When Argentina take on Honduras and Jamaica in upcoming friendlies, there will be few changes to the Albiceleste squad that has not lost a match in more than two years. And why should there be? Since a 2019 Copa America semifinal loss to Brazil, Lionel Scaloni’s side has gone undefeated in 33 games, claimed the 2021 Copa for their first senior title since 1993, qualified for the 2022 World Cup in style, and thrashed European champions Italy in June in a showpiece match at Wembley.
This would be remarkable in any circumstances. But it is almost off the scale of extraordinary when two things are remembered. First, that Argentina were an absolute shambles at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Second, rookie coach Scaloni was appointed as a stop gap caretaker pretty much because he fulfilled the sole criteria at the time — he wasn’t a big financial risk. And now his team are referred to in Argentina as “the Scaloneta” — the house that he built.
Argentina had previously made a long term bet with high profile, dynamic Jorge Sampaoli. It was a disaster that should have been predicted. Argentina simply did not have the quick defenders and ball-playing keepers that are needed to play the Sampaoli way. The ageing squad limped away from Russia — where they flirted with first-round elimination. With a huge pay off, Sampaoli was sacked. Money was in short supply, and so in came Scaloni. He didn’t talk like a caretaker.
“[World Cup finalists] France and Croatia robbed the ball and were in a position to shoot in 3 or 4 seconds,” was his post-Russia conclusion. “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.”
There was an obvious problem with this approach. It is not a model of play which is a good fit for Lionel Messi. It got off to a bad start. Scaloni’s first competitive match was their 2019 Copa America opener against Colombia. Argentina were all stretched out, and easily picked off on their way to a 2-0 defeat. The rest of the competition was Argentina’s attempts to edge towards a more workable idea of play. They played well in that semifinal loss to Brazil. But with Messi plus two strikers — Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero — they were top heavy and too easily hit on the counter attack.
Messi, though, was clearly on board. For the first time in his career, playing for the national team seemed like the most important thing in his career. He had come across as a remote figure to his Argentina teammates, happy in his own little world. Now he was a more vocal, encouraging figure, integrated into the group as never before. And by the time the World Cup qualifiers came around, Argentina were not vertical and direct. They were forming a possession based side, where the midfield trio of Leandro Paredes, Rodrigo De Paul and Giovani Lo Celso could dictate the rhythm of the game and bring Messi into play close to the opposing goal. It is the most coherent collective idea that Argentina have had all through Messi’s long international days. On song, once the game has opened out — such as the second half against Italy at Wembley in June — they are a joy to watch.
The defence has long been a key problem area. It certainly was four years ago in Russia, and it will surely come under pressure at times in Qatar. But there has been a newfound confidence ever since June of last year when keeper Emiliano Martinez and centre-back Cristian Romero came into the side together. The statistics are certainly impressive. In the last 12 games, Argentina have only conceded two goals.
It would be something of a surprise if Honduras on Sept. 23 in Miami and Jamaica four days later in New Jersey, worsen those figures. But that is hardly the point. These are mere warmup games, serving to get the group together and making any late tweaks — it might be interesting, for example, to see if Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister is given another chance in the deeper midfield role that he played in the last game, a friendly against Estonia back in June.
But even a shock defeat in these FIFA dates is not going to derail the Scaloni project and is highly unlikely to have an effect on confidence as Argentina build for the World Cup. Scaloni knows that his team have to lose some time — he cites Italy as an example, where a long unbeaten run did not prove good enough to get them to Qatar. Given the choice between a long unbeaten run and winning the World Cup on Dec. 18, there is no doubt which one Scaloni would choose. Maybe he can have both.