An article from a friend of mine, Andre Sooklal (who hails from Trinidad & Tobago) a blogger of Extra Time TV and also currently a OPTA Correspondent at the Copa America (yep, he’s living the dream!). Do have a read on this.
Argentina definitely have had their share of problems leading up to the Copa Centenario: The threat to boycott the tournament, Messi’s court case, an injury riddled squad with very notable omissions just to name a few. To add to all this Argentina had the task of starting the first game against a very tough Chile team which robbed them of the international glory that they so desperately seek. It seems they had all the excuses and then some to not give a top notch display. Questions were asked of Argentina and they responded emphatically.
Without Messi the Albiceleste came away victors against a very strong Chile with a 2-1 victory with goals from Di Maria and Banega and, despite the close score line, Argentina were very much deserved winners. The result made two very clear statements: firstly, this Argentina team is not just Messi plus ten other guys but a team that is very formidable without their star man and, secondly, defeating the current champions in the first game was definitely letting everyone know that this team means business. With Aguero and Messi on the bench for the first game, Argentina still managed a top display against a top Chile team. Argentina went on to break down a stubborn Panama team who were eventually obliterated by Messi who masterfully executed a hatrick that must have given the Panamanians nightmares after the match. To Top things off Argentina, with qualification assured, flexed their muscles by switching up the line-up with Rojo, Mercado, Mascherano, Gaitan and Di Maria (injured) and executed a masterclass in football. Argentina, simply put, outclassed their opponents who obviously set up to defend and neutralize but only succeeded in getting out played; All this with no Messi! Messi would eventually make his way onto the field in the second half and definitely made it his business to entertain the crowd. The game ended 3-0 and Argentina secured their semi-final spot against Venezuela.
It must be mentioned that Martino’s use of the 4-3-3 formation looked way more tactically flexible than it did in the last Copa America. The back four look solid, the center back pairing of Manchester City’s Otamendi and Everton’s Funes Mori look the part. The wingback area, which was a concern before the tournament was equally impressive with Rojo and Gabriel Mercado looking solid both defensively and offensively. Banega has finally come into his own after years of not really showing his true potential. His ability to not just create but connect the defence and forward line is very impressive. He seems to have finally adjusted the physical side of his game necessary to make him a true midfield leader. Mascherano has been at his monstrous best and newcomers Augusto Fernandez and Kranvitter have slipped into Tata’s system perfectly. With the absence of Messi, Angel Di Maria, Higuain and Augero have looked very sharp but Nicholas Gaitan when called upon to fill the shoes of Messi did his part perfectly. He did not try to be Messi but did what he is good at, which is beating players on the wing and creating opportunities. Romero, outside that moment of madness against Chile, always looks like a man possessed when playing for his national team. One can sit and talk about the individual qualities of the entire squad all day but the characteristic that really makes Argentina stand out is their ability to regain possession with such speed and efficiency. To sustain such pressure for ninety minutes is always difficult but the team pulled it off. The team when not in possession of the ball is fantastic to watch. What really epitomizes the dominance is the mind-blowing 82 percent possession in the Bolivia game, and not just possession for possession sake but actual penetration and purpose to the play.
One possible area of concern is the overall fitness of the team with the likes of Di Maria, Messi, Biglia, Mercado and Pastore picking up injuries. The true depth of the team will be tested in the knock out stages. So far, despite all these concerns, Argentina showed that the players who stepped in were certainly more than capable in the group stage. However, in the knock-out stages a fully fit squad would be something that Martino would love to have. Many argued before the tournament started that Martino should have dropped the injured players for players who were in better condition. So far the gamble has paid off for Martino but only time will tell if he was justified or not.
Another area that maybe has to be taken into consideration, due to the high intensity style of play adopted by Martino who is a student of the methodologies of none other than Marcelo Bielsa, is the ability to sustain that style throughout the tournament. The players have all come off from long seasons so Martino will definitely have to ensure he makes the correct decisions to avoid further injuries and burnouts. In the past Argentina have stormed to three Copa America finals in recent years only to run out of gas in the finals. This is something Martino will definitely be looking to avoid this time around.
Of course it would be wildly premature to say Argentina are surely going win the trophy due to the nature of football and Argentina’s history in recent times but they are certainly looking the part.
With performances like this it is easy to see how the pre-tournament concerns about certain players not being in the squad have been swept aside for now. Argentina’s next opponent is Venezuela and if Tata can manage to have a fully fit squad it is not unreasonable to see Argentina, being cautiously optimistic, going all the way this time around.