The World Cup in Russia is seen by most as Argentina’s last opportunity for major honours with their so-called golden generation, but having leaned so heavily on the same group of players for so long and falling just short on three occasions, Edgardo Bauza now faces the task of integrating and reshaping the national team with an eye beyond 2018.
La Albiceleste have stumbled along the marathon course of South American World Cup qualification into something of a crisis this week after defeat to Paraguay at home and if anything has become clear besides the Argentine Football Association’s (AFA) perpetual incompetence, it is the dependency on Lionel Messi. Argentina’s win ratio plummets from a perfect three wins from three with the mercurial Messi to a worrying one win, four draws and two defeats from seven matches without him.
Argentina haven’t produced the type of listless displays seen against Peru and Paraguay since Diego Maradona’s tenure in 2010 and the likes of Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín suddenly appear very ordinary.
Only as a result of injury have some of the next generation been presented with an opportunity to audition for their future roles, with Juventus’ Paulo Dybala stepping into Messi’s boots and Sevilla’s Matías Kranevitter getting a chance to play alongside Javier Mascherano in the absence of Lucas Biglia.
Dybala has been sensational over the past couple of years in Italy, and although Kranevitter has found the transition to European football a little more testing, the 23-year-old has remained a regular in the Argentina squad and is still considered the heir to Javier Mascherano in front of the back four. Arguably, both players could have made the step-up to the senior side far sooner and there are numerous further examples of young players waiting in the wings. Injuries have forced the hand of Edgardo Bauza somewhat in the most recent round of World Cup qualifiers but is El Patón guilty of following in the footsteps of Gerardo Martino and failing to begin the process of evolution soon enough?
The changing of the guard
It is perhaps unfair to be calling for major changes from Edgardo Bauza already given that the Copa Libertadores winning coach has had almost no time in the hot seat and has named only two squads. However, the 58-year-old’s game management this week could be called into serious question – from his persistence with Sergio Agüero in an ineffective number 10 role to the inclusion of a 35-year-old Martín Demichelis in central defence.
His apparent dependency on the established old guard leads into the second caveat – nearly all of the generation that have played a part in the three consecutive final defeats remain outstanding footballers at club level. However, how much do three finals defeats and the criticism received affect the mentality of these players? Gonzalo Higuaín, unquestionably the target of most supporters’ frustration, will likely plunder goals once more in Serie A this season but is he to be trusted in another major final?
The conundrum facing any Argentina coach is just how to go about implementing this transition to integrate a pool of younger players that will carry the side forward beyond Russia while ensuring that results in the present remain strong and qualification is secured.
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Alejandro Sabella took the oldest average squad to Brazil in 2014, and while Hugo Campagnaro at 33 was far from the oldest player at the tournament, there was a noticeable absence of players from the generation post-Pékerman’s youth team revolution. Marcos Rojo, the youngest at 24, was hardly an inexperienced novice bursting onto the international scene and it represented a pattern set in motion when Lionel Messi and the other under-20 graduates began filtering through.
José Pékerman’s vision
José Pékerman understood the importance of the youth system and under his guidance Argentina enjoyed a period of supreme dominance at under-20 level in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Three World Youth Cups had preceded the two lifted under the stewardship of Pekerman’s successors in 2005 and 2007, but it is from this group that Argentina still draws so heavily.
The AFA’s failure in this department and the subsequent nosedive in results at under-20 and under-17 level have unquestionably stemmed the flow and made this job much harder but it is no less vital now.
While in recent years the connect between youth divisions and the senior side has been virtually severed, for the World Cup in 2006 it couldn’t have been more healthy with Pékerman himself moving up to coach the national team and an 18-year-old Lionel Messi and 20-year-old Javier Mascherano filtering through. The average age of that Argentina squad in Germany was 26.1, four years on under Diego Maradona it had increased to 27.1, as a few more of those 2005 and 2007 youth sides graduated, and in 2014 it was up to 28.9.
Two years on, the starting line-up still looks very similar and while Gerardo Martino brought a couple of the younger players into the squad, none really integrated into the side with a view that they could be starting in Russia.
In his short tenure thus far Edgardo Bauza hasn’t made any noticeable changes, although Paulo Dybala’s more prominent role and the inclusion of Lucas Alario are positives. Even if at this point it’s more about the 23-year-old gaining experience being around the squad rather than challenging for a starting spot. This gradual incorporation of the next crop is important over the next 18 months.
With virtually the exact same side that lost in successive Copa América finals, Bauza could well qualify for Russia but the average age would then probably be north of 30, and if Mascherano and Messi don’t bow out in glory, Argentine football would suddenly require a complete overhaul and an inevitable period of adjustment.
Dybala and Kranevitter, in addition to Ángel Correa, Lucas Alario and Erik Lamela, point to the future and Bauza now needs to ensure their progression while also bringing through more.
What Argentina can be said to be guilty of are sticking with players simply on the basis that they they came close to ending the 23-year trophy drought and not committing any heinous individual errors. How long can Sergio Romero claim to be Argentina’s number one goalkeeper when not playing club football? Does Marcos Rojo remain the best option at left-back despite never being a natural in the position and falling down the pecking order at Manchester United?
Geronimo Rulli, Emanuel Mammana, José Luis Gómez, Leandro Paredes, Manuel Lanzini, Santiago Ascacibar, Giovani Lo Celso and Mauro Icardi are among those that could provide alternatives and would benefit from being allowed to develop within the group over time. A gradual passing of the torch is required starting now, rather than an abrupt jolt from one generation to the next, most likely in a time of a crisis under a cloud of negativity.
The AFA must aid the national team coach by fulfilling their role and ensuring the conveyor belt of talent keeps moving but, in the interim, the squads over this qualification period must reflect an Argentina side with one eye beyond Russia.
By Peter Coates. Follow @golazoargentino