Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Few foresaw such a tragic twist to the Jorge Sampaoli story; and, yet, here we are. An unqualified managerial success beyond his home country of Argentina, Sampaoli’s hand on the tiller seemed certain to return the Albiceleste to glory.
But now Argentina are facing elimination from this World Cup at the first hurdle. And Sampaoli, just one year after securing his dream job, is staring failure in the face for the first time. He only has himself to blame.
Cowed by player-power, Sampaoli moved away from his preferred back-three for Argentina’s opener against Iceland. But a fluid 4-2-3-1 could not unlock the best of Lionel Messi, who found his usual zone-of-influence crowded out by both the opposition, and teammate Maximiliano Meza. Meanwhile, in defence, the players’ favoured four-man rearguard looked vulnerable every time the ball entered the Argentinian area.
As such, Sampaoli decided to do it his way for this crunch Croatia meeting; with disastrous results. The back-three with which he led Chile to the Copa America holy grail was reinstituted. Crucially, however, the defensive solidity exhibited by that particular La Roja side was notable by its absence.
Given that wing-backs Marcos Acuna and Eduardo Salvio played like the wingers they actually are, and both Meza and Messi proved totally disinterested in tracking back, the only mystery is how Croatia only won by three goals here.
Meza and Messi’s shared indifference to defending often forced Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez to form a measly bank-of-two in front of their defence. This chronic lack of midfield bodies, paired with Sampaoli’s customarily high defensive line, spelled near-disaster for the Albiceleste on several first-half occasions.
Playmakers Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric were presented with all the time in the world to thread passes in behind Sampaoli’s prone defence.
Indeed, a Rakitic pass should have had Zlatko Dalic’s side ahead inside five minutes, after Ivan Perisic exploited the space behind Salvio to test Willy Caballero. And, later, Meza’s continual refusal to track right-back Sime Vrsaljko coughed up two clear Croat chances; one of which Mario Mandzukic somehow contrived to head wide.
Dalic erred slightly in switching his wingers midway through the first-half. Had Modric freed the both-footed Perisic — rather than Ante Rebic — at the death, Argentina surely would have trooped in a goal down. Instead, the fiery Fiorentina winger, who was exceedingly lucky to survive a red card here, fluffed his lines.
Characteristic brutality aside, Rebic endured an appalling first-half, singlehandedly causing eight turnovers, committing five fouls, and erring to gift Perez Argentina’s only gilt-edged chance of the game. But, later, the 24-year-old did redeem himself somewhat with a technically-perfect opener, as Croatia’s tactic of pressing high at restarts paid an unexpected dividend.
Pressed four-against-three throughout the first-half, as Modric joined the Croat forwards in forcing Willy Caballero and his defence long, Sampaoli’s back-line endured some really hairy moments. Ultimately therefore, Caballero’s miscue, in the process of lofting a suicidal short pass to Gabriel Mercado, was not particularly surprising. Rebic capitalised.
Sampaoli’s stubborn response was incredible. Although three forwards — Gonzalo Higuain, Cristian Pavon and Paulo Dybala — were introduced in installments, the back-three was never jettisoned. As far as anyone could tell, at least; if Argentina were shapeless before the opener, no adjective exists to do justice to the mess that pervaded in its wake.
On occasion, Argentina did exploit space either side of Croatia’s holding midfielder Marcelo Brozovic; particularly behind the more advanced Modric. Perez, who wasn’t even on the plane until Manuel Lanzini’s late injury, twice used that inside-left pocket to thread through-balls — one either side of the break.
Messi, who again cut a peripheral and frustrated figure, couldn’t reach the lofted first. And Higuain cut back the second from the byline, only to see Meza strike straight at Daniel Subasic. That flub would prove to be the only chance Sampaoli’s side fashioned after Rebic’s opener.
Only Croatia looked likely. Substitute Andrej Kramaric wasted several promising counterattacks directed in-behind the ever-advanced Salvio. But, eventually, Modric turned one into a stunner from range. And Rakitic added the gloss in injury-time; from yet another fast-break.
From start to finish, therefore, Argentina were wide open and there for the taking. Sampaoli did it his way, his players looked like strangers in the night, and his goalkeeper did something stupid.
The best is not yet to come. And if this rubbish persists against Nigeria, Messi and co. won’t be flying to the moon; they’ll be flying home.
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112