Argentina must abandon Barcelona plan
If the Titanic had reached New York it would have been just another ship ride. The fascination lies in the failure.
The thought kept running through my mind last Wednesday night as I watched Argentina ride their luck to hold Colombia to a 0-0 draw in the Copa America. The game was like an iceberg - an appropriate image given the Arctic conditions - that left the big idea of Argentina coach Sergio Batista holed below the waterline. The project to mould the national side in the shape of Barcelona will surely have to be abandoned. The slavish copy of the 4-3-3 with Lionel Messi in that false number nine position has not been a success - and the players know it.
Watching Argentina was a lot like seeing the air removed from one of those inflatable men. The team took the field swelling with hope, fanatical provincial crowd behind them, ready to show that the debut draw against Bolivia was nothing but a case of opening-night nerves. And then during the course of the 90 minutes they visibly deflated, shrinking in front of our eyes as their faith in what they were doing seeped away.
In part this is a story of the contemporary primacy of European club football, of how the outstanding teams in the Champions League are now a global reference, setting standards throughout the game.
Argentina and Messi have struggled in the Copa America so far. Photo: AP
And to be fair, Batista was perfectly entitled to attempt an imitation Barcelona. It seemed to supply an off-the-peg solution to a vital question - that of how to get the best out of Messi at international level.
There was some promising evidence in friendlies - especially the first 45 minutes away to the USA at the end of March, when Argentina looked worthy of the comparison they had set themselves.
Friendlies, though, can be unreliable witnesses. After two ineffective Copa America matches, one of Winston Churchill's pithy observations seems appropriate - however beautiful the strategy, one should occasionally stop to have a look at the results.
That time has clearly come for the Copa hosts, who, almost incredibly, are going into their final group game still scrambling around for points in order to qualify for the quarter finals - and this in a tournament where only four of the 12 teams fail to make it out of the group stage.
Tournaments are like time speeded up. Some teams fall apart, others suddenly come together, making a year's progress in half a week as the elements reform and come back together in a more effective combination. By far the biggest test of Batista's coaching career is coming up. Can he find a new formula and convince his players that he has found the way forward?
The first tactical change is obvious - the introduction of Gonzalo Higuain up front. Very, very few teams can play attacking football without a penalty-area presence. Barcelona can do it. Holland could do it in 1974.
Almost everyone else benefits from the capacity to take defenders out of the game by playing up to some sort of target man. Without such a figure there is a constant obligation to play perfect football, to have slick passing and moving in restricted spaces plus the occasional touch of genius in one-against-one situations.
Some presence in the box can also bring out the best in skilful players coming from deep, either by dragging defenders away or simply by offering a strong option for a pass - Brazil have also suffered from the absence in their starting line up of a genuine number nine.
One of the most inspired balls that playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso gave against Paraguay on Saturday was the little slip that set up substitute Fred, the only centre forward in the squad, for the last-minute equaliser in the 2-2 draw.
So Higuain will have to come in for Argentina. So too will Angel Di Maria.
I found it difficult to understand the one change that Batista made for the Colombia game - left back Marcos Rojo dropping out, Pablo Zabaleta coming in at right back, and Javier Zanetti crossing over to the other flank.
With no Rojo and no Di Maria, Argentina were without a naturally left-footed player down that flank. Instead of creating space they played into the hands of the Colombian marking. So, to open out the field, Di Maria goes wide left, Higuain is central and Sergio Aguero can cut in from the right, with Messi free to wander behind them. Carlos Tevez is left on the bench, behind Javier Pastore as the first attacking option.
All this armchair generalship, of course, totally ignores the emotional aspect, which is so important at a time like this. Do Argentina's players and coaching staff really believe they can win the Copa with a revamped line-up - and could their faith survive some missed chances or a goal conceded?
Normally such questions would not even be raised against an experimental young Costa Rica side. But these are not normal conditions. The pressure is cranking up.
And to add spice to the occasion, the opposing coach is Ricardo La Volpe, he of the big moustache and even bigger ego. An Argentine who has done much of his coaching in Mexico, La Volpe feels something like a prophet without much prestige in the land of his birth. He would thoroughly enjoy putting one over Sergio Batista - and in explosive striker Joel Campbell he might feel that he has a potent secret weapon.
On paper, of course, Argentina should walk into the quarter finals - they were placed in Group A for precisely this reason. And they could still go on to win the Copa. But if an early goal does not come, it could be a nervy 90 minutes on a bumpy pitch in Cordoba. And should Argentina fail to make the quarter finals then Batista's immediate job prospects will be as sunk as the Titanic.
Please leave comments on this piece in the space provided. Send questions on South American football to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
Q) Tim, I hardly ever read any comments about football in Chile. Based on what Argentina and Brazil have done (or haven't) in the Copa America don't you think Chile has a chance? I know Claudio Borghi is no Marcelo Bielsa, but the players are amazing and CAN make the difference, dont you find?
A) They certainly have an exciting team - the only ones in the Copa to score three goals in their first two games. The tournament already owes them a debt! It's also something of an anomaly that they have never won the Copa - Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia all have.
This is probably Chile's finest ever generation, and there is plenty of time ahead for them to achieve things. But I do worry about that defence - I fear that they give away too many soft goals to be real title contenders - but I'd be happy to be proved wrong.