Lionel Messi is about to play his first competitive international match since the Copa América Final. That loss to Chile was yet another failed summer tournament with Argentina. Why don’t we see the best of Lionel Messi for Argentina? Why do we only see him shine brightest for Barcelona?
The depth, breadth and superiority of his all-round game in unmatched in the modern era. The media focus on the goals, but to twist Barcelona’s club motto a bit: Messi is Més Que Un Goleador, more than a scorer. He can create as well as he scores, playing 40 yard passes as easily as finishing 10 yard chances. This talent was first utilised by Argentina, at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Coach Sergio Batista used a 4-3-3 with Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano anchoring midfield behind Juan Román Riquelme, the most classic example of “the No. 10” to survive at the top of modern football. Sergio Agüero was the striker and Messi thrived as a wide creator, notably laying on two immense game-winning assists for Ángel Di María, including the only goal in the Gold Medal Match.
Diego Maradona saw this success, and Messi’s dominance in a more central role for Barcelona, and followed suit. He moved Messi into the hole and the playmaking role at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. But while Argentina were potent in attack, with Messi creating numerous chances for his team-mates, they were vulnerable at the back and without Riquelme or Gago; all their opponents had to do was pressure Messi and prod Argentina’s weak points, after which Los Albiceleste quickly crumbled.
Things changed but also didn’t at the 2011 Copa América. With Batista now in charge of the senior side, he eventually settled on an XI that was similar to his 2008 Olympic team, but with Higuaín in place of Riquelme – and it was Higuaín who spurned several chances (most created by Messi) in Argentina’s Quarter-Final defeat to Uruguay. Once again all of Messi’s focus was on creating, so he couldn’t raise himself to score against a stubborn Uruguayan defence.
After three years of waiting, Messi hit the 2014 FIFA World Cup like a bat out of hell. The Argentine blasted a terribly disjointed Argentina out of the group stages with a remarkable series of goals. But with Higuaín & Agüero playing half-fit, Messi’s only accomplice was Di María, who after scoring the winner vs. Switzerland (created by Messi in a magnificent fashion reminiscent of Maradona to Cannigia) got injured vs. Belgium. Without Di María it was just Messi and the defence; this was enough to beat the Dutch as they were so terrified of Messi they adjusted their entire approach. But when Argentina came up against a harmonious and confident Germany in the Final, Messi didn’t have the energy or the assistance to carry them through (though had Higuaín taken an amazing chance 1v1, who knows?)
When the 2015 Copa América in Chile came around, Messi had all his fellow forwards fit. Now we would see the real Argentina. But with Tata Martino in charge, things would never be that smooth. Encouragingly, Martino lined them up in a 4-3-3 reminiscent of the system used at the Beijing Olympics eight years previous, with Javier Pastore and Luis Biglia taking on the Riquelme and Gago roles.
However, there were immediate issues: Biglia is no Gago, and more of a traditional European-style defensive midfielder that takes about 10 seconds to decide which pass to make rather than the 1 or 2 his predecessor needed. Similarly, Pastore was playing like an all-action attacking midfielder, instead of trying to embody the more creative role Riquelme once filled. Further problems emerged when throughout the tournament Martino refused to make anything but like-for-like changes, not even exchanging Biglia for a more forward-thinking central midfielder like Éver Banega.
Having to play as an orchestrating midfielder in addition to his usual creative role, Messi once again had too much to do in a dysfunctional system. Argentina limped along, with teams collapsing on him in order to stifle Martino’s side in a tale that should be all too familiar by now. Though Messi led them to decimate an exhausted Paraguay in the semi-finals, when they came up against a fierce, organised and relentless Chile side in the final, the load was to heavy for him to lift the team.
Despite Messi shining as the hub of everything in the semi-final, making the system work through sheer bloody-minded brilliance, Martino dismissed that set-up and returned to a tactic he pioneered while coaching Barcelona: using Lionel Messi as a decoy. It failed miserably at Barcelona, but Martino (who once said words to the effect of “it wasn’t in our interests for Messi to be too involved”) was undeterred!
Numerous times Argentina would break out from the back and Messi would stand, awaiting the pass like any good playmaker, and instead the man on the ball would dawdle, looking everywhere but at Messi. Only when all his other options were exhausted would he make the pass, by which time Chile had regrouped and the chance had gone. As a game plan it wasn’t fooling anyone, and with Gary Medel deployed in defence to try to keep him quiet and a referee happy to let Chile systematically foul him to prevent any momentum building, Messi was in need of assistance. Unfortunately, his most reliable sidekick, Ángel Di María was unable to help: in an onslaught of déjà vu, the winger spent his time scurrying towards his own goal trying contain the raids of Mauricio Isla before going off injured.
Chile seemed to be almost comfortable in their dominance of the game, and as Sampaoli later said in an interview with Radio Metro, Tata’s tactics were complicit in that: “At Barça, everyone looks to pass to Messi. At Argentina, they don’t and it’s easier to neutralise that.” With Messi isolated from his team and surrounded by opponents, nothing much happened beyond fouls until the 92nd minute when the Barcelona man, finally receiving the ball in space with Chile committed up-field, surged past a couple of challenges to put Ezequiel Lavezzi (on for Di María) in on goal. Here a player of quality would have shot at goal, while a player of intelligence would have squared it back to Messi for a free shot. Lavezzi is neither so did neither instead crossing the ball to Gonzalo Higuaín who, to no one’s surprise, missed the target. Another golden chance in another international match (another final, too!) and Higuaín blew it – the third tournament in a row where his misses have led to Argentina’s elimination. He added to his failure by blasting over the bar in the shoot-out as Argentina ultimately lost the Final on penalties.
Messi being the only Argentine to score as Chile dispatched all four of their spot kicks to win 4-1 was a perfect metaphor for why he struggles with the national team. Played deeper and deeper with each passing tournament, he’s asked to be the creator for his country, but has never been given adequate support to play that role effectively. Sensible team structure is abandoned to fit more forwards in; there’s no orchestrating midfielders to consistently set the table for him, no other attacking midfielders bar Di María to shoulder any of the burden. Talents like Banega and Eduardo Salvio get ignored for hapless idiots like Biglia and Lavezzi. Higuaín, a perpetual loser at international level, is constantly picked over unproven but promising players like Mauro Icardi, Paulo Dybala and even Luciano Vietto.
Others let Argentina down and it’s Messi whose quality is questioned (despite leading them to two international finals in two years!) People even compare him unfavourably to Maradona as though Maradona only played 3 seasons: his two Title winning campaigns with Napoli and 1985-86 that ended in the World Cup triumph, instead of those being the glittering highlights of a career that is otherwise littered with underachievement. They denigrate a genius they are blessed to call their own, a player whose consistency of excellence is unmatched by anyone in football history.
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 11, 2016
Yes, Lionel Messi is more than a scorer, Més Que Un Goleador, but Argentina are abusing that fact. The Messi we see at club level is due to Barcelona intelligently augmenting his all-around brilliance, providing him with a stable midfield as a launchpad and ruthless yet well-matched forwards like Luis Suárez and Neymar as running mates. They’re winning trophies galore because they properly support Messi. Yes they ask him for miracles, but they give him the proper tools with which to deliver them. Argentina hand Messi a pencil and paper and ask him to recreate the roof of the Sistine Chapel, and he can’t do that. No one can do that. Until Argentina support Messi properly, as they did in Beijing in 2008, we will never see him at his brilliant best for Argentina, and Los Albiceleste will continue to suffer heartbreak at international tournaments.