Is Jorge Sampaoli's high-risk style right for Argentina? World Cup hopes rely on it
Assuming that Argentina qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Jorge Sampaoli should prove to be an inspired choice for their coach.
With a proven track record in charge of Chile and clubs on both sides of the Atlantic, Universidad de Chile and Sevilla, Sampaoli is one of the most fascinating figures in the game. With his tendency to throw men forward in a relentless commitment to attack, Sampaoli's teams are required viewing.
With time to prepare, it will be intriguing to see how Sampaoli can get the best out of the rich attacking resources at his disposal. It will also be interesting to see how he integrates Lionel Messi -- in what will be the last World Cup the Barcelona genius plays during his peak years.
All this, of course, is assuming that Argentina qualify. With two rounds to go, that is far from a foregone conclusion. They currently lie fifth in the table in the playoff position. A win over Peru on Thursday should be enough to get Argentina safely over the line; a loss, however, would be a disaster. With the final round next Tuesday away to Ecuador in the dreaded altitude of Quito, it would open up the possibility of Argentina finishing in sixth place and forced to watch the action at Russia 2018 on TV.
Over the next few days, then, a vital question hangs over the squad. True, Sampaoli would be an excellent choice to take them to the World Cup. But was he the right choice to take charge for the final four rounds of such a fraught campaign?
There are two reasons for alarm.
One is the bold nature of his preferred style. The high intensity, high pressing game also carries high risk. The danger of opening up to the opposing counter-attack is always present -- and the threat is all the more worrying given Argentina's current lack of defensive pace.
When Sampaoli took over the Chile team, the foundations had already been laid by the man he considers his mentor: Marcelo Bielsa. After landing the country's first ever silverware, the 2015 Copa America, Sampaoli was quick to acknowledge that Bielsa had done the hard part, grooming a promising generation of players and implanting an aggressive model of play.
And though Sampaoli ended up staying with Sevilla for only a single season, he had time to work: a full preseason to introduce his ideas and midweek training sessions during the season to fine tune them. A national team coach has next to no time with his players, making it very difficult to introduce the sweeping changes to system and personnel that Sampaoli has brought to Argentina.
His temperament is also a concern. On the touchline, Sampaoli seems to run on batteries. He paces endlessly up and down his technical area, yaps away and makes sure the referees know when he disagrees with a call. He can try an official's patience. Few coaches have been sent to the stands as often as Sampaoli.
A key question now is whether this hyper-nervous approach is appropriate for Argentina, given their precarious status. When big teams get into trouble they can often be haunted by the fear of not living up to their glorious tradition. Nerves take hold; legs turn to lead and the easiest pass suddenly becomes difficult to execute.
Argentina have looked a little like this in recent rounds, and now the pressure is really ratcheting up.
Thursday's game has been moved from the team's usual Buenos Aires venue, River Plate's stadium, to the ground of Boca Juniors. At River the fans are far from the pitch, and the atmosphere can be cold. In the quest for a more vibrant atmosphere, the game will be played at Boca, where the fans are much closer and the passion is legendary.
But if the blood is aflame on the terraces, it will be a night for cool heads on the pitch. Might Sampaoli's hyperactive wanderings tip the balance too far? It is something to look out for in Thursday's crunch game.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.