth taking, because the real Argentina came out to play in the second half. With two strikers in front of him, space opened up for Messi, and now he had Gago to give him the ball in dangerous areas. The Maracana was rewarded with a wonderful goal. And the tournament will now be rewarded with a bold Argentina whose coach surely now has no doubts as to where he wants to place his blanket.