Why Argentina might be better without Lionel Messi

It seems a silly statement, but FourFourTwo USA's Richard Farley notes that the conclusion provided on Monday wasn't a negative one...

Far down the list of reasons that Angel Di Maria was Monday’s focus against Chile – behind the inspiration of his departed grandmother, or a performance reminiscent of his Champions League-winning peak – are the implications for Argentina. On a night when la Albiceleste’s most renowned player was on the bench, it was impossible to overlook the fluid, balanced, Di Maria-led team that picked apart South America’s reigning champions.

If Argentina can do this with Lionel Messi on the sidelines, what can they do when the world’s best player returns to the starting lineup?

That’s the fair question, one that assume an elite player will augment a talented team’s core. For years, though, questions like that have taken a more sinister form, one that, after Monday’s display, may not be entirely unfair: are Argentina a better team when its captain isn't on the pitch?

Awkward question

The question is impossible to answer with any certainty, and given Messi’s obvious value, it takes an analytical contortionist to deny against his worth. Still, there was something undeniably attractive about how Argentina went about Monday’s game, a method that would have been different if Messi was in the XI.

Instead of favouring Di Maria’s left side, Argentina would have used Messi as their focal point. Chile would have planned around him, congested play in the middle, and left a team without space-creators like Neymar and Luis Suarez – Messi’s Barcelona team-mates – bogged down. Perhaps Argentina would have still won, as happened in Santiago with Messi in March, but they probably wouldn’t have looked as beautiful.

At times, that’s what Monday’s 2-1 victory over Chile was. The in-to-out build-up that broke down Chile’s defence and produced the two goals could have been orchestrated on a white board; a blistering first-half counter-attack, one ending with Gonzalo Higuain going just wide of the left post, showed Di Maria and Ever Banega at their creative bests; the number of times Argentina turned Chile right-back Mauricio Isla and played crosses from behind the defence.

It’s hard to imagine there’d be as many if the team was playing through its right-to-central star. Argentina’s play wasn’t such that would rival John Cruyff’s Dutch teams for aesthetic value, but compared to many important games featuring Messi, Monday was a relative Rembrandt.

Fitting the system

Argentina’s manager Gerardo Martino acknowledged his team’s differences after the match. When asked why his wingers, Di Maria and Nicolas Gaitan, switched flanks in the first half, Martino explained the players “don’t have a problem” playing on both sides, and those players are given “total freedom to move”.

There is, however, an exception to that rule.

“The only one that we keep on the right when he is on the field is Leo,” Martino explained. “It's hard when he is on the left, because all his career he has never occupied that area.”

When Messi is in, the system becomes more rigid. When he’s out, movement is encouraged.

Those, however, are aesthetic concerns. Most prefer to see football played at a higher pace, with more player and ball movement, and with a greater number of chances. In a way, those are biases, ones Monday’s game played into. Without all the focus on one star, the game became more fluid, allowing a world-class talent like Di Maria to have a game-defining performance.

When Messi plays, teams put a greater emphasis on staying compact, both across the width of the field and over its length. They become more risk-averse, focusing on not getting stretched while congesting the middle, where Messi will hurt you. Teams sacrifice what they want to accomplish elsewhere and are willing to make the game ugly. Against Messi, that’s the only way you have a shot.

Unfortunately for the Barcelona star, that dynamic has become a type of curse. Still without a World Cup or Copa America victory, Messi’s value to la Albiceleste remains debated. For his national team, he doesn’t have the CV-defining team honours he’s achieved at club level, and until he does, critics will claim he’s actually two different players: one when he wears red and blue; another when he adorns blue and white.

Angel Di Maria, Argentina Chile

Di Maria shone with Messi sidelined

Strangely, nobody ever considers what Argentina would be like if Messi didn’t wear their colors. For all the lack of major honours bemoaning, few bother to note Argentina likely wouldn't be the world’s best-rated team without the world’s best player – without the man destined to become his country’s leading goalscorer; without a player with more World Cup and Copa America man-of-the-match honours than any in his nation’s history.

Find a way

Argentina are still a team which, built around Messi, have been to the finals of two of the world’s three biggest tournaments in the past 24 months: the World Cup (2014) and Copa America (2015). They are still a team which, built around Messi, is ranked first by FIFA and has the world’s highest Elo rating. They are still a team which, after 11 years and 107 games with Messi in the squad, elects to keep one player as its focal point.

Thanks to our biases, though, aesthetics often trump logic, allowing performances like Monday’s to sway the debate surrounding Messi’s international value. Thankfully, no amount of debate about national-team quality has convinced the likes of Martino, Alejandro Sabella or Alfio Basile – not to mention club bosses like Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique – that Messi is anything but a team-defining talent.

Only one of those names was at Levi’s Stadium on Monday night, and for his part, Messi’s value was unchanged. Asked about the conundrum – about whether Argentina play better without the best player in the world – Martino didn’t entertain the notion.

“We’re our best when Messi is in the team,” Martino said. “Our possibilities of winning the Copa are always higher when he is playing.”

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Any team in the world would be better with Messi why not Argentina?

Argentina played very good game against Chile without Messi BUT one should not forget that not so long back in first 4 games of WCQs (2018 WC) Argentina only manage to grab only 4 points and was placed in 8th position, they were just clueless and pathetic. But with Messi they won last 2 games against 2 difficult rivals and now sitting in 3rd position AND messi was instrumental in both the game won MOM in both those matches.

So, without Messi Argentina is better not always true. But this is fact that when Messi is on the field Argentina never plays as a team (apart from fab 4 formation under Sablla)

Problem with argentina is when Messi starts for them he remains the focal point for obvious reason and in a team of superstars some of them try too hard to make their mark whereas some other players rather than playing their own game, they seems looks for Messi to do the miracle. Honestly when you have a player like Messi it's coach's job to find a way/formation to utilize him the most and others should try to understand it's no shame to play 2nd fiddle under Messi. Even with Barcelona Messi remains the focal point for many years and some top top players like Xavi, Iniesta had no shame to accept the fact the Messi is their leader on the field. BUT Messi in Argentina lacks it, even though it's there only on Paper and in front of media.

When Messi plays with Argentina he needs to drop deeper in search of ball as he is always tightly marked and other players struggle to find Messi. Then, so called midfielders like Di Maria, Pastore, Banega etc move forward and looks for the ball from Messi. Many times Messi bailed them out but if you can cut that supply Argentina looks very very ordinary and Messi looks completely isolated. Any attacking move should start with Messi, both Batista, Maradona did the same and now Tata is doing. So simply stop Messi, stop argentina. This is where only coach can be blamed.

A coach needs to understand the strength of Messi and other players and need to set a field like this way. Sabella did wonder with Messi-Kun-Di maria and Higuain together when Argentina scored 3.4 goals per match under sabella and during that period Messi scored 31 goals from 33 matches for argentina. Both Higuain and Kun scored plenty too. Only time I saw Argentina actually played as a team after many years.

BUT now with Tata’s new tactics and formation Di Maria became argentina's main goal scorer even though he never was the prolific goal scorer like Messi, Higuain, Kun or never have that ability. Messi became Central midfielder and Higuain/Kun remains isolated most of the times in the upfront. Tata should use Di Maria what he does the best, let him utilize the wings to make his blistering runs and find his fellow strikers. That’s what he did for Real during his best phase of his career and now with PSG. Let Messi, Higuain to do their work within 30/35 yards.

IMO, Argentina under Tata actually never played as a team, they won most of the matches (I know lost 2 big finals in 2 years) due to individual brilliance. But yesterday they actually did, they manage to play as a team. Even though within 10 minutes Di Maria had 2 shots out of the post, rather the passing the ball to Higuain BUT he improved as the game progresses. All Higuain, Di maria and Banega linked really well in the attacking 3rd. Augusto was good and as usual Mascherano never put a foot wrong and marshaled the defense really well. When Messi will be fit to play, just replace Messi for Gaitan and others play their role. Argentina will be good enough to win this tournament.

IMO all Argentina need…

A central midfielder who can pass the ball to Messi within 30/35 yards and in this team Banega should take that responsibility. Banega should try to link with Messi after receiving the ball and Messi should try to find Higuain to move in scoring position else let Higuain to take his chances. If they try to create most the attack from rightly this will automatically create space in other side where Di Maria can have space to start counter attacks and should try to find Messi or Higuain. I believe a 4-2-3-1 formation (rather than 4-3-3, which actually never works as Messi always drops deeper) with Mascherano-Agusto as DMF, Messi-Banega-Di Maria behind Higuain would be better for argentina.

Also Tata should understand that Argentina doesn't have Barcelona kind of players to play possession based football. If they try to play possession based football they just becomes too slow and too predictable. They best way argentina should play the way Germany do. Try to dominate the position but if opponent’s starts dominating then sit deeper and go for counter. Argentina have players like Di Maria, Messi, Kun, Higuain to do the same.

Honestly if other players play their natural game then Messi is never a problem for argentina else yes it is with Messi they failed to play as a team.

As if you wrote this article?
As if Messi didn't just come off the bench in the second half to score a 21 minute hat trick and put Argentina in the quarter finals to shut you up 3 days later.
As if Argentina didn't just make the world cup final with injuries and only scoring 8 goals... with Messi having 4 goals and 2 assists.
As if FourFourTwo thought about hiring you