This was what they wanted. Lionel Messi had called for a return to 4-3-3 after the much-maligned 5-3-2 experiment against Bosnia-Herzegovina last Sunday and the captain was backed by team-mates, media and seemingly everyone else. Against lowly Iran, it was expected to work wonders. Instead, it failed miserably for 91 minutes.
Messi began in a three-man forward line with Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, with Angel Di Maria pushing on behind them. The fantastic four. His favourites. "Messi prefers to play in a 4-3-3 with Di Maria joining in the attack," Sabella said on Friday in the pre-match press conference. And the coach added: "Against Iran we'll play 4-3-3." Messi had got exactly what he had asked for. But Argentina did not, at least in terms of the performance.
Early indications suggested they may struggle. Iran, ranked 43rd in the Fifa world rankings, were defending deep - and with discipline. "We can't focus only on Messi," coach Carlos Queiroz had said on Friday. "Because Argentina have so many other great players. We will play against time and against space - because that is what we can control."
Unlike Barcelona's 4-3-3 in which Messi is the shining star, Argentina's system is more in tune with Real Madrid's counter-attacking philosophy. But up against a back line defending deep and handing the initiative to Argentina, Sabella's side struggled to find the spaces.
Despite several good runs, Messi seemed restricted not only by Iran's tight line, but by having two strikers ahead of him. On a couple of occasions in the first half, the 26-year-old passed when at Barca he would have surely gone alone - and the attacks came to nothing.
There were chances. Messi fired a free-kick over the bar, Marcos Rojo headed wide from a corner, Aguero saw a curled effort well saved by Alireza Haghighi and Di Maria missed the target after a rare run down the left. But it was far from the expected onslaught.
The second half saw Argentina out quickly with a point to prove, but Iran grew in stature and created two good chances of their own, the second a header from Ashkan Dejagah which Sergio Romero tipped over the bar with a superb save.
Messi fired past the post at the other end and also hit the side netting from a tight angle, but as the minutes ticked away, Argentina looked lost - and still Sabella refused to make a change.
In the end, the 59-year-old brought on Ezequiel Lavezzi and Rodrigo Palacio to liven up his faultering forward line, and after 91 minutes of remarkable resistance from Iran, Messi curled home an exquisite left-footed drive to save his side's blushes.
Just as he had against Bosnia, their captain had stepped up when it mattered most, but a last-gasp 1-0 win over a group of players who, according to Queiroz, turn out in "an amateur league", is hardly the stuff of world champions.
So it's back to the drawing board for Sabella, because the answer, it seems, is not as simple as 4-3-3. And while few teams will defend in such numbers like Iran, Argentina fill face superior sides in this competition and they will need to do much, much better than this. Messi may have got them out of jail again on Saturday - but it was nowhere near good enough.