Argentina’s ‘Scaloneta’ has given Lionel Messi and Co. the foundation for World Cup glory
When Argentina take on Honduras and Jamaica in upcoming friendlies, there will be few changes to the Albiceleste squad that has not lost a match in more than two years. And why should there be? Since a 2019 Copa America semifinal loss to Brazil, Lionel Scaloni’s side has gone undefeated in 33 games, claimed the 2021 Copa for their first senior title since 1993, qualified for the 2022 World Cup in style, and thrashed European champions Italy in June in a showpiece match at Wembley.
This would be remarkable in any circumstances. But it is almost off the scale of extraordinary when two things are remembered. First, that Argentina were an absolute shambles at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Second, rookie coach Scaloni was appointed as a stop gap caretaker pretty much because he fulfilled the sole criteria at the time — he wasn’t a big financial risk. And now his team are referred to in Argentina as “the Scaloneta” — the house that he built.
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Argentina had previously made a long term bet with high profile, dynamic Jorge Sampaoli. It was a disaster that should have been predicted. Argentina simply did not have the quick defenders and ball-playing keepers that are needed to play the Sampaoli way. The ageing squad limped away from Russia — where they flirted with first-round elimination. With a huge pay off, Sampaoli was sacked. Money was in short supply, and so in came Scaloni. He didn’t talk like a caretaker.
“[World Cup finalists] France and Croatia robbed the ball and were in a position to shoot in 3 or 4 seconds,” was his post-Russia conclusion. “That’s the way football is going, it’s the football I like and the moment has come to introduce this in Argentina. We’re going to be more direct and vertical.”
There was an obvious problem with this approach. It is not a model of play which is a good fit for Lionel Messi. It got off to a bad start. Scaloni’s first competitive match was their 2019 Copa America opener against Colombia. Argentina were all stretched out, and easily picked off on their way to a 2-0 defeat. The rest of the competition was Argentina’s attempts to edge towards a more workable idea of play. They played well in that semifinal loss to Brazil. But with Messi plus two strikers — Lautaro Martinez and Sergio Aguero — they were top heavy and too easily hit on the counter attack.