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Alejandro Sabella celebrates Argentina's World Cup semi-final win over Holland
Watching Argentina’s coach Alejandro Sabella, one is strangely reminded of the actor Peter Sellers. In the 1979 film Being There, Sellers plays a simple gardener who through a series of accidents becomes a political star in Washington. His gardening clichés are received as great wisdoms. In the film’s last scene he is shown walking on water.
Perhaps Sabella’s bumbling façade conceals a brilliant tactical brain. If so, he hides it well. After his team beat Holland on penalties in Wednesday’s fantastically boring semifinal, he repeatedly explained to the press conference that the match had been drawn but that Argentina had won on penalties. He also drifted into a long reminiscence about a game that his River Plate once played against Gremio.
Still, if Argentina beat Germany in Sunday’s final, Sabella may also be acclaimed for walking on water. But the question then would be: who made Argentina world champions?
After years of cogitation, Sabella started the World Cup with a line-up that lasted just 45 minutes against Bosnia. Lionel Messi intervened at halftime to improve the hapless team’s forward passing. An experiment with the slow uncreative “playmaker” Fernando Gago then failed. Injuries further complicated matters. Argentina’s starting line-up against Holland differed in five places from Sabella’s team of four weeks ago.
Certainly Argentina’s players do not seem to regard the coach as their omniscient leader: while Sabella was instructing Ezequiel Lavezzi on the touchline during the game against Iran, the forward squirted a water bottle over him.
Sabella’s initial Argentina was a slow, “broken team”, with defenders who stood watching attacks and attackers who scarcely defended. It depended for goals entirely on Messi’s inspirations.
In the last two games against Belgium and Holland, we’ve seen a new Argentina: never brilliant, but a compact team that denies opponents space. It is marshalled from midfield by a brilliant tactical brain, Javier Mascherano. He distributes the ball, because most of Argentina’s defenders cannot, and has won 22 tackles this tournament – more than any other player here, according to data provider Opta.
He may also be counselling Sabella: at the last World Cup, Mascherano sat on a small committee of senior players consulted on tactics by coach Diego Maradona.
This new Argentina typically only needs one goal. That is fortunate, because Messi has neither scored nor created one in the last two games. He is exhausted and feels as if his legs weigh 100 kilos each, his father Jorge told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. In most games Messi has walked around in apparent torpor, twice performing his match-winning interventions only in the last minute, as if he’d been waiting in hope that the others could do it by themselves. Still, as Jonathan Wilson, the historian of football tactics, notes: “The paradox of Messi: he makes Argentina a better side because nobody dares attack him.” Keeping several opponents near him is Messi’s main service to the team.
Some other Argentines have excelled: Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay in defence, while Mascherano’s latest companion in midfield, Lucas Biglia, ran a dizzying 15km against Holland. Up front, Lavezzi adds speed, though he struggles to see beyond 10 yards. Gonzalo Higuaín has improved during the tournament.
But several Argentine players would make very peculiar world champions. Monaco’s reserve goalkeeper Sergio Romero won the shootout against Holland, but he frequently drops balls. Maxi Rodriguez was a solid pro, but at 33 is distinctly post-peak. Marcos Rojo is young, strong and fast but rather gormless. Federico Fernández, who has played four games here, is an extraordinarily unaccomplished defender who, though now benched, may end up with a World Cup winner’s medal.
However, the bookmakers favour Germany. The Germans beat Argentina 4-0 in the quarter-final in 2010 using an effective “Messi strategy”: one man on him, and one always directly behind waiting for the second ball. Bayern Munich, chief supplier of this German team, have also shut out Messi’s Barcelona. And Thomas Müller will fancy running at Argentina’s 33-year-old centre-back Martín Demichelis.
Argentines could probably live with defeat. The tens of thousands of fans celebrating in São Paulo on Wednesday were preoccupied with Brazil. People kept raising seven fingers to commemorate their ancient rivals’ 7-1 hiding by Germany. For Argentines, this tournament is already almost perfect.