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The Jorge Sampaoli Affair

Tuesday 10th October 2017

A football player can be artist or artisan. Brush can be put to canvas or hammer to nail. As a manager, Jorge Sampaoli has exclusively been an art dealer.

This hasn't always been the case. When in charge with Chile, Sampaoli had Alexis Sanchez and Jorge Valdivia to add vivid colour to his attack. He also had Arturo Vidal to hammer in a few nails. The balance between artist and artisan led to consecutive Copa America (Thomas) crowns.

With Argentina, the artisan is missing from his attack and it shows. The Albiceleste is in Quito this evening, its World Cup hopes on the line against an Ecuador side already eliminated but intent on taking someone down with them.

Argentina is level with Peru, a side it should have beaten at La Bombonera on Thursday rather than scuffling to a goalless draw. The two nations are also level on goal differential, each one to the good, a stat which suggests Sampaoli's artists haven't exactly been producing masterpieces. Of major import is that Peru has the advantage in wins, putting the Incas in the catbird's seat for the Conmebol table's fifth spot and its commensurate tie against New Zealand for a place in Russia 2018.

While on the outside looking in, Argentina's back isn't up against the wall. Sampaoli has some room to manoeuvre. Victory would, at the least, put his side fifth. Fourth place's direct qualification is also possible. That could even happen with a draw. Even a loss, and despite their heavenly name, the Albiceleste struggle mightily at altitude, wouldn't be disastrous. If other matches end in the right combination, Sampaoli's squad needn't leapfrog anyone. Other sides could fall as they cling to hope.

Nevertheless, if Sampaoli's assortment of creative geniuses could form a collective vision, then transfer it from palette to pitch, the resultant three points would almost certainly put them in the World Cup gallery. Unfortunately, three consecutive draws, corruption within the AFA's executive, and a resultant coaching carousel have left the team unable to colour between the lines. These have been artists of the starving variety.

If an artisan or two were in the squad to provide a measure of direct, no-nonsense play, matters might be different. Still, it's difficult to blame Sampaoli for attempting to build his attack around a master when said prodigious talent is named Lionel Messi. On the other hand, despite the Barcelona icon's success at club level, he's been unable to produce work of the same quality on the world stage in three World Cups. So, maybe the manager should have left himself other options.

One artisan who has been notable by his absence is Gonzalo Higuain. The Juventus striker has been productive wherever he's played, no matter whether he's been asked to carry the entire load or play a supporting role. He was a twenty-goal scorer three times with Real Madrid despite falling behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in the pecking order. He absolutely dominated at Napoli in 2015-16, then carried that momentum to Turin when he signed with Juventus.

Higuain is not in the team likely because his style interferes with Messi's. The Juve striker is direct. He makes runs into the box with defenders trailing, or sets up on the far post to poach, making it difficult for Leo to find space when he makes his trademark cuts from the right flank.

At Barcelona, there is no out-and-out striker to get in the way. Once upon a time, there was Samuel Eto'o but Pep Guardiola traded him to Inter for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, like for taller, multi-dimensional like, then left the Swede on the bench. Both Neymar and Luis Suarez were and are players in Messi's mode, dribblers who like to set up on the outside.

Argentina has few attacking mids who don't occupy the box. Angel di Maria and Javier Pastore are it. Meanwhile Paulo Dybala, Higuain, and Sergio Aguero are all players more centrally oriented. So was Carlos Tevez, in his day. Whereas Andres Iniesta and David Villa would wait for Messi to lay the ball off, everyone in the Albiceleste set-up heads for goal. They can't adjust. Apparently, neither can Messi.

In 14 World Cup matches, the Maestro has scored five goals. Higuain has scored the same, except it's taken him just 11 outings. If the former River Plate poacher is on the pitch for 90 minutes, maybe he makes a Jackson Pollock of Messi's Joaquin Sorolla. Yet, if Messi's artistry in a given match proves too abstract, there is no reason Higuain couldn't serve as an impact sub to change defenders' impressions.

Should Argentina find itself further up the table when matter concludes at Quito's Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa, Jorge Sampaoli ought to consider inserting an artisan or two into his squad so that its work is accomplished in a more timely, efficient manner.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin contributes frequently to Stretty News and is the author of the short story collection strange bOUnce. He has appeared in several other blogs which, sadly, have ceased to exist. He is old and likes to bring out defunct. Although football is his primary passion, the geezer enjoys many sports and pop culture forms. Expect them to intrude upon his meanderings for It's Round and It's White.

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