Solari: Guardiola? I’d rather keep my hair

We’ve always loved Santiago Solari here at pegamequemegusta, so when we saw this interview, conducted by Claudio Mauri, on canchallena this morning, we decided to translate it for your pleasure and edification.

We miss his fine articles in El País, several of which we translated in the past. They’ve more or less been abandoned since he got towards the more serious end of Real Madrid’s youth coaching system: last week, with Zidane leaving the B-team to become manager, Solari took over the under-18s (table). He coached successive U-16s teams to their respective titles, last winning 26 out of 28 matches and drawing the other two. 

Mauri is quite insistent as to why he hasn’t stepped up to take over a real manager’s job yet, and it is a bit of a puzzler. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez apparently suggested he become Zidane’s assistant, but Zizou already had his own staff from the Real B-team. Yet if Pérez loves him so much, surely he could get a job elsewhere. After all, fellow articulate, loveable, rogue analyst Facundo Sava is even managing Racing now, thrashing Boca 4-2 last night in his debut (albeit a friendly). Solari isn’t biting, though, nor is he eschewing the limelight out of some misplaced and feckless sense of nobility, like a session musician or a blogger. He genuinely does seem to believe in apprenticeship.

There’s also an interesting debate regarding the usefulness of a club like Real’s academy, as per Barney Ronay’s piece today. They process so many players that almost all end up shot out like spores from a thriving mass of fungus. Is this just the inevitable result of searching for the very best? Or are they being groomed as future leverage against other clubs? The transfer ban may see some of Solari’s charges come through. We’ll see. In the meantime, check him out, or pegame, que me gusta.

Solari campeón cadetes

  • I asked around for a take on your work here and they tell me you’re “the most outstanding coach” at Real Madrid’s academy. Are they exaggerating?

  • Most certainly.

  • On the other hand, they say you’re a “slowpoke” in the sense that you like to take things easy, something that doesn’t really fit with a being a manager, given how harsh and unforgiving life in primera can be.

  • I was born and raised in primera. My aul’fella played for 15 years and then managed for another 20 after that. Then I played for fifteen years. It’s all I know. That’s the story of my life. Maybe that’s why I’m pretty relaxed about things.

  • Is it true you were close to becoming Zidane’s assistant? Florentino Pérez has a high opinion of you.

  • I hope so, I’m grateful and every day I do my job to maintain that high opinion. Zizou is with the first team now with the same staff he had at Real Castilla, and I’m working with the Juvenil A. We’ve always got on well, ever since we played together. My dressing room’s 30 metres from his and I’m always on hand if he needs me.

  • Florentino Pérez has changed 11 managers in 12 years in charge. Is there more patience with the youths?

  • At this club the same is required at all levels. The pace of change of the first team is that of elite competition. With the youth team they respect the time needed to develop players.

  • Barcelona’s La Masía is a school with a particular identity. Does Real Madrid have one? If so, what is it?

  • With 114 years as an institution and ten European Cups, Real Madrid is, officially, the greatest club of the last century, not to mention the most important in the world owing to its prestige and stature. I can’t think of a more relevant identity in football terms than Real Madrid’s. And the youth team is the club, a club with a culture of winning that, through humility, hard work and self-control, always aspires to be the best. Now, if you’re referring only to football, of course, we work to produce players and teams who are brave and get forward, who dominate all aspects of the game, have a winning mentality and exemplary behaviour. If you want to talk about style and method, though, they’re going to have to expand the sports section.

  • How would you define yourself as a manager? You’ve been exposed to Argentine, Spanish and Italian schools, but which has made more of an impression?

  • I was in Uruguay and Mexico, too… Every country lives its football in its own way. They’re all equally as exciting, if not always as much fun. The football cultures that have most influenced me were Argentina and Spain, the two places I’ve spent most time.

  • Which manager influenced you the most? What tactical system do you use?

  • All the managers I had taught me something. The best ones are a blessing, the bad ones edifying. With regard to systems, they’re almost always something to aim at, not a starting point. What’s more important is who your players are, their roles, the style the coach wants to achieve; strategy, tactics, the other team, the pitch, etc. The system is the last thing on your mind, maybe the least important thing.

  • Do you enjoy the business as much as when you were playing?

  • Nothing compares to playing. I love football; now I enjoy it from another perspective. And whenever I can, I play the odd match with the old timers.

  • What were the strong points of your title-winning teams?

  • Coaching the A & B Under-16s teams [Cadete A & B] in successive years was a beautiful experience. We won the tournament both years, but in the second year you could really see and appreciate how much they’d grown and learned, both as individuals and as a team. The greatest success, without a doubt, was that we didn’t lose any of them: they all made the grade up to Juvenil C (U-17). With the Juvenil B this season we’ve formed a really competitive team, with second place nine points behind us. Since last week [youth teams reshuffle] the challenge is to get to grips with the Juvenil A, who are currently fourth and have to improve. There’s also the question of challenging for the Youth Champion’s League.

  • You’re more dependent on results now, then, with less of an emphasis on development?

  • Football is always about improving, even in the first team. Results always matter, too, even with the youth teams – at least when you’re forming players for the highest levels of the game.

  • Sometimes in Reals’ starting 11 there’s only one youth player, like Carvajal, who even had to go to Germany to get first team football, before coming back and earning his place. Do you feel you’re coaching players for other clubs’ first teams?

  • On the contrary, it’s an enormous satisfaction, and it’s even tough to compete with Real Madrid on that score, too: besides the eight youth players currently in the first team squad, there are more than a hundred players that came through our youth system playing in the first division, and fifty more in the lower divisions worldwide. Almost all the teams in the league have players who were trained by Real Madrid. Those kinds of numbers are a source of pride for us.

  • Often in Argentina youth players are promoted to the first team before they’re mature enough in order to fill the gaps left by clubs’ policy of selling players abroad…

  • Yeah, it’s true. In Argentina often we don’t respect the time players need to mature.

  • How long do you see yourself coaching youth teams? Do you plan to manage in primera, and, if so, when?

  • I believe in learning, not just for footballers but for coaches – and, obviously, for directors, too. Yes, I want to manage in primera. All in good time.

  • Are there any Argentine players that you’ve coached or are coaching now?

  • No.

  • In Argentina’s youth teams, there’s a lack of full backs and deep-lying midfielders. Can you think of a solution to the problem?

  • Yes, several, but asking me that’s like asking for the formula for Coca Cola.

  • There’s a general impression that young players nowadays aren’t as interested in learning about the game, living it, that there are too many distractions. How do you fight against that?

  • I think the opposite is the case. No kid is made to play football. It’s a choice and there’s no other way to become a professional football player than through dedication and sacrifice. A teenager who goes to school for six or seven hours a day and then has to train for another three hours, and who on Saturdays goes to bed early because he has to play on Sunday, is an example of application and dedication. He has too little time for other activities.

  • You’ve always taken a keen interest in cultural matters. Do you talk about those kinds of things to your players?

  • I’d call it a survival instinct… And yeah, I try to explain that not all of them are going to make a living playing football, and certainly not forever.

  • In an interview with El Gráfico in 2011 you said that you liked Barcelona and that Guardiola’s influence on the team was clear. Although your Madrid credentials aren’t in question, you have a guardiolista bent, don’t you?

  • No, I don’t think so. I’d prefer to keep my hair.

  • What do you make of Messi? Is there anything left to say about him?

  • Messi is one of those things that you know you’re not going to see again. There’s nothing original to say about him. It’s him who’s original.

  • What do you think about Argentine football?

  • I follow it as much as I can. With the last championship it was difficult as I still haven’t worked out how the fixture list was concocted…

  • When you were with San Lorenzo in 2008, [proxy president] Tinelli’s contribution was key. Do you see him becoming president of the AFA ?

  • The AFA is in serious need of reform, in both form and content. Tinelli is a self-made man with unquestionable administrative ability. I’m sure he could do a good job, as he has done with San Lorenzo [Libertadores champions 2014].

  • If you could manage a club in Argentina some day, which one would it be?

  • One of the clubs I played for.

  • Gallardo, Coudet, Sava, Cocca, Bassedas, they’re all contemporaries of yours who are managing in top divisions; some have even won titles. Are you on a slightly different wavelength?

  • I don’t know. I hope they’re all enjoying themselves as much as I am.

  • Why haven’t Argentina won anything since 1993?

  • With a reformed AFA I hope the answer will come of its own accord. In any case, I hope we win something with El Tata [Martino] in charge. He’s a great manager and a great guy.

  • Lots of people continue to question Messi. What do you think?

  • No point arguing with fanatics.

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Celui-ci n’est plus un pibe – Higuaín, Messi & Santiago Solari

Someone who can tell you far more about Higuaín, about contingency, about football and beauty, however, is the subject of our newest man crush, Santiago Solari. He has a new blog in El País called El charco (‘the Pond’), referring to the Atlantic, and it’s amazing. We had to doublecheck when we saw the name attached to such a fantastic piece of prose. Is that..? Could it be… the Santiago Solari who delighted us so ten years ago dancing up the left wing for that awesome, hard-working, downright loveable Real Madrid team? It was, and, dear tired, harassed, perpetually titillated but never rewarded reader, it made the reading all the sweeter.

It’s quite simply the best thing we’ve come across in ages and it’s written by one of the players we have only slightly less of a thing for than Pablito Aimar. It’s an ideal version of pegamequemegusta, without our halfway house wit, our verbosity, and, dear lord, the sheer tediousness of 5,000 word posts. His first article was titled Function and Form. A discussion of aesthetics and football, it includes lines like:

Football is not art as art is neither its goal nor its essence. Nor is beauty.

and

It is wholly frivolous to try and treat a football match as if it were a Flemish masterpiece.

You’ll have noticed the tone, the eccentric, starchy register, the assurance, the perspicacity. In many ways he reminds us of his compatriot and fellow Real Madrid man, Jorge ‘Vincent Price’ Valdano, who’s also given to mystical ramblings about time and space, and a slightly odd vocabulary. While a treat, it makes it harder to translate, but we’ve given it a go.


I

Innocent son that we are, pegamequemegusta always thought one’s signature was just one’s name written down; there had to be a resemblance between the letters of one’s name and what one may write, a modicum of representational ‘truth’. Drawings and symbols, after all, are the hallmarks of illiteracy and backwardness. One’s signature, on the other hand, is a legal entity. It can exonerate you, exalt you, condemn you faster than any god. It is one of the building blocks of civilisation. Indeed, the Spanish firma evokes authority even more directly, deriving as it does from the Latin firmus, meaning ‘strength’, ‘solidity’. Indecipherable squiggles or playful doodles are all very well for Hollywood vedettes or orientally-inclined footballers, but they’re not for those of us desirous of signing the grand edifice of civilisation brick by brick ever further into the sky. 

Hence it was with the dullest of amazement that we shifted in our cot upon learning that this was not in fact the case. One’s signature need bear no more resemblance to the letter’s that make it up than a kebab-shop counter image of succulence tot he dark wet wipe-clad mush one is invariably served. Instead of artfully penning p-e-g-a-m-e-q-u-e-m-e-g-u-s-t-a in cool calligraphy, we might as well sketch an idyllic pastoral scene with a duck in a frilly-sleeved party-frock. Heck, art has advanced beyond the pen and paintbrush, why not attach a stylish papier-maché model of Saussure’s left testicle to the back of one’s credit card? Surely once the link is broken between the admittedly arbitrary reality and its representation, you can surely insist that if anyone wants your signature they visit your docklands installation, where tinsel abounds and nothing is what it seems. Civilisation is more perilously poised than a one-legged parrot atop a lusty weathercock. Incredible, no?

Rather a more twisted pancake, however, is that once one has grasped this graphic disconnect, the signature cannot be changed. Once established midst the ululating perversity of youth, it sits there as immoveable, as stubborn as a matriarchal star. The lines drawn upon opening your first bank account or getting your first passport engender a being more forceful than even the most rounded, the most skilfully delineated character in the most realistic drama ever committed to print. Hamlet is a stick man next to the quintessence that is your signature. You answer to it; it owns you. You must live up to it; you must do it justice; you must make it proud, son. Otherwise you risk pulling down the entire weight of the Occident’s most virulent wig enthusiasts.

Pitiful, pitisome creatures that we are, this is quite remarkable. For of all our gripes about the unfairness of the arbitrariness of the world, not being able to choose barely any of the major facts that define who we are (only to be told later we’re free), this is one we have almost complete control over. Or you do as long as, unlike us, you’re not frightfully ignorant.

II

We don’t always resemble our parents, though, and when we do it’s not necessarily a debilitating curse. Two contrasting but positive examples from the world of Argieball spring to mind like toads after that last ray of sunlight. For the last few years, insofar as we’ve given the matter much thought, Jorge Messi has always seemed a perplexing character to us. An imposing figure, never afraid to speak his mind; an ambitious man who was willing to take some rather drastic and unusual decisions to make sure his weakling son could have a chance to become a top footballer. Not even he could have imagined, of course, what an utter machine little Lionel would turn out to be, nor, even more precariously, perhaps, that he would peak (?) precisely as FC Barcelona saw the fruits of its quixotic scheme to industrialise perfection. Pumping a 12-year-old full of hormones and moving him to another continent on the hope that the treatment would be successful and he might avoid all the pitfalls and make it, what utter madness. Then we saw young Messi himself, already with a few Champions Leagues under his awkward hanging arm, so different, shuffling, mumbling, a tongue-tied Rainman figure. Even last year, the 10 on his back, when he truly began to assert himself in the middle of the pitch, and to make almost everyone else in the game look like a plodding piss-artist, we suspected he’d always remain a somewhat distant figure, one not blessed with a barrier-melting bonhomie or charisma. Maradona made him captain against Greece in the World Cup, but while we knew the marketing men would demand he get it sooner or later, we were sure: at 23 already, this kid wasn’t going to change.

No prizes for guessing where this is going, dear handsome one: Messi has changed. The papers and dials of the Republic are humming like Apu after 96 hours straight at the Kwik-E-Mart, a-humming with talk of the New Messi. Apparently, he’s fashioned out of a brand new type of aluminium recently discovered near the Earth’s core, he’s shinier than a thousand, no, a million suns, and he’s stronger than an ox with a bellyful of onion soup.

Much of it can be dismissed as pure hype, of course, as vacuous as the sniping he suffered ‘ere long: Messi photographed on his day off watching the subs train with a focused air; Messi making eye-contact with strangers, etc. Yet there is some substance to it. In the few games we’ve seen so far at least, Sabella’s common sense tactics appear to have benefited him in that the anxiety that courses through la Selección has been reduced somewhat, and the clutter that oft-times hath masqueraded as a forward line has brought into line like a renegade sideburn. Even in his speech, if he’s as guarded/well-coached as ever, he certainly sounds more mature. He has accepted the inevitability of the press at long last and seems to have realised he can use it to his advantage. He’s learned people appreciate a certain amount of aggression. He’s become sterner, more assertive. These days, he’s more Rudyard Kipling than Lewis Carroll. He’s a man, son; he’s mad Jorge’s boy.

Friday’s 4-1 defeat of Chile, however, was all about Higuaín. Well, that’s probably a tad unfair on Di María, whose excellent performance was a far bigger surprise, given that he’s better known in this cave for being a diving, choke-happy, despicable little turncoat. Unlike Messi, Higuaín was condemned to be born into a decent footballing family (he was born in France, where his father was plying his trade, while his older brother argieballs it for Colón). Thus, for him the case for determinism seems stronger. As we shall see shortly, though, he’s had to fight to get to where he is.

Pegamequemegusta must confess at first we weren’t too convinced by Higuaín. He had been very good for River, of course, but we cheaply suspected he’d be consigned to Real Marid’s Big Room of unemployed strikers. Plus, he refused to go to the Under-20 World Cup in 2007, unlike Aguero, as he felt it was beneath him. Arguably that misjudgment on his part cost him a few years: he didn’t make his debut in la Selección until October 2009. He scored that night (Aimar!) and was Argentina’s top scorer at the World Cup, too. Yet, somewhat strangely, he didn’t really impress. He was there when it counted, sure, but he looked slightly out of sorts. At the Copa América, on the other hand, he was delightful. While Messi rightly took all the plaudits after the hammering of Costa Rica, it was Higuaín’s movement and intelligence, if not his finishing, that had us in quite a lather. The same qualities were on show against Chile last Friday, but this time with at least one sublime execution, for the first goal: 

III

Someone who can tell you far more about Higuaín, about contingency, about football and beauty, however, is the subject of our newest man crush, Santiago Solari. He has a blog in El País called El charco (‘the Pond’), referring to the Atlantic, and it’s amazing. We had to doublecheck when we saw the name attached to such a fantastic piece of prose. Is that..? Could it be… the Santiago Solari, he who delighted us so ten years ago dancing up the left wing for that awesome, hard-working, downright loveable Real Madrid team? It was, and, dear tired, harassed, perpetually titillated but never rewarded reader, it made the reading all the sweeter.

It’s quite simply the best thing we’ve come across in ages and it’s written by one of the players we have only slightly less of a thing for than Pablito Aimar. It’s an ideal version of pegamequemegusta, without our halfway house wit, our verbosity, and, dear lord, the sheer tediousness of 5,000 word posts. Last week he had a piece titled Form and Function. A discussion of aesthetics and football, it includes lines like:

Football is not art as art is neither its goal nor its essence. Nor is beauty.

and

It is wholly frivolous to try and treat a football match as if it were a Flemish masterpiece.

You’ll have noticed the tone, the eccentric, starchy register, the assurance, the perspicacity. In many ways he reminds us of his compatriot and fellow Real Madrid man, Jorge ‘Vincent Price’ Valdano, who’s also given to mystical ramblings about time and space, and a slightly odd vocabulary. While a treat, it makes it harder to translate, but we’ve given it a go.

More than the often dry, static talk of formations, pegamequemegusta is a sucker for anyone who writes about the use of space. A few months back we brought you, oh fancy-free, firmless, hypothetical reader, a translation of a Juan Pablo Varsky article where he savaged Checho’s understanding of space in football. The piece we’ve translated today is principally about Higuaín’s considerable strengths as a striker, but for us Solari makes the leap into true succulence when he discusses el Pipita Higuaín’s movement. Plus, the simplicity of his prose conveys an unusually rigid, a reassuring bond between the signifier and the signified; this is truth. There is nothing arbitrary here.

Enjoy.

The Sophistication of the Straightforward Striker 

by Santiago Solari, El País 10 October 2011

We like to think our kids resemble us when they embody characteristics we regard as virtues.

El pipa Jorge Higuaín was a strong, fearless defender who played for River, Boca and San Lorenzo in the 1980s. Looking back at the old man’s videos, a warrior patrolling the box, it’s hard to see anything of him in his son, Gonzalo, the quick, agile centreforward who’s been making his way at Madrid for the last six seasons. However, there is one fundamental quality that el Pipita has inherited from his father, one on which large part of his success is based – his tremendous competitive spirit.

Gonzalo Higuaín made his début with River Plate in May 2005 and in December 2006 he skipped off to the other side of the pond. It’s not easy to go to Real Madrid when you’re 18 years old, and it’s even more difficult without an intervening spell at another club to help you get acclimatised.

His character was forged in a numerous family, a close-knit footballing family. He didn’t give up when he had to bide his time and sit on the bench waiting for his chance behind the established superstars, Raúl and Van Nistlerooy. When he got it, he made the most of it.

Higuaín is a relatively uncomplicated goalscorer, but we shouldn’t be waylaid by that definition. Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in football and the only thing harder than that is to make it look easy. There are so many characteristics required to pull it off and there are very few number nines who have the full package.

Of reasonable stature, well-built and with strong legs, he has all the physical qualities one looks for in a striker, and he’s lethal on the counter-attack. He is extremely judicious when it comes to picking up positions when the ball is in motion, and he has an innate understanding of when to stick, when to turn, when to stretch the game or drop deep.

Apart from these tactical attributes, he excels at one aspect of the game vital to his position on the pitch – losing your marker. There, where space and time collapse and one’s allies are left far behind, Higuaín moves with the utmost composure. He manipulates space, making room when there appears to be none, or choosing the shortest route to goal when his team win the ball back. He manages to resolve a most troublesome equation: getting free of defences without straying far from the area.

When he looks for a through ball, he makes the desired trajectory clear for the player in possession. If, when he gets free, his teammate elects not to give him the ball, he immediately looks to pick up another position and show for it once more. And yet, only rarely is he caught offside.

Thus, it’s hardly surprising you often see him in a position to score, whether outside the box or right on the penalty spot, as if the opposition defense had committed some kind of error.

And once he’s there, Higuaín is straightforward, expeditious. He is just as comfortable on either foot. He can turn both ways. He aims and shoots with his left as well as he does with his right, and with both he can belt it or put some spin on it. He strikes the ball masterfully, right in the middle, to give it the exact kind of spin necessary: the perfect parabola to send the ball dipping violently under the bar, or fire it finely across the goal to the far post. When he’s one on one, he’s well able to dribble round the goalkeeper or chip it over him.

He doesn’t hang around, either. Every time he lays the ball off, he darts towards the penalty area. His gift for anticipating the next move gives you the impression he controls time, and if he doesn’t head the ball quite as well as Morientes, last week he managed to overtake him in terms of goals scored in a Madrid jersey: no fewer than 74.

The slipped disc that kept him sidelined for several months, from which he only recovered at the tail end of last season, cost him his place in the team and allowed Benzema to consolidate his position. Yet, true to his style, far from giving up, he merely waited out another opportunity.

He was back in the starting eleven against Real Vallecano and scored a goal. Then he notched up a hat-trick against Espanyol.

With three goals in the Monumental against Chile, he announced to Mourinho, Sabella and Benzema, and anyone else who wanted to listen, what we already knew: Pipita’s most definitely Pipa’s lad.

Argentina v Germany – Maradona, Di María and Savaging the German Sausage

Pegamequemegusta has been amazed by how judiciously Diego has used his squad so far. Maybe that’s overstating it: we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of mad, panicky decisions such as those that characterised the farcical qualification campaign, or England’s World Cup. He’s betted heavily on Di María – it should’ve been safe enough – and seems determined to see it out.

Much as Del Bosque with Torres, however, the question appears to be whether he can afford to wait and see if this potential game-changer and game-winner will come into form in time. He assured us yesterday that Di María is fulfilling all his duties and is “ready to explode”. If he doesn’t, though, and keeps on failing to impose himself on games, one of Maradona’s most astute choices could well end up scuppering his World Cup dream earlier than expected.

Regular visitors to pegamequemegusta will be familiar with the regular exalting of violence, machismo and a total disregard for the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Nonetheless, even we were disgusted with the downright scaldy behaviour of a Brazilian journalist in Wednesday’s press conference with Javier Pastore and Diego Pozo (the third-choice ‘keeper). “So you’ve had Mexican burritos,” the filthy bugger began, “but how are you going to deal with the German sausage?” Pozo said something in Pastore’s ear and a bit of a hubbub began to develop as the other journalists there expressed their distaste. The provocation was not taken up and the cheeky Brazilian was left muttering something unintelligible about how his homeland’s feijoada was the toughest dish of all to get down.

It was quite funny but pretty insulting, especially as he wasn’t exactly dealing with two heavyweights. Yet in any case, it reminded us how those nasty burritos had stuck in our craw last Sunday. A nasty case of heartburn came upon us as images of the game came flooding back as if our mind were a hastily constructed apartment in the jerk, sorry, ‘commuter’ belt.

Besides the endless montages we’ve been subjected to over the last few days that unfailingly culminate in Carlitos’s onion bag rippler, we can’t help remembering the look on Di María’s face as he slowly got off the ground after about two minutes with a panic-stricken look we well recall from the first time pegamequemegusta tried to buy shoes over here and realised all the sizes were different; we remember how it took all of three minutes for Heinze to start hitting the ball over the top such were the lack of options in midfield; how Messi’s shoulders slumped so as the ball appeared to grow smaller and smaller in the second half, as if it were but vaguely reminiscent of a toy he had once enjoyed as a child. Thinking of all the possession Mexico enjoyed, the free-run they had in midfield and the fact that only their own stubborn insistence on shooting from distance meant they didn’t create more chances, we struggle to come up with quick solutions for what will inevitably occur in pegamequemegusta’s underpants on Saturday morning if the same situations repeat themselves against ze Germans.

2 v 11?

Nonetheless, our habitual incontinence aside, we’ve been pretty sore this week at some of the less smart criticism of Argentina. The increasingly farcical Lothar Matthaus, for example, upset that Beckenbauer and an octopus have been stealing all the punditry limelight offered his two cents in the last few hours:

“Maradona doesn’t have a clear idea of how he wants the team to play; he hasn’t got a system [we’re translating fromt he Spanish here; presume these quotes are accurate]. He puts all his trust in the skill of certain individuals. I don’t think that’s enough against a German team that’s full of self-confidence, enjoys playing and under less pressure than Argentina.”

Dunphy, too, spoke on Newstalk’s World Cup Daily about Argentina v Germany basically being 2 v 11, seeing as Argentina depend far too much on Messi and Tevez.

Both very questionable views. First of all, it’s a rather facile, churlish argument: obviously if you have players like Messi and Tevez in your team you would do well to get the ball to them as often as possible. Even if the squad had been selected with a little more coherency, one wonders what they’d say. Would they be calling out for Tevez be be replaced by Cambiasso and Argentina be a ‘proper team’ that seeks to attack with Zanetti to push forward down one of the flanks to link up with Messi, Capello-style? Would they be insisting on Riquelme or, God forbid, Lucho González, to play as a classic number 10 and try to ‘play in’ Messi and Higuaín?

Pegamequemegusta doesn’t get the argument. After all, the tactic has not just been, as many have said, just to ‘give the ball to Messi’. Neither has the ‘clueless’ Maradona just asked Messi how he wants things done and set up the rest as he sees fit. There’s a considerable difference between giving him a ‘free’ role and just sitting back and hoping to Christ he’ll resolve all your problems.

Rather, Argentina in this World Cup have tried to implement quite a sophisticated system that aims to make the most out of Messi’s gifts precisely by surrounding him with plenty of options to give and receive the ball. It’s obvious that while Messi is devastating in one on ones – hell, one on threes – you can get a lot more out of him in his general play if you keep him involved: by bringing Messi into the game he’ll inevitably bring others into the game, too. Over-dependence? It’s the only bloody way!

Maradona hasn’t been so boorish either that he’s just told his players to ‘do what Barcelona do’ in order to get the best out of Messi, to vainly try to imitate their play but with the passion the jersey requires. Again, no matter who’s in the squad that wouldn’t be possible. They just don’t have the players. Argentina don’t have Xavi or Iniesta to orchestrate so they’ve tried to create similar associations between the attackers right across the front of the attack. Of course a lot is left to the individuals once the ball is in play but this is what having good players is all about. It’s also eminently smart and ballsy when you know that you just haven’t got the resources to line up with a back line and midfield that’s both as solid as a pegamequemegusta’s biceps and as bamboozling as pegamequemegusta’s trousers. It’s classic Maradona: an impressive mix of pragmatism and inspiration.

Carlitos Tevez

It’s quite interesting in this respect to think back to the travails of Carlitos Tevez over the last three seasons in English football. He had his ups and downs with United, yet even when he was lamenting the lack of goals in his game he found some solace in the fact that he had improved more in terms of his all-round game. There was a good interview in September 2008 before Argentina played Paraguay in Buenos Aires where he recognised that while he was no longer Carlitos the goal machine, he had at least learned to play all across the front line. Indeed, in August he had won the player of the month playing almost exclusively as a number 10, a responsibility he took upon himself given the lack of creativity in United’s midfield at the time.

He was sent off in that match against Paraguay, his second expulsion in two games, and for the rest of the season he lost his place to the new signing, Berbatov. Even when the goals came back with City this year, he was full of self-criticism, admitting in December that he no longer deserved his place and that he would have to fight to win it back. Despite what is often said about his approach to training, he hired himself his own fitness coach to keep his weight down and dedicated himself to getting into the Argentina team.

Pegamequemegusta is certain that Maradona genuinely didn’t know how he was going to line up the team against Nigeria until he saw the group of beasts he had at his disposal in Buenos Aires in May. He tends to say that the idea was ‘knocking round my head’ for a while but circumstances never allowed him to unleash it. It’s irrelevant now anyway: the fact is that it was the inclusion of Tevez more than anyone else that has changed the face of this team and allowed it to play the way it does. We’d go so far as to say that no-one else (in the world?) could do the same job. Pressure up the field, penetration down both wings, quick passing and thinking, power, tackling in midfield and goals. That’s what Maradona’s team is. Give the ball to Messi? Watch the bloody matches.

Di María

Another crucial piece in Diego’s plan – which is rather un-Bilardiano, too, but we don’t want to get into the cheap ‘Maradona is a puppet’ argument right now – that contradicts any supposed dependence on Messi, is Ángel Di María. Unlike Tevez, who only received two one-match bans for his red cards in the qualifiers, Di María got a four-match ban for violent conduct after being sent off against Bolivia in the infamous 6-1 defeat in La Paz. Therefore it took until the Germany friendly last March for us to really see him take another team apart cutting in from the left. In that game, Argentina played a stodgy enough 4-4-2 where Messi was more or less isolated, but the few times he burst towards the German box he left their defenders in the kind of positions that would otherwise only occur to a particularly twisted porno director.  He also put Higuaín through for his goal. Check out this nutmeg from that night:

You will no doubt have noticed, oh dear handsome readers, that in that clip he pops up on the right. This is what we meant earlier by Maradona’s aim to create rolling associations across the entire front of attack. Unlike Tevez and Higuaín, who could in theory be replaced, Di María is unique in this squad. His particular characteristics and package of skills makes José’s new man exceptional in the group. If he plays well, he can widen the angle of attack, pin back the opposing full back, dribble past anyone almost as well as Messi, is good in the air and has a decent shot on him as he showed over and over for Benfica last season.

Grand, we know he’s good. The delectably clever part of his inclusion, however, where another manager might have deemed three attackers quite sufficient, is that his role has deliberately been conceived to profit from the other team’s preoccupation with Messi. With both on the pitch, never mind whatever Tevez and Higuaín are up to, one should always be able to function as a decoy for the other. It’s pass and run, it’s constant domination, constant attack and it’s sass-tastic. Maradona’s smart.

Unfortunately, the young man from Rosario (though he’s a Central man, whereas Leo’s from Newell’s) has played prett-ty poorly so far. We mentioned earlier the expression on his face right at the start of the Mexico match and in general Di María’s looked about as convinced of his own ability as pegamequemegusta does when the missus sends us out to do our Princess Leia impression down on Mardel’s main street. He has had so little interaction with his teammates that at times he seems to be hiding from the ball. And it’s not just because the rest of the team only pass the ball to Messi, when he wants it he comes looking for it, as is made clear in the clip above. It took him 25 minutes to play a one-two against Mexico. Even Heinze showed more of an inclination towards getting forward.

From half-time in the very first match it was clear that things weren’t going right for Di María. Maradona went straight out on to the pitch to meet him before he came off to put an arm around him, so anonymous had he been. He improved somewhat against Korea but he was still a long way from his true level.

Maradona puts an arm round Ángel Di María at half-time in the Nigeria game. It was clear from the start.

Pegamequemegusta has been genuinely amazed by how judiciously Diego has used his squad so far. Maybe that’s overstating it: we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the lack of mad, panicky decisions such as those that characterised the farcical qualification campaign, or England’s World Cup. He’s betted heavily on Di María – it should’ve been safe enough – and seems determined to see it out.

Much as Del Bosque with Torres, however, the question appears to be whether he can afford to wait and see if this potential game-changer and game-winner will come into form in time. He assured us yesterday that Di María is fulfilling all his duties and is “ready to explode”. If he doesn’t, though, and keeps on failing to impose himself on games, one of Maradona’s most astute choices could well end up scuppering his World Cup dream earlier than expected.

Karma

It would be a terrible shame in our opinion, not just because we live here, love the team and desperately want him to do well, but because it was the right decision. After everything Maradona did wrong, it would be a right kick in the balls to see him punished for one of the things he got right. Speaking of one of those things he got wrong, of course Argentina would have more options to replace him had he included Cambiasso and Zanetti in the squad in the first place. If Palermo and Garcé weren’t there, and Di María was dropped, we could have a tougher, more solid team to face Germany. As it is, the team are effectively carrying an AWOL Di María and despite their affection for him almost everyone is calling for him to go. The latest poll on Olé tonight tonight show that were the people in charge he’d lose his place to Pastore (and Demichelis to Burdisso, obviously), a fine, nay scintillating, prospect but totally unproven at this level.

Although the Mexico game didn’t work out perfectly by any means, pegamequemegusta, like Maradona, was hoping for Di María to come good in that game too. Hence our excited exclamation before that game to the effect that the Argentina manager had got everything right so far. If he does stick with the same set-up and there’s a repeat of the possession-ceding, effectively ten-man Argentina against Germany, it’s unlikely they will get away with it a second time.

Some would say it’s karma, they’d agree with Dunphy that Diego’s Argentina were always “a disaster waiting to happen”. Pegamequemegusta reckons that’s harsh though. While we’ve always diasgreed with the initial squad selection and feared it would come back to haunt him, in general we feel focusing solely on that aspect and criticising the team for apparently being overly-dependent on Messi and Tevez betrays an ignorance of what Argentina have done so far and what they’ve been trying to do. We’re still not used to saying it, but all we can do now is trust in Diego to savage the German sausage.