Lionel Scaloni’s long journey to rebuild Argentina

It has become a customary thing for my friends and I to discuss about what could have been done each time Argentina’s World Cup campaign comes to an end. We have never experienced the jubilant triumph that we always wanted to, since 1986. To be honest, at some point this could have been possible but looking at the current circumstances, it might take even longer than we expect. That is why looking back, the match against Belgium at the Estádio Nacional Mané Garrincha was the pivotal moment for us. For once, Argentina got off over the quarter final that had haunted fans for so long. All that mattered at the moment was that the fans could now say that they had entered the semi-finals at the World Cup.

Almost three month after being out from this edition, the drama is far from over. Countless in-depth articles have been written to explain the audacious journey of Argentine football and its fall from grace. True fans have been left feeling embarrassed about this. How could an association that is supposed to uphold the dignity of your beloved team turn it into a circus?

Two weeks after getting knocked out of the World Cup, it was confirmed that Sampaoli will no longer be in charge of Argentina National Team. The media are already jumping on the Gallardo, Simeone, Pochettino bandwagon, calling them as the front runners for the job. It goes to say, you can take the World Cup out of Argentina, but there isn’t a quiet day in Argentina, never has and never will. While we are still at enjoying the post World Cup hangover, perhaps it is a good time to look into what possibly needs to be done in the short and long term.

The first major step would be to get the Asociación del Fútbol Argentino in order. It might be a bit premature to expect any significant changes so soon, especially from an organization that has gone through a slow death for over 30 years under Julio Grondona. But Claudio Tapia and Co. will have to start from somewhere. Fundamentally, it is getting the structure within the organization right. Once this is sorted out, everything else will take shape. The next step is the national team coach. It would have been nice to see Sampaoli stay but that was already out of the question. He was already a lost cause as soon as the speculation on the players’ power took control. The AFA already has it hands tight knowing that most of its revenue comes from the player.

Sergio Kun Aguero, in an Instagram post, refrained from thanking even a single person from the coaching staff. This is not a recent problem. Reports had emerged back in March on the deteriorating relationship between Sebastián Beccacece and the rest of the staff. After all the drama, the AFA had to settle with youth team coach Lionel Scaloni on an interim basis to pick up the pieces that Sampaoli has left. Whether he decides to take up the job on a full time basis or not, the road ahead won’t be easy for Scaloni.

Scaloni’s task will be setting up a long term project. A project that is not just aimed at the 2022 World Cup but also beyond. The AFA needs to revive the youth development that once was championed for. A complete study needs to be done to ensure that the system is relevant by today’s standard of football. As witnessed in Russia, the gap has widened between Europe and South America. European football was once respected for its rigidity with a strong organizational structure from top to bottom while South American football, for its flamboyance and individual brilliance. But European football has managed to merge the best of both, acquiring a better edge over the rest of the world.

If proper work is put into place, Argentine football can regain its place amongst the best. Argentina needs to rediscover its La Nuestra and Creole soul that made its football magical. Argentina has a strong football culture that is unlike anything else in the world. The game speaks from the soul of every Argentinean.

The other pressing matter is that of a proper league competition. The whole “Promedio” system that was designed to protect the big guns requires a change and the number of clubs competing at the top flight needs to be reduced. Twenty eight teams competing in a top flight league is just blasphemous in footballing terms. That’s another discussion altogether. For now, the 29 names that Scaloni has listed down as his first task as head coach is the focus. September friendlies against Guatemala and Colombia provide him with a good stage to emphasise the rebuilding manifesto.

Fans haven’t been this excited about the possible names being called up for Argentina. From the days of Alejandro Sabella to Tata Martino to Jorge Sampaoli, the outcome has always been stagnant with the same names popping up over and over again. With Lionel Scaloni being assisted by Pablo Aimar now taking over the hot seat, there is some reason for optimism.

There is a mysterious contract obligation that the AFA has got itself caught in, like a spider web. This commercial pact requires some players to be named, most notably Messi. In return the AFA will parade the national team all over the world like the Royal London circus in return for revenue income. It has been said that at least seven players from the World Cup are expected to appear in Scaloni’s list. Messi, as we know, has made it clear that he won’t be appearing in any of the friendlies scheduled for 2018. Scaloni has respected that decision and he ought to do so.

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I, for one, think that having Messi again isn’t the best way to start the rebuilding process. It is about time the national team shakes itself off of the clinging behavior towards the Little Flea. There is no doubt that Messi still wants to contribute in this process but that could wait for the future. Apart from Messi’s absence, there should be no place for Higuain, Aguero, Di Maria, Ever Banega, Enzo Perez, Nicolas Otamendi, Federico Fazio and Marcos Rojo. These players have featured heavily in the past, some since the days of Diego Maradona. It will be pointless for Scaloni to include them if the aim here is ‘rebuilding’. These names should not be written off completely though, as some of these players could still play a role in the new chapter for Argentina.

First up is the goalkeeping department. Sergio Romero should be on the list of players who need to be dropped from the squad. The idea of Argentina clinging on to a first choice keeper who hasn’t played regular football at club level is absurd. Franco Armani has paid his dues to earn the number one glove. Armani has just set a new record for consecutive clean sheets in the Argentine league for River. For a player who could have easily earned a call from Colombia, his heart was already set upon playing for the country of his birth. That says a lot about him.

Geronimo Rulli’s inclusion in the national team couldn’t have come at a better time. Last season, his career at Real Sociedad looked bleak after he had encountered a few disastrous games. This season, he is back to his best. Many see him as Argentina’s number one in the long run but for now it will be for him to be Armani’s deputy.

On the list of defenders, only three players were survivors from the squad in Russia: Gabriel Mercado, Marcos Acuna and Nicolas Tagliafico. It is hard to see the justification of Mercado’s inclusion but it could be due to the contractual obligations. For now, his experience is vital to Scaloni’s plan. But he has competition for the right back role in Fabricio Bustos of Independiente. One of the upcoming talent from the domestic league, Bustos’ stock is on the rise. European clubs are expected to woo him away from the continent.

The left back position has no argument with Nicolas Tagliafico of Ajax firmly making it his own. He was one of the best performers for Argentina at the World Cup. His arrival is a huge blessing as the National Team has been desperate for a natural full back on the left, since Gabriel Heinze. To back him up, Scaloni has opted for Acuna of Sporting Clube de Portugal. Though he could play in the left back role, he is naturally a better player on the wing.

Ramiro Funes Mori seems back to his best after being laid off due to a lengthy injury. He has unearthed a new confidence in his game since leaving England for Villareal. Germán Pezzella’s inclusion is timely as he has been one of the best defenders in Italy for Fiorentina. Walter Kannemann is finally going to be rewarded a call up for the national team with the hard work he has put in. He has been an amazing for Gremio in the Brazilian league. Kannemann should certainly start during the September friendlies.

To keep the squad young and vibrant, Scaloni has opted to call the two eye-catching Centre Backs from the domestic league. Alan Franco, another product and rising star for Independiente, does have a promising future ahead of him with big things expected. The other is Leonel Di Placido who has been bodacious for Atletico Tucuman before moving to Lanus. The likes of Franco and Di Placido aren’t the complete package yet, but time is still on their side. While trying to contemplate Scaloni’s choice of defenders, I do recognise that the likes of Otamendi and Fazio still have something to offer to beef up this area. Another player that should return to the national team is Ezequiel Garay. Scaloni should persuade him for future assignments given his talents.

The choice of Argentina’s midfield over the last decade has been underwhelming. A major revamp in this area was required and Scaloni seems to know this well, which is why he has picked as many as seven uncapped players. This is an astonishing move considering how previous Argentine managers tried to just replicate the same template over and over again.

There were also three midfielders who made the cut from Sampaoli’s World Cup squad. Again, Independiente weren’t left out in this area. Maximiliano Meza, who has been in stupendous form for El Rojo, was a no brainer in Scaloni’s inclusion. With his natural pace and dribbling ability, he has a great prowess to play on the flanks or even in the middle. At the World Cup, Eduardo Salvio was deployed as a right back which proved to be disaster. He is a natural right winger and it will be unfortunate for Scaloni to experiment him elsewhere. Leandro Paredes who was inexplicably left out of the World Cup is back again. There has been plenty of criticism about his failure to contribute when given the chance he deserves a fair chance and a fresh start: a plus point for Scaloni for calling him up.

Since his move to France to play for Paris St Germain, Giovani Lo Celso has been waiting for a chance to prove his Savoir faire for Argentina. He is going to play a dynamic role in Scaloni’s plan to establish a strong midfield combo with Meza and Paredes. One player who has been knocking on the senior team’s door is Santiago Ascacibar. The Stuttgart midfielder is the divine heir to the throne that has been left vacant by Javier Mascherano. He was the best young talent to come out of the domestic league in 2016. Diego Maradona had once stated that the national team is “Mascherano + 10” and this statement has stirred a lot of controversy in Argentina but Ascacibar is by far the real deal.

Since the arrival of Gabriel Heinze at Velez Sarsfield, Matias Vargas has been tipped to blossom under the new gaffer’s tutelage. He was already a first team player last season but it was during this campaign that he made it big time. Primarily an attacking midfielder that plays behind the striker, his main asset is providing crucial passes for the frontline and is ranked second in the domestic league in terms assists.

Benfica’s Franco Cervi is another exciting prospect and fans would be hoping to see his debut in a blue and white jersey soon. Since making his debut with Rosario Central, he has been touted as the next Angel Di Maria and has been a revelation for the Eagles. While the comparison with the PSG winger is great, fans hope for Cervi to provide better decision making in his game.

The inclusion of Franco Vazquez comes as a big surprise for many. Having been capped twice with Italy before in friendly games, he made it clear two years ago that he wants to play for Argentina. Though not the most gifted player ever, he is still a value adding attacking midfielder to have around. He could deployed in various positions whether a false 9, on the flanks, just behind the strikers or in a deep lying position. It will be interesting to see him link up with his former teammate from Palermo, Paulo Dybala.

Rodrigo Battaglia is also a surprise inclusion considering the fact that he has been lost from the radar since moving to Portugal in 2013. For some odd reason Sampaoli included him in the preliminary list for Russia ahead of Matias Kranevitter. Adding more options in the central midfield role is the only explanation for his inclusion even by Scaloni.

In keeping those options wide open, Scaloni has also called up River Plate’s duo Exequiel Palacios and Gonzalo Martinez. Both these players have come good for Marcelo Gallardo’s team last season. Palacios’ meteoric rise with the Los Millonarios did catch Scaloni’s attention. At 19, the potential is there to see but it is too early to entrust him for a major role with the senior team. Martinez has also had a noteworthy time with River since moving from Racing. On his day, he can produce a flash of brilliance but he needs to remain consistent if he wishes to establish himself with the national team.

Scaloni’s decision to include so many attacking options may have been deemed too lavish. But for years, the inability to address Argentina’s problem of finding a symmetric connection between the midfield and attack has led to dire straits. It is an equipoise that Scaloni needs to give extra attention to, as long he is on the job. One of these names will get to wear the mythical No.10 jersey, albeit on a temporary basis. For years, the inability of Argentine forwards to forge a chemistry with Messi has forced every previous manager to go back to the tried and tested template.

There isn’t much to say about Cristian Pavon. The Boca Juniors attacker has been one of Argentina’s stand out performers during their ill-fated campaign in Russia. Scaloni knows about his ability to play in various roles on the frontline and he is a value adding player for this team.

Angel Correa has come a long way since recovering from a heart surgery four years ago. Unlike the many Argentine signings that have failed to establish themselves at Atletico Madrid under Diego Simeone, Correa seems to have overcome that stereotype. Over the past two seasons he has been a key figure for Atletico. He was once compared to Aguero because of his diminutive figure but unlike Aguero, he is not much of a goal scorer. His overall game consists of pace, good technique and smooth first touches.

If there is one area that Scaloni needs to exploit the most in the front-line, it is utilising Internazionale’s duo of Lautaro Martinez and Mauro Icardi. Both were cruelly dropped from the trip to Russia but both have already shown tremendous ability to play with each another during the pre-season. Their relationship off the pitch has blossomed as well. If the two can construct something positive at club level, it can certainly be brought to the national team.

While his dad hasn’t made up his mind about the national team, Giovanni is grabbing the bull by its horn. He wants to relish the moment just like his dad Diego did in an Albiceleste shirt. He had a great period with Fiorentina since last season. Like his dad, El Cholito brings intensity to his game. A hardworking and tenacious center forward with a clinical eye for goal, Giovanni’s future looks bright.

With Lionel Messi now out of the way, Dybala should stamp his mark for good in Scaloni’s team. His multi-tasking and talent is not meant to warm the bench but to create havoc on the field against the opponents. Whether to create or to score, Dybala is the best player that Scaloni should built the future upon. Both Vasquez and Dybala complemented each other efficiently during their Palermo days. This is what Scaloni could look to exploit the most from them.

Overall, it is an exhilarating squad that doesn’t conform to the usual selection formula that we have been fed over the last decade. There are still improvements that could be made to this squad in the future. If the likes of Kranevitter (Zenit St.Petersburg), Luciano Vietto (Fulham), Joaquin Correa (Lazio), Manuel Lanzini (West Ham), Lucas Ocampos (Marseille) and Erik Lamela (Tottenham) can rediscover their mojo, they cannot be ruled out from a return back to the national set up.

There are also several names waiting to break into the squad. Juan Musso (Udinese), Axel Werner, Nehuen Perez (both Atletico Madrid), German Conti (Benfica), Lisandro Magallan (Boca Juniors), Juan Foyth (Tottenham), Jonathan Silva (Leganes), Lucas Alario (Bayer Leverkusen), Sebastian Driussi, Emiliano Rigoni (both Zenit St.Petersburg), Ezequiel Barco (Atlanta United) and Maximiliano Romero (PSV) are just some names with potential.

The last piece of the puzzle in this rebuilding journey is the future of Lionel Messi. Questions remain on his return and how he will fit into this team. It still remains a gargantuan quest for anyone to be the heir to the hottest seat in Argentine football.

Scaloni is on an interim basis and it is too early to say if the AFA will bank on him for the future. There has been a conjecture that former teammate Walter Samuel could join the coaching staff. If AFA fails to get established names like Diego Simeone or Mauricio Pochettino for the job, they will have to think outside the box. Results from the September friendlies may give fans some indication. Should Scaloni land the job indelibly, he will have a mammoth task ahead him in balancing the aspiration of ending the trophy drought that stretches back to 1993 and providing solace of an incredible future.

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