Should Jorge Sampaoli turn Lionel Messi into Xavi Hernandez?
Argentina is struggling through Conmebol World Cup qualifying without a genuine midfield playmaker. Could and/or would Lionel Messi step in to do the job?
Here is a sentence I did not expect to write. The two nations that battled for Copa America and Copa America Centenario honours in 2015 and '16 may not qualify directly for the World Cup.
Conmebol World Cup SitRep
Alright, so 'may not qualify directly' is not as severe as 'may not qualify at all'. Yet, with Paraguay and Ecuador lurking within three and four points respectively of the playoff position, that, too, is a distinct possibility. To be fair, so is the potential for Peru, with Argentina and Colombia still in its path, to fall flat on its face in the October international break, allowing both la Albiceleste and Chile to sneak into Russia through Conmebol's back door.
The point is, you would think both nations would be up there with Brazil, if not already qualified, then cruising towards said state like the titanic South American powers they are, nary an iceberg in sight.
Unfortunately, icebergs abound. Two are named Alexis Sanchez and Lionel Messi.
Technically, Sanchez is not an iceberg. He is running hot, just under the collar rather than on the pitch. His unhappy situation at Arsenal may have him slightly off his game. With their talisman not in top gear, La Roja exited the international break red-faced. A 0-3 defeat home to Paraguay was followed by a 1-0 loss in La Paz's extreme altitude to Bolivia, from a foolish Marcelo Diaz penalty. Consequently, Chile dropped from fourth to sixth in the qualifying table.
The solution is simple. Juan Antonio Pizzi must first explain to Arturo Vidal that he has it backwards. He should head the ball into the opponent's goal and miss his own. Next, he must (kindly) ask Alexis not to come back for the ball so frequently. Chile have a gifted playmaker in Jorge Valdivia. Sanchez is more valuable to Chile slotted in behind Eduardo Vargas than he is on the perimeter.
For Argentina, the solution is not so simple. They do not have a playmaker.
They fought a difficult goalless draw in Montevideo to open the break. Beating rival Uruguay away was, as ever, a difficult ask. Having crossed back over the Rio Plata with a very acceptable point, it was expected la Albiceleste would take all three against cellar dwellers Venezuela with relative ease. However, the only relative to show up at the Monumental was a disapproving mother-in-law.
Argentina carried play but could not score. With Venezuela parking the proverbial bus, their most promising attacks originated with Angel di Maria, then Marcos Acuna, on the left flank. Paulo Dybala and Mauro Icardi failed to convert several golden chances. Messi, cutting in from the right, missed the near post. Driving across the top of the box, he forced a brilliant parry from Wuilker Farinez. Argentina should have been up two or three goals at the break.
Instead, it was Venezuela breaking. Six minutes after the interval, they found themselves streaking down the pitch, three attackers on one defender. Salomon Rondon accepted one diagonal ball, then quickly released Jhon Murillo with another. Murillo bore down on a helpless Sergio Romero, driving a volley past the Manchester United keeper before a desperate Javier Mascherano could catch him from behind.
Three minutes later, Argentina leveled through the luck of a Rolf Feltscher own goal. Acuna, who came on at 25', when di Maria suffered a thigh injury that will cost Paris Saint-Germain several weeks of his services, bored in on goal from the left side. Shunted to the end line, he played a short cross intended for Mauro Icardi. Feltscher could only do the Inter striker's work for him.
Whether it was the one chance Icardi would have converted in the match or another line fluffed can only be known in an alternate reality. That isn't to say Jorge Sampaoli needs to get his most potent scorer closer to goal, as Pizzi must with Sanchez. Sampaoli has so many strikers from which to choose, he left Gonzalo Higuain off his roster and Sergio Kun Aguero on the bench, favouring Icardi and Lautaro Acosta. Despite a frustrating night, both are quality finishers.
The innovative boss needs someone in the centre of the pitch with the vision to create opportunities for those strikers. The duo Sampaoli relied upon in his short stint with Sevilla, Ever Banega and Guido Pizarro, haven't proved up to the task. West Ham playmaker Manuel Lanzini is promising, albeit young and inexperienced. Putting Messi in midfield would allow the Barcelona living legend to buoy up the squad rather than be dragged under by it.
Messi has the talent to do the job. It would mean staying more central, as he has begun to do with Barca. In Argentina's setup, he still drifts out to the right touchline too often. Sampaoli favours a short passing game. If Leo can be convinced to stay inside, there is little danger the five-time Ballon d'Or winner would lose his way in the manner Wayne Rooney did at Manchester United.
Having spent his career watching Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta unlock opposing defences, Messi knows how it's done. Not only is he la Albiceleste's most prolific scorer, Rosario's favourite son is also their most talented footballer. Such a player belongs in the thick of the action.
Lionel Messi needn't change the number on his back but, right now, he can do more for his country as an eight than a ten.