Throughout the whole build-up to the World Cup, pegamequemegusta was quite obsessed with the metamorphosis of butterflies and the parallels with Maradona’s thus far untested team (here, passim). More precisely, we did what was originally a clever enough metaphor (clever enough, indeed, to show up mysteriously on the Guardian’s World Cup daily podcast…) to death. So we have decided to change. Don’t fear, oh dear handsome readers, we shall be staying within the bounds of entomology, for our goal is to determine whether Maradona is in fact an ant or a spider.
Nah, forget that, it would be a short post: going back to our extensive comparison between Bielsa and Maradona last week, it’s quite clear that the former is a spider, a ‘man of dogma’, as Bacon says, a manager who imposes a particular theory and style on a team, spinning cobwebs out of the spinnerets hidden in his arse (look out for his unique crouching posture on Wednesday). Maradona, on the other hand, is an ant, not because of his populist socialism and his affinity for parasitic relationships, but because he observes and measures, moving to a general conclusion from that collection of data, a ‘man of experiment in Bacons’s phrase.
It has been pointed out once or twice that el Diego has spent more time than was strictly advisable tinkering with his experiments. In fact, he chopped and changed more times than that time José Camacho was working as a sushi chef (hmm, bit Family Guy-ish). Even after spending three months banging on about and defending his brand new formation with four centre backs which had seen the team smother a much slower, Ozil-less Germany team last March, he ultimately went back to tinkering for the Nigeria match.
Many lab experiments have led to discoveries unforeseen by their protagonists. Consider this: a 17th century German scientist stored 50 buckets of urine in his cellar for a couple of months hoping it would turn into gold (a process Jogi Löew appears to have mastered, boom-boom), but ended up with a lousy, waxy, glowing goo that spontaneously burst into flames – the element now known as phosphorus. Similarly, Chinese Taoists were responsible for the discovery of gunpowder.
On Saturday, however, Diego’s experiment came close to blowing up in his face. Word is some changes might be afoot for Thursday’s game against South Korea. After all, he has insisted his team will be set up as the need arises. On May 22, as brought to you (an English-language exclusive, we daresay) by pegamequemegusta, irked by the journos’ talk of a flat back four:
- Everyday I see [on the telly] that you set out the team, you switch one player for another, that there’ll be four centre backs… But i’m bringin Clemente who can play on at right or left-back. So you needn’t swallow so easily all that stuff about four centre backs.”
- But you confirmed it on the radio…
- Yeah, but since then you talk to me so much about four centre backs that you’d think it was a crime, as if I was a bloody Italian!
What might these changes be?
This is the most obvious and most pressing area of Argentina’s line-up/approach for the next game since the knock-on effects are multiple. Pegamequemegusta was in favour of the lopsided wing-back strategy, as we outlined in our preview of the game. However, it only really works have an experienced player in the position – such as Evra, Cole or even Dani Alves – and it becomes a downright liability when the cover consists of the two slowest players on the team, namely Demichelis and Verón.
For his part, Jonás reckons things didn’t go too badly: “things were complicated for the first few minutes until the team got settled down.” On the contrary, one of the main reasons the team couldn’t settle down was the budget-sized hole down the right hand side of the pitch. The usually loveable Jonás even stooped so low as to blame the ball, claiming it was “whorling about in an odd fashion” before getting into his horse-drawn carriage and setting off for his castle (may not have happened).
Having said all that, the success of this formation also depends on keeping the ball. This is where Verón comes in. In some respects he had a good game: his corner allowed Heinze to put the team ahead and for the first 15 minutes after the break, he did his thang, helping the ball circulate among the assorted cracks. He had a 74% success rate in passing and was the player who gave most passes to Messi. (Xavi, the man Maradona recently compared him, too, has a success rate of 78% in the final third, according to FIFA). The latter – unprompted – appreciated the support offered by his roommate in Sunday’s press conference.
Yet there’s a reason why the ageing midfielder was only given a 5/10 in most player ratings. He squandered possession too often in the first half and, as we said, was either unable or unwilling to help out the floundering Jonás at right back. After the inital bright spell at the beginning of the second half, he disappeared again and was powerless to do anything about the Nigerian resurgence.
In the 74th minute, Mascherano signalled he needed to come off due to thigh knack. It should have been done earlier, purely for footballing reasons. On Tuesday we’ll find out what the result of the scans are and whether he’ll be able to play on Thursday. Pegamequemegusta hopes he won’t make it: we say replace Verón with either Burdisso or Otamendi (Clemente always makes us grimace) and push Jonás into midfield to cover Park.
If he’s fit, though, he’ll almost certainly play. Despite being two of the worst on Saturday, and Maradona being known for a taste for tinkering so notorious fences had to be constructed around many of Dublin’s green spaces, Jonás and Seba are more or less untouchable in his team.
One young man who also had a very poor showing on Saturday but who’s not an untouchable in the team was Ángelito Di María. One brief stat sums up his level of engagement with his team mates: the goalkeeper, Romero, completed more passes than him (16 to his 15). It was a really disappointing performance for a player who, for his dynamism, pace and shooting from distance, offers something different in this team and so needs to be on form if Argentina are to have any hope of progressing through later rounds. He’s a game winner, as he proved in the Olympics with that sumptuous lob, yet far from looking like a mercurial genius who just didn’t get a chance, he was disconnected from the play and it was surprising he lasted so long.
Apart from his relative inexperience, he didn’t really have any excuses. And now that someone will most likely have to be changed in order to accommodate a proper right back, he must be a candidate. It’s what Diego would’ve done in the qualifiers. Then again, it was arguably Di María’s absence (for a four game suspension after being sent off for a straight red after only seven minutes as a sub in the farce in La Paz) that added to the manager’s headache in the subsequent defeats to Ecuador, Brazil and Paraguay. As soon as he was available he was back in the starting line-up for the final two qualifiers.
The soon-to-be Real starlet (apparently their doctors were out to see him last week) seems central to Maradona’s plans. Diego Macías, writing in Sunday’s Olé, reckons he should continue:
“Diego’s got to stick with him. Not for gratuitous reasons but because he could make the difference in this team. He’s the one midfielder who’s got killer instinct. His rise to the elite of the game came in a relatively short amount of time. His challenge will be to deal with the pressure; find his rhythm before it’s too late.”
The question is whether the manager can afford to give a player time to acclimatise to the World Cup, whether he believes his own rhetoric about growing throughout the competition or whether he’ll make what would appear to be the easiest sacrifice: switch him for a right back.
Of the two players that were paired together in the latest official press conference, one has certainly made Maradona’s job an awful lot easier, while the other’s performance raised similar doubts to those surrounding Di María as to whether Diego should cut and run. They are of course, Messi and Higuaín, respectively.
Messi hasn’t changed but the press have: they finally realise he’s awesome. Everyone’s been speaking in the passive voice as if it was some strange unknown entity that was criticising him before. ‘Terrible things were said about Messi’ you hear a lot. If you look closely at the cracks in their make-up, you can just about see the drops of sweat spell out ‘It wasn’t us!’
Personally, though, he does seem to be a lot more comfortable. In the press conference yesterday with Higuaín he sat back in his chair chewing away without a care in the world. As someone who has had to squirm along to dozens Messi interviews over the last years, and especially the last few months, let me tell you that this is rather unusual. Gone the bashful semi-autistic Rainman, in with the cocky young genius who rather than suffering the journalists’ questions has finally learned he can take the piss in the press room, too: each journo was asking two questions at once (one for Higuaín, one for Messi) and at one point the latter just guffawed and admitted that he had no idea what the question had been. “I’ll give you an answer anyway,” he said, and launched into the usual spiel.
Soon it was Higuaín’s turn to burst out laughing: this time upon being asked by a Korean journalist what his impressions of their football were and whether he could predict what the score would be on Thursday. Such a question only invites platitudes or potentially offensive remarks. Messi, mindful perhaps of seriously disrespecting their upcoming opponents and/or provoking a diplomatic incident, stepped in and spieled ‘good players’, ‘organised’, etc. Higuaín was still smirking as he came down off the podium.
It’s the first time pegamequemegusta has seen this side of Messi. My word, with his short hair and fringe brushed back from his face, he looked a bit like a petit Clark Kent. Indeed, the light shining in his face gave him the aura of a saint! We like Higuaín, but cheap metaphors aren’t even necessary here: next to Messi, he was quite literally sitting in the dark.
The Real Madrid striker has come in for a fair bit of criticism here over the last few days. He wasn’t at all clinical against Nigeria, making very little of a couple of decent chances. His first few touches at the beginning of the game were characteristic of a man short on confidence: he lamely sidefooted a dangerous cross straight off the pitch in the second minute, and shortly afterwards he underhit a ten yard pass to a teammate racing towards the box, creating one of Nigeria’s first counterattacks, if memory serves us well. This is remarkable considering the season he’s had and his progress over the past few years.
Was it the onlooking faces of the massed ranks of strikers on the bench, the certainty that back home with every miss more and more people were shouting the-until-recently-not-very-loved-at-all Milito would’ve scored that? Higuaín rejected the suggestion, saying: “On the contrary, it’s great, it’s not a question of pressure as much as it is a challenge.” He went on to praise the team for creating the chances, the lack of which would have been greater cause for concern, and also had good words for his manager: “The hug Diego gave me as I went off did me good. But, you know, that’s what he’s like with everyone,” he quickly added.
As with Di María, dropping him would be entirely justified, but cruel. In this respect, it’s a shame the Greece match isn’t the second game: if both players need confidence, a nice thrashing would come in handy about now. (Then again, coming second in the group would probably be a good idea as otherwise a clash with a seemingly unstoppable Germany appears to be the most likely outcome in the quarter finals). Higuaín’s situation, though, is far more simple than Di María’s: the former has a direct replacement; the latter is unique in the squad.
Pegamequemegusta genuinely finds all this fascinating. Even the revisionist talk of Maradona has focused on his abilities as a man manager and his patent desire to be one of the lads. He has been so absurdly ruthless with his players since he took over, though: even Otamendi has dropped from certain starter to third choice full back in a week! Bizarrely enough, although pegamequemegusta always presumed Capello was a spider, there are some parallels between he and Maradona’s predicaments. Only the decisions the latter takes in the next day or two will give us an insight into whether, with the restrictions the World Cup necessarily imposes, he sticks with his original plan or whether he goes back into the lab to do whatever the hell it is ants do.
We’ll keep you posted anyway, but we reckon a change is gonna come:
I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like that river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will