Jorge Sampaoli’s first training session as Argentina coach must have brought a sense of deja vu for Lionel Messi. The Albiceleste captain has been involved in international football just short of 12 years, and Sampaoli is the eighth coach to take the reins in that brief period. Jose Pekerman, Alfio Basile, Diego Maradona, Sergio Batista, Alejandro Sabella, Gerardo Martino and, most recently, Edgardo Bauza have all attempted to bring the glory days back to the nation, holding the distinct advantage of having the best player on the planet within their ranks.
But to varying degrees, each of those men failed to take home a major title. Three World Cups and four Copas America have come and gone without any noticeable movement in the Argentina trophy case, save the relatively minor Olympic Games gold medal back in 2008. The drought with Messi in the team is near-inexplicable, although a glance at that parade of coaches that have passed through the Albiceleste bench hints at the real problem away from the pitch.
The latest man to tackle the conundrum that is Argentina began his reign in typical style, full of praise for the Barcelona wizard. “Having the best player in the world is always an advantage,” he told reporters in Australia where Brazil, the first test of his tenure, await on Friday. Last week he had gone further, stating his hopes that “Leo, not Messi comes to play for us” – in other words, that he would be able to field the best version of the talisman.
The ex-Sevilla man is as aware as anyone that his appointment almost certainly counts with Messi’s explicit approval, as was the case with Martino and Bauza before him. Keeping Messi happy is a priority for those in charge at the Argentine FA, and the new man’s Newell’s background and close relationship with the star undoubtedly helped him secure the job. One should not be fooled, however, by his focus on Messi. Sampaoli is one of the world’s most astute tacticians, and he must know that the key to getting the best out of Leo is by building a team that is not hopelessly dependent on his talents.
To see how this could work the coach need only look over at the other bench on Friday. Tite has revolutionised Brazil’s play beyond the eight consecutive victories that have already ensured qualification for the 2018 World Cup. But when he entered the job, the ex-Corinthians man encountered many of the same problems Sampaoli is seeing with the Albiceleste: dour tactics installed by his predecessor, a lack of energy in the squad and the hope that the team’s superstar, in his case Neymar, would always be there to get his side out of a jam.
Under Dunga the Barca man was expected to move mountains. The 1994 World Cup winner named him captain, goalscorer and creative engine, a trio of duties that almost crushed him. Now, a year, down the line, Neymar looks a far happier individual when he pulls on the famous yellow jersey.
Brazil’s captaincy now rotates among a squad that is not lacking for leaders and experience, even less so now that Thiago Silva prepares to restart an international career waylaid by his spat with Dunga. The wonderful Philippe Coutinho, meanwhile, has taken on the responsibility of creating around the box, leaving Neymar the sole task of doing what he does best: score goals. It is true that right now Argentina cannot count on two formidable full-backs like their rivals, nor a roving midfielder in the vein of Paulinho, another of Tite’s more successful gambles in the centre of the pitch. But there is no reason to think that with Sampaoli’s guiding hand the Albiceleste cannot break their Messi-dependency.
Paulo Dybala may not be at his best on Friday after his Champions League exertions, but come August’s World Cup qualifier against Uruguay the Juventus star will almost certainly be there, combining with Leo to punch holes in the Celeste defence. That will leave the captain to push further forward where he is most comfortable, freed from the obligation to track back constantly. The possible introduction of Leandro Paredes into midfield will also give the Argentina engine room a dynamism and vision it has lacked ever since the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme and Juan Sebastian Veron hung up their boots.
It remains to be seen how Sampaoli and Messi’s partnership will fare on the pitch but there is reason to be optimistic as the side starts yet another new era.