The Dossier: How Argentina finally cracked Barcelona's Messi code

One goal against Saudi Arabia would see the forward beat Gabriel Batistuta's long-standing single year record, and a tactical rethink from the coach can take much of the credit
By Daniel Edwards

The scene in Santa Fe would be forged into the minds of Argentine football fans across the globe. The hosts crashed out of the Copa America at the quarter-final stage, eliminated by bitter rivals Uruguay by way of a penalty shoot-out after an uninspiring 1-1 draw. Question marks were once again building over the head of Lionel Messi. Once more European champion with Barcelona and on his way to claim a third successive Ballon d’Or title, the little genius was not by any means poor throughout the championship but he failed to hit the net in any of Argentina’s four games before premature elimination.

NO PLACE TO GO: Batista's rigid set-up too often left Messi & Higuain isolated up front, while Aguero was in and out of the starting line-up.

Fifteen months down the line, ‘La Pulga’s’ luck could not have changed more drastically in international colours. Handed the captaincy by Sergio Batista’s replacement Alejandro Sabella from his very first game in charge, Messi responded to the challenge magnificently to record his best ever season for the Albiceleste, finally expelling the doubts that had continued to linger in his home nation over why a player who dazzled the world in Catalunya somehow could not repeat that form for his own country.

While the captaincy and unconditional support shown to him by the ex-Estudiantes coach and Copa Libertadores winner has been crucial to Leo’s development, the real reason for his incredible renaissance with the Seleccion can also be explained in more prosaic terms. Messi is presented in Argentina as a Superman, capable of dismantling teams almost single-handedly; but the modest 25-year-old would be the first to recognise that it is the players around him who have helped him to reach new heights in the last year.

The changes in the system have been subtle, with Batista’s attempt to imitate Barcelona with a more rigid set-up using Gonzalo Higuain as a sole centre forward tinkered with rather than overhauled. In its place, Sabella has favoured using three strikers, playing Messi in a more advanced role alongside Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. ‘Pipita’s’ goalscoring exploits are barely a secret, but it has been the regular inclusion of Diego Maradona’s son-in-law that has been key to Messi and Argentina’s renaissance.

Dubbed “Scottie Pippen” to Messi’s Michael Jordan” by a well-respected Argentine journalist, Manchester City star Aguero has revelled in the continuity given to him by Sabella that he could not win under Batista, who alternated the former Independiente wonderkid with Ezequiel Lavezzi and Carlos Tevez. ‘El Kun’ takes the creative pressure off Messi’s back, dropping deep to find the ball in midfield and combining with his forward partners to ensure that when the Blaugrana forward does receive the ball, it is with the goal well within his sights.

A MAN REBORN: Playing alongside two fellow forwards as well as the advanced Di Maria, Messi has options and support in the final third.

A perfect example can be seen in the Barca star’s first strike in October’s 3-0 demolition of Uruguay. Striding towards the area, the Messi of 2011 would have been isolated from his team-mates and forced to either lay the ball off or go it alone. Now though, he has Aguero right by his side. ‘Kun’ has the option to take the ball himself as his team-mate continues into the area, but he leaves it for Di Maria who threads in a perfect pass for his captain, finished impeccably to put the Albiceleste into the lead. It was a goal worthy of Camp Nou, Xavi and Iniesta, but 100 per cent made in Argentina.

The bold inclusion of Di Maria in a three-man midfield also merits discussion, as the Real Madrid player performs a key role in the new-look Argentina side. Primarily an attacking option, when the team breaks rapidly Angel serves effectively as a fourth forward, leaving Fernando Gago and Javier Mascherano to hold the fort in the middle while he makes the left flank his own. While the attacking trident is given free rein to move across the field - even ‘Pipita’, who in Sabella’s scheme loves to drift out to the right and, as he proved with a stunning strike against Chile can do so to devastating effect - Di Maria is far more rigid in his play, aiming to draw his full-back out wide and open up spaces behind the defence.

It is a cavalier style of play that does occasionally leave Argentina exposed at the back, which is one reason that the full-back position continues to be the side’s Achilles heel. But with an incredible seven wins out of eight in 2012, including four World Cup qualifying victories that have propelled the giants to the top of the table, no-one can argue with its results in the opposition area.

Neither with the effect it has had on the Albiceleste’s captain and idol. Messi has netted 12 goals this year, equalling the record set by the incomparable Gabriel Batistuta back in 1998 for a single year. Just one more in Argentina’s last outing of the year this Tuesday against Saudi Arabia will put the Rosario native over ‘Batigol’s’ feat; and, in the international form of his life and with a team taking down all comers, few would bet against the whizzkid writing his name yet again into the record books.

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