Don’t read too much into the result of a friendly, they say …
Yeah, but I can still enjoy it, can’t I? Especially a 4-1 win over the FIFA World Cup champions.
And it wasn’t just the score line that Argentina managed against Spain that I enjoyed. The team itself looks better-poised and more balanced, and lost none of the attacking verve that they displayed in South Africa.
The result also seems to augur the continued employment of Sergio “Checho” Batista as manager on a permanent basis. The national youth coach has done more than enough to merit the job full-time, and though he’s had his hiccups as both a club coach and at the national level (last year’s failure to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup being a particular low), he’s got enough experience and as strong a CV as anyone. He was the manager of the gold-medal-winning Argentina team at the Beijing 2008 Olympics. Current Argentine champions Argentinos Juniors also owe him a debt of gratitude, as he was the manager who led them from the second division to the first.
Batista has also shown a keen eye and a sharp mind in his short time leading the senior side, not to mention a significant degree of political acumen.
He’s spoken of his admiration for Barcelona’s style of play and some of that is evident in the way he set up his team against Spain, building an attack that would suit the strengths of Lionel Messi and allow him to move with freedom and in conjunction with Carlos Tévez and Gonzalo Higuaín.
But he’s also adapted styles according to the personnel available and the opponent to be faced. In his first match, against Ireland, he used a 4-1-4-1, transitioning to a 4-2-3-1 on defence (Gago dropping back to join Mascherano in holding midfield). The goal in that game was to solidify the defence and hold possession. Mission accomplished, even with a squad roster that he did not pick.
He did pick the team against Spain, and used a 4-3-3. The 3 central midfielders included two of a defensive nature: Mascherano and Esteban Cambiasso, and one who was more of a creator, Ever Banega. All three, however, helped to maintain the shape of the team, allowing the forwards to stay in the attacking half.
On defence, it was just nice to see fullbacks playing at fullback. I think it’s potentially likely that come 2014 we’ll see 4 different defenders than the ones who played this week, but their roles make a lot more sense now. Fullbacks need to defend and also get forward when needed, especially since there is appropriate midfield cover. Central defence still needs work, and a bit of speed.
The recall of Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti also proves Batista’s political skills. He’s been careful not to say anything to upset the directors at the Argentine Football Association (AFA), but he’s also picked up the complaints of the fans and the pundits and addressed them.
I’m not saying that Batista is a genius who’s doing everything right, but he is being very deliberate and intelligent in his approach. His tactics remind me of the kind of football that Argentina played under José Pekerman (another former national youth coach) in the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Argentina held possession, worked as a team, passed very effectively and pressed their opponents in a more European method, higher up the pitch. Argentine teams tend to drop off their opponents until they reach the final third of the pitch. In these matches though, we see Argentine players pressing to the middle of the pitch and beyond.
Argentine fans always seem concerned that national managers never make use of the Argentine footballing style (“la nuestra” as it’s called). But aside from a tendency to individual excellence, that style is highly ambiguous. Each manager has, in one way or another, interpreted “la nuestra” to suit his style.
Cesar Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo are held as the two extremes of football tactics in Argentina. Both won World Cups with Argentina (Menotti in ’78 and Bilardo in ’86) and both have a wealth of experience in Argentina and abroad. Menotti is seen as the attack at all costs, intellectual tactician; and Bilardo is the defend at all costs, stifle the opponent kind of boss who is not above using a dirty trick to two (or more).
And yet, they are both representatives of “la nuestra”. Like two halves of the same whole. The yin and yang of Argentine football.
And where does Batista fall in that spectrum?
I think most people would see him more tending toward Menottismo than Bilardismo. But his overall team organisation and the way he deploys his midfield is evocative of Bilardo as well. And that’s what I like about Batista (and what I liked about Pekerman as well). He doesn’t try to fit into any category or style, he simply takes what he needs from what he has and uses it as best he can. And he appears to have a skill for bringing the players into his schemes as well.
Despite Diego Maradona’s generally recognised friendship with his players, there doesn’t seem to have been much agreement from his players on his actual tactics. It seems as if Argentine players had no problem playing for Diego, they just didn’t want to play the way Diego wanted. Juan Sebastián Verón’s comments after the tournament, regarding his own confusion over his role in the team, make a strong case for that.
And Batista seems to have been able to do something else that hasn’t been done since Pekerman: get the best out of Esteban Cambiasso. A highly experienced midfielder who is organised and can mark, hold, pass and score, Cambiasso would seem like a no-brainer selection on most national teams. The kind of player England would love for Gareth Barry to become. But neither Alfio Basile nor Diego Maradona have managed to get good performances from him, and wound up not selecting him. Batista showed he understands the value of Cambiasso very well in this week’s win over Spain.
Another player we might soon see again in Argentina colours under Batista is Juan Román Riquelme, another face rarely seen since the Pekerman days. Riquelme is the classic Argentine playmaker. A roving attacking midfielder, moving either side but always behind the forwards. Riquelme, who is currently with Boca Juniors after ridiculously drawn out negotiations, was unavailable for this match due to injury.
His personality clashes suggest he may not be the ideal person to have in the squad if you want to maintain locker room harmony, but his talent is undeniable. If Batista is skilled enough to convince an entire nation of self-appointed football experts that he’s a good choice to succeed Diego Maradona and keep them happy, then surely a minor task such as psychoanalysing Riquelme is not beyond his skills?
If he manages that, he will surely take his place among the pantheon of Argentine managerial legends, and 20 years from now, we might be taking about the next manager’s tendency towards Batistismo.