The coach and roughly half of the Albiceleste’s struggling first team needs to be renewed if they are to avoid a humiliating failure to qualify for the Russia World Cup.
“Ooooooooh, que se vayan todos, que no queden ni uno solo!” The chant is a classic of Argentine political protests and demonstrations, which reached their height in the economic disaster of 2001. Literally translated, it means “Everybody’s gotta go, don’t leave a single one here.”
And after Argentina’s abject capitulation to Brazil in Thursday’s World Cup qualifier, the only possible conclusion is that the World Cup and Copa America finalists need a similar clearout if they are to avoid the calamity of missing out on Russia 2018.
The first man out of the door has to be coach Edgardo Bauza. The ex-San Lorenzo and Liga de Quito boss is by no means a poor tactician, as his sterling track record across South America proves. But El Paton has shown himself to be painfully out of his depth at the helm of the Albiceleste, winning one, drawing two and losing one of his first four matches against less than fearsome opposition. A black Thursday in Belo Horizonte further exposed his incompetence at this level.
There was nothing particularly wrong with the 4-4-2 formation Bauza sent out to face Tite’s dangerous Selecao. The plan was to contain the likes of Neymar and Philippe Coutinho in the Argentine half, keep the ball in Albiceleste hands and provoke Brazil into making mistakes that would keep the visitors in control. When Dani Alves and Marcelo then pushed too far forward – at times the Real Madrid man was directly marking Pablo Zabaleta on the flank – that would be the moment to push the advantage and punish the hosts on the counter. It was timid, cautious, but on another day it might just have paid off.
But even the best-laid plans are no match for a moment of magic. That spark was provided by the red-hot Coutinho, who eased away from the Argentine defence and skewered a fantastic shot past Sergio Romero to open the scoring, to the delight of the home crowd. From there, however, it was painful watching for anyone associated with the Albiceleste.
In a mirror image of the home defeat against Paraguay last month, Bauza was painfully incapable of adapting his game plan to that early blow. A team set up to take home a point was suddenly forced to change the game and the result was all too predictable. With the away backline all over the place Gabriel Jesus threaded through a neat ball to Neymar, and the Barcelona star finished to double the lead.
The only response from the Argentina bench was to send on Sergio Aguero, taking off arguably their best player in the first half in Enzo Perez and destroying all mobility and coherence in the side. Paulinho fired home the third after the break after seeing an earlier effort cleared off the line, and the only uncertainty left in the game was whether Brazil would close in on a scoreline reminiscent of their own 7-1 destruction at the hands of Germany in the same stadium.
If not for some relaxed finishing in the last 30 minutes, Neymar’s men could well have reached that figure – and what’s more, it would have been richly deserved.
And what of Lionel Messi? The return of the Barcelona star had been talked up heavily in his home nation after missing the last three qualifiers, none of which Argentina managed to win. But he cut an immensely frustrated figure, comprehensively outshined by his team-mate in Catalunya who ran riot the entire 90 minutes. An entire country were looking on him to deliver and, suffocated by the intense marking of Fernandinho, he was unable to shine.
But when we talk of an entire country, that should not also include the 10 men surrounding him on the pitch. A sad snapshot of Messi’s international strife was provided during that pitiful second half, when La Pulga received the ball with space 40 metres from goal. Around him no less than six Argentina players looked on, motionless, waiting for him to do something that would snap the team into life.
In contrast Neymar worked off Marcelo’s marauding runs, the creativity of Coutinho, the incisive passing and strength of Gabriel and the late bursts of Paulinho. In short, he had a team behind him, while Messi involuntarily became a one-man show once again. The Albiceleste are addicted to their superstar, and cannot function without his magic – and that is simply not good enough against a team of Brazil’s calibre.
In the short term, Bauza’s men must pick themselves off the floor and strive for a result against Colombia that would kickstart their qualifying campaign. They are currently in sixth, one point outside the places for Russia 2018 largely thanks to kind results elsewhere on Thursday. But once full time sounds on November 15, the long-delayed regeneration of a stagnant squad cannot be put off any longer.
The first victim must be Bauza, if the AFA has the humility to recognise it made a terrible mistake in placing the coach in charge less than four months ago. Win, lose or draw against Colombia, he lacks the strength and intelligence to lead this team forward – the inexplicable decision to call Ezequiel Lavezzi up to the bench against Brazil was further evidence of how far he has lost his bearings. But the process can and must not end with the man in charge.
Gonzalo Higuain; Angel Di Maria; Pablo Zabaleta; Ramiro Funes Mori; Romero; even Javier Mascherano, at least as a central midfielder rather than at the back: more than half of the current Argentina team is playing solely on reputation and is not fit to wear the shirt right now. A drastic change is needed, and fast, with a new coach placed in charge as soon as possible to ease the likes of Geronimo Rulli, Leandro Paredes, Erik Lamela, Mauro Icardi, Matias Kranevitter and Matteo Musacchio into the set-up before qualifying resumes in March.
Brazil’s 7-1 humiliation in 2014 served as a wake-up call for the team, the start of a shift that was finally executed once and for all by the visionary Tite. Argentina must use this result as their own rock-bottom, and turn around a tired old team in time to avoid missing out entirely on the party in Russia.