Svensson?! Svensson?! Can you tell me who the hell Svensson is, where he plays?!
– H. Crespo
The cat is bored. No, she’s not. She doesn’t even have a sense of time. She can be nervous or frisky but bored she cannot be. You are bored. No, my dear, you are bored. I am boring, you are bored. You see? The cat may be boring, but only if you deliberately avoid finding joy in the miracle of her confused dilly-dallying. Now I am bored. Yes. You are boring. Yes, wanna make out?
Ah that ser y estar difference, rendered in English as internal -ed and external -ing. What a world eh. Nonetheless, this is getting fookin boring. We miss Maradona. This is getting boring. Another bloody victory. Another night, another one-two-three of cameos in the box: oh Pipita it’s your turn, now you Kun, now you Messi, go on, oh drag it back you devil and smack it round the keeper. Tra-la-la. Beat Chile in Santiago, beat Uruguay, beat Sweden, knocking in three goals in twenty minutes. And tonight, when Argentina play Venezuela at home, it will be in front of a sold-out Monumental, a place where even River win these days. It’s one big bag-o’-dicks love-in. What the hell is a cranky, supposedly provocative blog meant to write about? Full backs? Transitions? Gago? Maybe we could talk about what a jerk John Carlin is; or speculate on why Messi’s newborn child has such ginormous hands.. We’re bored. We miss Maradona.
Even off the pitch everything is rosier than a kitten’s tongue on free cream day at The Big, Comfy Pillow Factory. According to an article on canchallena, unlike previous management teams, there are now strict restrictions on the access of AFA dudes, club presidents and other entitled-feeling moneymen to the players and management. Lines have been drawn, there is a schedule. Sabella is tough but fair, for he recognises the importance of having family around, given how few days the players have in the country. Moreover, as long as these guys are in charge, the AFA’s coffers will not come ahead of the interests of the national team: first comes qualification for the World Cup, only then will Sabella contemplate lucrative friendlies or outings with B-teams to places like Puerto Rico. “I understand business and I will do everything I can to enhance the brand behind the national team, but only as long as it does not interfere with the make-up of the squad or team performance,” Sabella reportedly told don Julio Grondona. The old man must be tired; he’s even going to retire in a while, so much does he miss el Diego.
Love of Messi is, in Olé’s words, “unanimous” at this point, and there is unanimity in terms of people’s opinion of the team – awesome up front, a bit weak at the back, but hey, did you not see who’s up front? Sabella himself has candidly expressed the same thing; he’s not even brazenly claiming there is a balance that will come to the fore with a few more games – and everyone’s fine with that. Unanimous as the night.
Nor are there any of the paddyish murmurings about who should be included in the squad. Of course Argentina’s surplus of very talented players means some must be left out, yet Sabella’s choices, if not frothingly Trappist, can be a little perplexing. Maradona was rightly Tombstoned for his selection policy in the World Cup qualifiers. Some of the players Diego called up he would then treat like embarrassing mementos of late-night tv shopping sprees. The final count was 108 in about half a qualifying campaign and a few friendlies. However, we are concerned that there are also too many token gestures when Sabella names his squads. Although he’s characterised as being staid and serious, some names just come and go with little or no game time, just as with Maradona; or they go from the first eleven to not even being called-up, without any tales of guitars or Ra tunes. At times Sabella’s lists reflect a hipsterish desire for notoriety, validation for being the biggest football freak around. He knows he’s the only guy at the party with a vinyl of Phil Collins singing the Lion King soundtrack in Taiwanese, and he’s loving it.
“Yeah, man,” he told pegamequemegusta over a few rollies, “I know you like Pastore and Lamela but they’re so obvious. I’ve been tripping out with spider monkeys for the last two weeks with my friends and it totally changed my perspective on things. José Basanta’s been doing things at Monterrey that make Jimi’s exploits at the similar-sounding-but-altogether-different-Monterrey seem just darn fanciful.” Further questions regarding the selection criteria for those players called up from the Argentine league, which left out arguably the three most skilful players – namely, Ignacio Scocco (27), Luciano Vietto (19), el burrito Martinez (27) – while including two men who under no circumstances will be at the World Cup – Leo Ponzio (31) and Maxi Rodriguez (32) – were brushed away like yesterday’s Plimsolls.
There are questions to be asked, however. While 2012 was enjoyable with its 4-0 (Ecu), 3-1 (Par) and 3-0 (Uru) home wins, along with a delightful 2-1 away victory in Chile, it ultimately seems pointless to continue playing a 4-2-4. It is highly improbable that such a narrow, weak team could go any further in a World Cup than they did in the last two. They would be found out. Hell, they almost were away to Chile and Peru (1-1) in just the last six months, where it was truly miraculous that the high-pressuring home teams did not run in several more goals before Argentina got back in the game. In both matches the home teams pressed Argentina high up the pitch, didn’t let them get into any rhythm and then killed them down the wings, leaving their topsy-turvy centrebacks munching air like goggle-eyed hungry hungry hippos. The formula for beating them is already clear; to work it just needs a team with a decent defence and/or an inspired goalkeeper.
That the management team has not been able to resolve the problems in defence is no reason to just hope the attack will always get the team out of a hole. Maradona was accused of tactical naivety for his ‘broken’ team, with the four forwards and the four centrebacks, but at least he recognised the need for some kind of a wall behind that attack, no matter how crude. Sabella’s formation is more extreme than Maradona’s 4-3-3, as the latter’s system required Di María to help out in defence (in the end he contributed nothing in either defence or attack, and was the only player to publicly criticise Maradona, who stuck by him when he was awful). Sabella’s team includes more mobile full-backs, and is still considered more coherent.
Furthermore, Tevez’ inclusion in Maradona’s team precipitated no end of speculation regarding macho rituals of pueblo-enthralling fist-bumping, proletarian nepotism and Messi-bothering. Messi and Tevez don’t get on; Tevez demanded he be in the team, and Maradona was too crazee to say no; Tevez being on the team was the real cause of their collapse, etc. If things don’t work out this time, however, you can be sure that there will be no such rush to make similar claims about the man in the ‘Tevez role’, Sergio Agüero. El Kun is much more loveable, you see, more happy-go-lucky, less acid, less funny, less interesting than Carlitos. This means he projects a much more consistent image. Of course, he’s also great friends with Messi, and the extent to which Messi is calling the shots is The Question Sabella must answer.
It is pretty well-known that Messi likes not only to play in the middle but also to have Di María, Agüero and Higuaín all on together. We’ve seen it works to some extent, but if the team is set up to satisfy Messi’s whims, to make Messi happy and just hope for the best, then why all this pretence of sober management and meticulous planning? Sabella in that case becomes a tour manager, a logistics man with free rein to pick weird and wild subs from far-flung leagues like Mexico and the Ukraine just as long as they don’t interfere with the real business, which is kowtowing to Messi. In that case, you may as well bring back Maradona.
The part of that theory that fails to convince even us, however, is that pegamequemegusta suspects all this we-must-please-Messi stuff is more a case of projection than a reality. It suggests Messi is really an ogre hidden behind layers and layers of fake blandness and unflattering ads. More likely is that the need to Please Messi is a sycophantic reaction to the lack of an articulated vision for the team and a lack of will to bring it about; a lack of control.
A vaguely similar but certainly recent example of this, although it feels a tad cheap, is the power vacuum at Barcelona following Tito Villanova’s illness. Of course Messi and Barca turned things around in remarkable style against Milan, but perhaps it was a case of pride fuckin with them. Similarly, when Argentina lost for the first time away to Venezuela in late 2011 and then drew at home to Bolivia, they were at a rather low ebb. Away to Venezuela Sabella had tried a new formation (5-3-2/3-5-2) that sought to shore up the defence and create a solid platform for the attack. It didn’t work that one night and was abandoned. Soon after, again losing away, this time to Colombia, it was the arrival of el Kun off the bench and all-out-attack that rescued the tie and changed the team’s fortunes, leading to the run we mentioned above. It seems Sabella lost his nerve and from then on was only too happy to chime in with the Make Messi Happy Make Everyone Happy buzz. Perhaps a real manager, though, would make Messi happy without acting as if he’s a child that needs to be pleased; perhaps a real manager would think up a way to get the whole team working and so, in turn, make Messi and everyone else happy. Perhaps a real manager would come up with a way to beat Germany. Otherwise you may as well bring back Maradona.
Tonight against Venezuela at home could offer us a glimpse of the cunning Football Sabella we’ve been told exists. With Di María suspended and Agüero injured, he has decided to change shape to a 4-3-3. Lavezzi will replace el Kun up front but Santos’ number 10, Walter Montillo, will add an extra body to midfield. So far the real star of Sabella’s time in charge has been Gago, who has been both a tackling midfielder and arguably the finest playmaker. With Montillo on the pitch, Gago will no longer be almost solely responsible for getting moves going and the forwards should receive just as much service as they do now. If it doesn’t work, though, pegamequemegusta wonders whether Sabella will have the nerve to stick with it or just revert to his super-attacking version of Maradona’s formation. For in that case, you may as well etc.