History tells us that teams that start tournaments with a bang rarely finish up as champions. Not since West Germany in 1990 has an eventual champion begun with a crushing victory. Champions tend to play their way into tournaments, gradually improving to peak at the climax. That makes a side like Argentina very difficult to judge: They won all three of its group games without truly impressing. But are they a potential champion slowly stirring, or just a group of decent players struggling to find a way of playing effectively together?
As Argentina prepares for its Round of 16 tie against Switzerland (live, Tuesday, 12 p.m. ET), their coach Alejandro Sabella insists his side is improving, describing their performance in the 3-2 win over Nigeria in the third group game as a "7 out of 10," after the average rating he gave La Albiceleste following its 2-1 win against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Certainly there was a greater fluidity going forwards, although Argentina were worryingly open at the back. Sabella acknowledged that his team hadn’t been sufficiently compact as yet. "It’s true we sometimes have spaces between the defense and attack," he said, "and when we attack sometimes there are spaces because others have difficulties following the pace of striker. Modern football demands compact teams, short spaces between front and back. We are a trying to be more compact."
They will need to be against a Swiss side, open as they were in the 5-2 defeat to France, have been highly impressive going forwards, scoring seven goals in their three games so far, with Xherdan Shaqiri prospering after being shifted into a central role. His battle with Javier Mascherano will be critical.
Sabella insisted as well that he was unconcerned by the reliance on Lionel Messi, who has scored four of Argentina’s six goals so far — three of them efforts of memorable brilliance. Sabella pointed out that Brazil are just as dependent on Neymar. "Messi is the best in the world and Neymar is a great player," he said. "With players like those the team depends on them — it’s normal."
Sabella will have to make one change to the side that beat Nigeria, with Manchester City’s out of sorts forward Sergio Aguero ruled out with a muscular injury. If Argentina sticks with the 4-3-3 Messi has made clear he favors, that would presumably mean Ezequiel Lavezzi coming in on the left. Lavezzi has been elevated to sex-symbol status in Argentina during this tournament, despite being restricted to just two substitute appearances. Sabella was keen to praise the Paris St-Germain forward’s attitude as a squad player.
"We left many weeks ago," he said. "It’s true families have been visiting the players, but being together as a team is not always pleasant. In this case it has been very pleasant for everybody. But still players like Lavezzi are always very positive because they keep people happy. Lavezzi has been with us since the qualifiers, often not playing, but he never makes faces, is never unhappy and cheers on the team. He can play as a striker or on the left, so we can play in two different systems with him."
Lavezzi, though, could be tempted to make a face if training was anything to go by. Sabella, whose innate pragmatism has never sat easily with the fluent 4-3-3 with which they finished qualification, has already had a brief experimentation with 5-3-2, abandoned after a dismal first half against Bosnia. In training on Monday, he tried out a 4-4-2, with Maxi Rodriguez brought in on the right side if midfield, Messi playing off Gonzalo Higuain and no place for Lavezzi. That was the way Argentina began the qualifiers, and the suspicion is that two banks of four remain Sabella’s preferred approach.
"I always say that a match has to be balanced and even," Sabella said, as though preparing the Argentinian public for the possibility that his side will adopt an ostensibly more defensive outlook. "If you don’t defend properly you cannot organize an attack. If you only win the ball at last minute you give too much space the opponent to create opportunities."
What he wants most of all is for his side to play with intelligence. "If the mind were a muscle, it would be the most mordant muscle. There is a philosopher who once said, "one gram of brain cell is more important than any normal muscle."
As the group phase has yielded to the knockout stage, football has become no less thrilling but rather more attritional than it was in a remarkably liberated group stage. Argentina can’t keep relying on Messi, but in the circumstances, Sabella’s more conservative approach might just be the most intelligent move he can make.