Lionel Messi in his national team uniform during a friendly match against Estonia in Spain in June 2022. (Image courtesy of Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images) )
Lionel Messi has accomplished everything in football, with one notable exception: he has never won the World Cup.
The closest he came was in the 2014 World Cup final, when Argentina was defeated by Germany, denying the player widely regarded as the greatest of all time a chance to win the most prestigious prize in international football. This winter, however, that could change.
Argentina is expected to be one of the favorites to win the World Cup in Qatar. At 35 years old, this may be Messi’s final chance to lead his country to World Cup glory, but it may also be his best. La Albiceleste haven’t been this dominant in over a decade. There’s a lot more to them than Messi.
System of assistance
Argentina’s game plan at the 2018 World Cup essentially amounted to passing the ball to Messi and hoping for a moment of individual brilliance from their best player. There is now a support system in place for Messi.
Lionel Scaloni’s team has structure and balance, as evidenced by Argentina’s Copa America victory last summer, which ended Argentina’s 28-year trophy drought.
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Scaloni has used a narrow structure to direct the majority of Argentina’s possession play through the center of the field. This allows the full backs to push high up the pitch, with Nahuel Molina and Nicolas Tagliafico eager to provide width and an outlet on the flanks.
Argentina now looks to dominate possession more than they did before Scaloni’s appointment in 2018 – Argentina averaged 58.6% possession during the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle. Scaloni looks to deep-lying playmakers like Rodrigo de Paul and Giovani Lo Celso for incisive passing to break the lines.
World Cup in 2022
Argentina plays at a fast pace, with Scaloni putting his players close together to form passing triangles across the pitch. Argentina, at their best, plays a brand of sharp, one-touch football that captivates fans. They have the potential to be one of the most entertaining teams at the World Cup this winter.
Argentina is disciplined defensively and out of possession. Scaloni keeps his defense compact and asks his forwards to press from the front, though Messi is allowed to step back and play as a central playmaker when his team wins the ball back.
When Argentina defends, the team moves as a unit. Everyone on the field is aware of their roles and responsibilities.
Messi may be one of the greatest goal scorers in football history, but Scaloni has made excellent use of his passing range. This is reflected in some of the statistics: Messi averaged 37.51 passes per 90 minutes in 2018 World Cup qualifying, but this was increased to 51.34 passes per 90 minutes in 2022 World Cup qualifying.
PSG (Paris Saint-Germain)
This reflects a shift in Messi’s role at club level, with PSG’s Christophe Galtier using the 35-year-old as a playmaker behind a front two of Kylian Mbappe and Neymar. Scaloni has done something similar as Argentina manager, but this time it’s Lautaro Martinez and Angel di Maria who are making inroads beyond Messi.
Messi was Argentina’s system in the past. Now, however, he is there to complement a well-designed system that could support the team even if Messi were to miss any games due to injury or suspension.
Argentina now plays as a more cohesive unit, making the most of the individual talent within their ranks.
Messi’s relationship with Argentina’s national team has long been strained. Many fans dislike Messi because he has never won the World Cup for his country. For some Argentines, Diego Maradona is the greatest player to ever play for Argentina; he famously led Argentina to a World Cup victory in 1986.
Not long ago, Messi’s international career appeared to be over; he even retired from Argentine duty for a time in 2016. Losses in the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Copa America finals, as well as the pressure on Messi’s shoulders, depleted him.
This was clear from his body language while playing for the national team: he no longer desired to represent his country.
Since then, there has been a shift. Messi no longer feels the burden of a nation on his shoulders. His recent performances for Argentina have been liberated, but this is not by chance. Scaloni has assembled a team that revolves around the 35-year-old.
Messi will not be at his best in the 2022 World Cup, but he may be at his most influential. And assist him in breaking the drought.
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