Before Argentina, as a nation, could even begin to process the despair of its worst World Cup finish of the Lionel Messi era, the cut-throat cycle of international soccer had already started to churn. Less than an hour after Argentina’s thrilling 4-3 loss to France, mainstays had retired. Manager Jorge Sampaoli had been quizzed by journalists about his future.
The immediate aftermath was a pretty apt indication of what is to come. The hours, days, weeks and months after its chaotic and truncated 2018 World Cup campaign will be ones of transition for the Argentine national team. The player pool requires a refresh. Sampaoli will be questioned. The entire federation might need an overhaul.
But there are several levels to the transition. There are dominos that must fall. There’s a reaction chain that will determine where Argentina goes from here. And it begins with Argentinean legends.
Which Argentina veterans will retire?
Javier Mascherano was the first to announce his international retirement after the France loss. He won’t play for Argentina again. (That decision probably should have been made for him before Russia.) And he’s not the only one. Lucas Biglia followed an hour later.
The question is how thorough the exodus will be. There were reports after the Croatia defeat last week that Marcos Rojo (28), Ever Banega (30), Sergio Aguero (30) and Angel Di Maria (30) would all join Mascherano in retirement. Gonzalo Higuain (30) was on that list as a “probably.” Others on the wrong side of 30 years old are Enzo Perez (32), Nicolas Otamendi (30), Gabriel Mercado (31), Federico Fazio (31), and every single goalkeeper that has appeared for the national team recently.
And then there’s Messi, who turned 31 last weekend. He was also on that “probably” list. He’ll be 35, and presumably in decline, by the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off in Qatar. Will he want to endure another four years of the pressure and travel? Another grueling qualifying cycle?
Then there’s the suggestion that Argentina might be better off without him. To be clear, it’s blasphemous. Any team is better with Messi in it.
There will soon be a changing of the guard, though. What Messi’s role in it will be is entirely unclear.
First, Argentina has to decide who’ll be leading the transition.
Will Sampaoli stay on?
All of Argentina’s problems in Russia trace back to Argentina’s misguided appointment of Sampaoli as head coach last year. It was misguided because it was mistimed. Sampaoli’s ferocious, up-tempo system was an awful fit for that aging group of players who may or may not follow Mascherano to the exit door. Frankly, it was a bad fit for 30-year-old Messi.
Sampaoli, though, couldn’t turn his back on that generation. He reportedly stuck to a 4-2-3-1 instead of a 3-4-3 at the behest of Messi. And when he benched Di Maria and others and flipped to the 3-4-3 against Croatia, the players – now the outgoing ones – reportedly rebelled and took control of the team.
The manager-squad contradiction was at the heart of the disaster. Now the question is: With the squad set for a revamp, is Sampaoli best equipped to oversee it?
After all, his managerial record is sterling outside of the past year. He won back-to-back Copa America titles with Chile. He led Sevilla to a top-four La Liga finish. He is, by most accounts, a really good coach.
He’s also under contract through the 2022 World Cup. The Argentine federation would be on the hook for $20 million if it sacked him now. Sampaoli, likely with that in mind, declined to resign after Saturday’s loss. “Today is not the day” for that decision, he said. “This is where I’ve chosen to be.”
So it will be on the federation to determine Sampaoli’s – and the national team’s – future. There’s a chance the drama of the World Cup, and the distrust it may or may not have fostered, could make Sampaoli’s reign untenable.
But there’s also a very good argument to be made that Sampaoli is a perfect fit for the next generation of Argentinean stars.
What does Argentina’s next generation look like?
It’s unclear what exactly was behind Sampaoli’s decision to stick with the old guard in Russia. But the Argentine federation should at least give him some time to see what he can do with a new set of players.
And while the next generation perhaps isn’t quite as talented as the outgoing generation was at the height of its powers, it’s certainly promising. There’s a ready-made, prime-age forward pairing in Mauro Icardi (25) and Paulo Dybala (24).
Behind them, there are 20-year-old striker Lautaro Martinez and 22-year-old winger Christian Pavon, two of the very best youngsters in South America. There is 22-year-old Giovanni Simeone, son of Diego. There are Angel Correa and Joaquin Correa, both 23. There are Ricardo Centurion and Manuel Lanzini, both 25.
In midfield, 22-year-old Giovani Lo Celso is a regular at PSG, and should have been an Argentina regular in Russia. There’s Leandro Paredes, who just turned 24. There’s 21-year-old defensive midfielder Santiago Ascacibar.
Argentine talent production continues to hum. There are too many prospects to mention, and many whose names we don’t yet know. Whoever is in charge come September will have pieces to work with.
Sampaoli’s style, theoretically, is designed to get the most out of them. Collectively, they have the pace and creativity to play fast, attacking soccer. They have the young legs and athleticism to press, but not yet the star power and status to be above the hard work required.
Argentina, in the long run, will be fine. Its medium-term future depends on how comprehensive the federation feels the reboot must be.
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