Football Features

“This is the uncaring cruelty of time” – Five things learned as Messi magic lifts Argentina over Uruguay in the Copa America

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 3:49, 19 June 2021

In a tense night of international football, Argentina beat Uruguay 1-0 at the 2021 Copa America.

It was Argentina’s 1,000th official game and they crowned it with a win against their oldest rivals. What did we learn?

1. Messi is STILL different gravy

This is possibly not anything new but it is quite remarkable to see just how good Leo Messi still is. With Neymar dancing around with his Brazilian team-mates and sweeping all before him, Messi seems increasingly isolated in attack (if not in midfield, for once) and forced to go it alone. Multiple times against Uruguay the Barcelona man had to beat two or three men in a row as he tried to conjure attacking plays out of thin air – and such is his unbridled genius that he almost pulled it off!

Of course Messi got the only assist of the game, to go with his stunning free-kick from the opening game against Chile. Here he took a short corner with Rodrigo De Paul before curling in a beauty of a cross for Guido Rodriguez to thump home. He came close to scoring on a couple other occasions but just ran out of steam after beating too many Uruguayans with the ball.

It might not be enough to win Argentina the 2021 Copa America (though you never know) but Leo Messi’s one-man army routine sure is absolutely delightful to watch unfold before your eyes. A simply mesmeric magician who deserves nothing but sheer adulation and respect.

2. Uruguay lack defensive dynamism

Despite lining up plenty of young faces, many of them under the age of 25, and putting out a particularly energetic midfield quartet; the Uruguayan performance didn’t carry the same kind of defensive energy that it used to when Oscar Tabarez’s side were at their peak.

That is partly down to Diego Godín. The Inter Milan defender is an ageing presence but that shouldn’t be a huge problem for a centre-back, except if you want to play in a dynamic defence it is, because Godín can only really play in a stationary low block now.

José Gimenez is obviously capable of the same kind of dynamism that made Uruguay one of the most fearsome defences in the world, and so is Ronald Araujo, but the Barcelona man remained on the bench tonight. Tabarez has to put Araujo next to Gimenez and try to forge a new defensive partnership out of these two dynamic studs, because if that works then Uruguay’s defence will be terrifying again.

3. A working midfield!

For years Argentina have been a spectacular mess, where their best midfielder was the purely defensive Javier Mascherano. There’s nothing wrong with Mascherano, he’s a legend, but Argentina have always had a legacy of excellent creative midfielders and that they couldn’t get any in their team besides Ever Banega (and anyone who has tracked Banega knows he’s only brilliant about half the time) has been an issue.

Now though, things are different. Argentina have a functioning midfield! Guido Rodriguez, scorer of tonight’s winning goal, isn’t even part of the first-choice XI but is a capable back-up. The starter is Leandro Paredes at the base of midfield, keeping things rotating and recycling.

Ahead of him are Giovani Lo Celso and Rodrigo De Paul, and what makes these two so good is that they are skilled enough to carry the ball and play killer passes but also disciplined enough to not be defensive liabilities. They work so hard off the ball that Argentina’s midfield is actually very impressive and a source of a lot of their attacks (and, tonight, their goals).

4. The Boys from Salto are goin’ out sad

There are lots of little things wrong with Uruguay (how are you playing a 4-4-2 with no real seriously wingers?) but the major problem is obviously the decline of The Boys from Salto up-front.

Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani were born a month apart in 1987 in the same village, but the fact is that both men are now 34 and will be closing in on 36 by the time the World Cup rolls around.

Cavani’s energetic style of play is now a real problem as he simply can’t run as much as he used to so simply is not effective. Sure when he can move – the one time he moved with a bit of dynamism he should have won a penalty from Guido Rodriguez – he can still do damage but those moments are few and far between.

Worse still is Suárez, the once mighty striker who struck fear into the hearts of everyone is now simply a plodding presence in attack. His movement has declined to the point that tonight he was easily handled by Nicolas Otamendi. That would have been almost unthinkable even three years ago, but now is no surprise at all.

The Uruguayan gameplan used to be to pack the defence and then simply get it to these two geniuses and let them conjure something from nothing. That’s how Uruguay beat England at World Cup 2014, and it’s how they beat Portugal at World Cup 2018. But this is the uncaring cruelty of time, and it means Uruguay simply can’t rely on that method anymore. Most troubling for Uruguay’s future is that there’s no one coming through to take their place, either.

5. No threats to Brazil (yet)

Argentina’s win gives them a nice buffer in Group A going into their last two games and all but ensures they will not be the team eliminated at the group stages (that’s probably going to be Bolivia). However what we haven’t seen from Argentina is anything that will bother tournament favourites Brazil. This is not enough.

Hell if we’re being honest it’s not even a given that Argentina will beat Paraguay, a vibrant side that play hurricane football at a pace Los Albiceleste don’t look capable of matching. But even if they can stifle and stun the Paraguayans, Brazil are just in an entirely different gear right now and Argentina would have to significantly improve their attacking output if they wanted to so anything more than annoy and frustrate Brazil before dragging them to penalties.

Leo Messi might be a genius but in the last three Copas America have taught us anything it’s that you cannot expect to just ride his genius to international glory, these tournaments do not work like that. It’s worked so far (ish) but if they want more, they have to do more; looking at you Lautaro and Nico!