How Argentina Lost Its Way. (Spoiler: It’s Not Messi’s Fault.)

The other, more serious, issue is what that abundance of attacking choices says about the team’s defense. There is a valid question over whether the midfield Argentina has brought to Russia is capable of playing the way Sampaoli desires — the intense, high-pressing style that has brought him so much success — but it is at the back that Sampaoli has had to make do with what he has got.

Otamendi, Marcos Rojo, Gabriel Mercado, Federico Fazio: these are not elite central defenders. And at fullback, with the noteworthy exception of Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico, the problem is just as pronounced. Eduardo Salvio, an attack-minded right-winger, has played as a fullback and a wingback in Russia so far.

In effect, Argentina’s strength is all in one place; too much of the rest of the team is a wasteland. In contrast, Portugal — and all discussions of Messi must come back to Ronaldo — boasts a well-drilled defense and midfield. Ronaldo is the only star, but he has a reliable platform from which to perform. Messi’s situation is the polar opposite: no matter how much he excels, there is always a chance the ground will shift beneath his feet.

Why is that? Why does Argentina have such a dearth of defenders?

This is the key issue, the one that has trapped Argentina below the waterline, and the one the country must start to address if its time in the international wilderness, at least trophy-wise, is to come to an end.

Argentine domestic soccer is in a state of almost permanent financial crisis. Many of its clubs lead a hand-to-mouth existence, their business models entirely reliant on selling players — ordinarily very young players — either directly to European clubs or, until the practice was banned, to investment firms hoping to profit on the country’s vast resources of talent.

That model, naturally, tends to place the focus much more on attacking players than defensive ones: it is the gifted forwards and wingers who attract the premium fees, who are more likely to be sold on to Europe for the sorts of sums that can keep a club afloat.

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