Aguero absent in Argentina attack
Two matches into the World Cup, things haven't gone entirely as expected for Argentina. By far the most important factor is as we thought it would be; the team have six points on the board from their opening two matches. That gives them a certain amount of breathing space when it comes to addressing everything else.
Other than that -- and the nerves of steel displayed at key moments by Lionel Messi -- almost everything else seems upside down. Before the tournament, there were question on how sharp Sergio Romero would be in goal, having barely featured for Monaco during 2013-14; he's looked good so far. Marcos Rojo was clearly the weakest link in the side; for some Argentine viewers, he was the best player on the pitch against Iran.
At the same time, the unquestioned strength of the side suddenly doesn't look so hot. Messi is firing well, but his partners in the attack are looking like shadows of the players they were during qualifying. Gonzalo Higuain's lack of sharpness probably has as much to do with his fitness as anything else, but Sergio Aguero's dip in performance is more worrying.
The Manchester City man has looked sluggish, hasn't finished well and could find himself in danger for Argentina's match against Nigeria which will decide the group winners. Against Bosnia, he looked isolated and too far from Lionel Messi during the first half in the 3-5-2 formation; against Iran he played very little part at all, aside from tearing up the corner flag in frustration at one point.
One measure of Aguero's poor performance is the number of times Iranian defenders attempted to tackle him; not once, according to FIFA, in 78 minutes. His replacement, Ezequiel Lavezzi, rode two tackles in 18 minutes (Messi, for comparison, was successfully tackled once and evaded three other attempts). Of course statistics don't tell the full story, but those seem illustrative. Something's not right with Aguero's game.
He hasn't offered enough decoy runs for Messi and Higuain or interacted too well with Angel Di Maria or Marcos Rojo down the left either; a fact that, to some extent, has been masked by Rojo's better-than-expected showings going forward.
On Sunday, Angel Di Maria told the press, "Kun [Aguero] has had a few injuries disrupting things. Pipa [Higuain] barely trained with the team ahead of the tournament. Without everyone there, obviously it takes a while to get back into a good rhythm."
To that extent the squad clearly aren't panicking too much, but Lavezzi was tried out in training, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he gets a run-out against Nigeria.
Lavezzi's form in the friendlies before the World Cup wasn't brilliant, but he offers a little more directness than Aguero has shown so far, and he's fully fit. Rodrigo Palacio is also an option in the attack. Always willing to work in whatever tactical role he's given, Palacio is versatile enough to replace Higuain if necessary as well. How sharp he'll be, having only returned to full training last week, is another matter though.
The ideal situation for Argentina is that Aguero picks his game up in training again and looks sharper against Nigeria if he plays. Should Lavezzi get a run-out, though, it will be a real chance to put some pressure on for a starting spot. Argentina are already guaranteed a last sixteen spot, but they need that attack to click before then.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and has been ESPN FC's South America correspondent since 2008. He also writes for When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard (both U.K.) and Howler (U.S.) and previews Argentine Primera Division matches for Hong Kong Jockey Club. He is the producer of Hand Of Pod, the Internet's finest (OK, only) English-language Argentine football podcast and tweets as @HEGS_com.