Military minds are fond of saving that “no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” Substitute “opposition” for “enemy” and we have a fair approximation of a situation that Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni has already faced twice in his brief coaching career.
One was in his side’s opening game at the World Cup. Argentina came to Qatar riding high on a 36-game unbeaten run based on a single idea — a patient, possession based midfield would control the ball, bring Lionel Messi into the game on a regular basis, many of them close enough to the opposing goal to do serious damage.
Saudi Arabia gave Scaloni a rude awakening to the World Cup, with a ferocious high line that forced Argentina into a type of game in which they were not comfortable — and forced Scaloni to rethink. Since then there has been plenty of tinkering, almost all of it successful. If Messi is going to be more sporadic, then there must be more mobility up front — hence the introduction of forward Julian Alvarez over the struggling Lautaro Martinez.
If the team cannot always control the ball then there will be times when a shift to a back-three is advisable. Initial contact with the opposition, then, has obliged Argentina’s coach to come up with variations on his theme.
Closer to the start of his reign, though, Scaloni had to do something far more drastic. He had to ditch an entire project. Appointed after the 2018 World Cup, initially on a caretaker basis, Scaloni had served on staff as an observer of Argentina’s opponents. The one which left the deepest impression was France — the team that eliminated Argentina in the second round.
“France robbed the ball and were in a position to shoot in three or four seconds,” he said in his introductory news conference. “That’s the way football is going, it’s the football I like and the moment has come to introduce this in Argentina. We’re going to be more direct and vertical.”
Rob Dawson previews the World Cup final between France and Argentina.
And his France-inspired Argentina was — predictably enough — a disaster. This was not an idea of play suitable for Messi and the resources at Scaloni’s disposal. The first competitive match under the new regime was the opening game of the 2019 Copa America against Colombia. Argentina were dreadful, stretched out all over the pitch and easily picked off on their way to a 2-0 defeat. Scaloni’s plan had clearly not survived its first contact with the opposition — and the coach had the good sense to row back. During the rest of the competition Argentina groped towards something more sensible, sketching out the possession-based style that subsequently has served them so well.
And now comes the ultimate challenge. Scaloni almost certainly expected to be facing Brazil, or maybe Spain or Germany in the semifinal. Croatia came as a pleasant surprise; a team with a splendid midfield — Scaloni paid tribute to Croatian captain Luka Modric and his teammates after the match and confessed that the 3-0 scoreline flattered La Albiceleste — but not a side with the firepower to pose the most serious questions to his defensive unit.
This now changes, and to win the title Argentina must see off a devastating front four in which Kylian Mbappe is the main attraction in a constellation of stars. How can Scaloni plot victory against a team that he openly admires, and probably fears? The evidence of previous games shows that France can be attacked. France manager Didier Deschamps will surely be concerned about the left side of his defence — where Mbappe does not drop back to help, and full-back Theo Hernandez can be exposed.
An assiduous reader of the game, Messi will find and probe the weakness, and surely Angel Di Maria will be unleashed at some stage in the proceedings. Even less than fully fit, in the last few minutes of the quarter final against the Netherlands, Di Maria lit up the game both with individual flashes and with quick combinations with Messi. He was not needed against Croatia, but will doubtless have a significant role to play on the big day.
Messi and Di Maria down the right would seem to offer Argentina’s best chance of breaking through the French ranks. But it is a case of the old balancing act. How can Argentina land their own punches while avoiding the haymakers coming from the opposition? They might be able to control midfield for parts of the game, but at some point the French counter attack will be unleashed. How to cover up against a level of talent Scaloni’s team have not faced?
Centre-backs Nico Otamendi and Cristian Romero will be operating at the limit — especially Romero, who gives cover on the side of the field where Mbappe marauds. Will Scaloni bring back Lisandro Martinez and revert to three at the back? He might be thinking of defensive midfielder Guido Rodriguez — unwisely included for the second game against Mexico but perhaps more useful now. Argentina’s coach will doubtless come up with some kind of plan, which leaves a thrilling question; how well will it survive contact with the reigning world champions?