Every season we see football stars rise through the ranks and have their breakthrough season. We see iconic players leave the field for retirement and we see skilful players hit their peak. But some things never change, we are constantly admiring, criticising and comparing Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. At an individual level, they’ve won it all. At club level, they’ve won it all. But at an international level for Argentina and Portugal, they’ve never had the success we all expected. That is of course until Ronaldo’s Portugal won the European Championships in 2016 putting huge amounts of pressure on Messi to perform in what might be his final World Cup tournament and so far he hasn’t delivered. So what’s going on with Messi and Argentina, why isn’t it working?
I’m a firm believer that Lionel Messi is the greatest footballer of all time and while many agree with me, many also disagree. His unique dribbling ability, outstanding passing, explosive pace and fierce shooting make him the best in the world. He’s won everything there is to win at Barcelona and he does it year after year surrounded by different generations of players. He drops deep, picks up the ball and drives at defences producing goal after goal and assist after assist no matter the opposition. Ronaldo obviously also possesses these traits but not so much the passing and assisting. He’s a goalscorer, and the best at that but in terms of overall footballing ability; to beat a man, to make a pass, to finish under pressure, Messi comes out on top in my opinion.
However, this isn’t about comparing their individual brilliance but rather their performance with their national teams. Yes, Ronaldo won the Euro’s but in all honesty, the achievement in itself isn’t that admirable if you break it down. They finished 3rd in their group behind Iceland and Hungary drawing all three of their games and having a zero goal difference. Then they beat Croatia in extra time after being dominated all game in the Round of 16. They then required penalties to get past a fairly average Poland side in the Quarter-finals. Progressed to avoid Germany and France in the Semifinals and get the dream draw of Wales, and then in the final Ronaldo didn’t even play. So if you look at it like that, neither Ronaldo or Messi have actually lived fully up to expectations at the international level. So why doesn’t it work for Messi?
So far at Russia 2018, Argentina have struggled. They were tipped to come out on top in a group of Nigeria, Iceland and Croatia. They drew their opening game against Iceland 1-1 and while Messi did miss a penalty, Argentina also missed out on a penalty that should have been awarded. At the end of the day, anyone can miss a penalty, Messi doesn’t have the best record from the penalty spot but everyone misses them and Messi’s miss came at an unfortunate time. On another day, that game could have easily gone Argentina’s way with a win setting them off on a good start in their World Cup campaign.
When it came to their biggest game against Croatia, they crumbled. A change in formation prior to the game was unnecessary and left them fully exposed at the back. They started their first game against Iceland with the experience of Rojo and Otamendi in the centre of defence with Biglia and Mascherano providing solidity in midfield. A good spine allowed them to have freedom in attack with Messi, Aguero and Di Maria but questions were immediately asked about the absence of Dybala. The Juventus attacker deserved a spot in the starting lineup over Meza and again missed out when they converted to a 3-4-3 against Croatia. The 3-4-3 might have worked with a more defensive minded midfield and defence but instead, Sampaoli decided to start a back three consisting of two fullbacks (Tagliafico and Mercado) with Otamendi in between. Even more surprisingly, the left and right midfielders (Acuna and Salvio) weren’t providing any additional defensive cover playing very attacking. Biglia was dropped and replaced by Enzo Perez in the centre of the park leaving the defence even more exposed. All the changes clearly unsettled the Argentinian team and Croatian attackers had a lot of space to work in. The absence of Dybala and Di Maria from the starting lineup also meant that Argentina had all their hopes resting on the shoulders of Messi and Aguero.
When Croatia’s goal did come, it came stupidly. A gift from Caballero allowed Croatia to sit back and defend their lead. Messi’s good but up against a block of 10 defenders with Aguero being the only other real option to score, he stood no chance. Even when Higuain and Dybala did come on, it was after Pavon, who offered no additional support up front. Higuain came on at the cost of Aguero, their only goalscorer at the tournament so far. After the goal, all Croatia had to do was sit out the Argentinian attacks which predominately came down the left-hand side rather than the right where Messi was waiting and then they could counter and when they did, Croatia deserve lots of credit for their efficiency in attack scoring two brilliant goals. Messi, like the rest of us, was left dumbfounded by Argentina’s complete and utter defensive collapse, and of course, the media shun the spotlight on him as a “fraud” and clearly not as good as Ronaldo.
I don’t think Argentina’s failure has anything to do with Messi, but rather the whole team. Ronaldo’s Portugal doesn’t have the same world-class stars like Aguero, Higuain, Dybala, Di Maria, but overall, they have a good team in all departments. They have a fantastic keeper in Rui Patricio, experienced defenders in Pepe and Fonte, creativity in midfield with skilful players like Nani, Quaresma, Moutinho and many more and of course Ronaldo himself up front. In the Argentina team, not only do they lack a good goalkeeper and defensive stability but they also lack a clear style of play and never play their best players. One of the obvious problems for Argentina is that all their best players play in attack, and there simply isn’t room for all of them. Higuain, Icardi, Aguero are all fantastic players but only one can start.
In the Argentinian team, Messi is also expected to do a lot more than Ronaldo is for Portugal. Ronaldo’s role in the Portugal team is clear, he stays up front, waits for the ball to come to him and then scores the goals. A lot more is asked of Messi with Argentina; he is expected to drop deep and pick up the ball and move with it but his teammates around him like Pavon, Salvio and Acuna are nowhere near the calibre of Dybala and Di Maria and don’t help him out whatsoever. I think in the final game against Nigeria, Messi can show his class if Sampaoli fields the best team possible. Caballero must be dropped and the formation should revert back to the 4-2-3-1 and in my opinion, here’s how they can do it:
Romero; Mercado, Otamendi, Rojo, Tagliafico; Biglia, Mascherano; Di Maria, Dybala, Messi; Aguero
So overall, I don’t believe that Argentina’s struggles are down to Messi. I think poor coaching and too much expected of Messi is what’s holding them back. Poor team selection, a clear lack of desire to win and defensive chaos doesn’t help either. Messi is one of the greatest players to ever grace the football pitch and he’ll go back to Barcelona and he’ll perform at the highest level again and everyone will go back to worshipping him as the “GOAT”. He is an unbelievable player and we are lucky to watch him play week in week out, we shouldn’t be slating him but instead admiring him for all the brilliant performances he has shown since he began his career. He clearly struggles with the Argentinian team and perhaps the expectation to live up to the heights of Maradona is a weighing burden on him. Regardless, Argentina has problems, and if Messi is to go out of World Cup football with pride he must step up against Nigeria and prove once and for all that no matter the situation, no matter the opposition, no matter his teammates, no matter the tactics, he is the greatest player on Earth.
Will Argentina overcome these problems in their final game against Nigeria? What are the reasons for Messi’s struggles with Argentina and what should they change if they do hope to get out of the group stage? I think it’s down to the team, many think it’s down to Messi. Let us know what you think @AllOutFootball_ or using the #AOF.