Can Ex-Leeds Player Alejandro Sabella Make Argentina Ruthless Once More?

Argentina may have succumbed to old foes Brazil in the recent clash of home-grown players, but in new manager Sabella it seems like Messi et al may finally have the leadership and tactical nous La Albiceleste has been longing for.
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Argentina may have succumbed to old foes Brazil in the recent clash of home-grown players, but in new manager Sabella it seems like Messi et al may finally have the leadership and tactical nous La Albiceleste has been longing for.

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Argentina may have succumbed to old foes Brazil in the recent clash of home-grown players, but in new manager and ex-Leeds and Sheffield United player Sabella it seems like Messi et al may finally have the leadership and tactical nous La Albiceleste has been longing for.

When Brazilian starlet Lucas zipped off on a counter attack, leaving his Argentinian marker trudging leaden-footed behind him to slip the ball neatly into the corner of the net, he ended brought to an end more than 130 minutes of goalless action between the two South American heavyweights and all but ensured a victory for the team in yellow.

After the first leg in Cordoba, Argentina, which the home side edged despite expectations, Brazil had dominated in Belem but struggled to break down some resolute Albiceleste defending. The gulf in quality between the two locally-based sides had finally resulted in a goal and it was soon followed by another to seal the tie.

No Argentinian likes losing to Brazil, whether it is in a faux competitive tournament like the ‘Copa de Oro Nicolas Leoz’ or in a game of rock, scissors, paper. This did not feel like an earth shattering defeat, however, and the local press have reacted with surprising tranquillity.

The reason for this is the obvious difference in class between home-based Brazil and home-based Argentina. Due to economic factors, the Brazilian league is in a state of boom. Clubs enjoy massive sponsorship deals with thriving corporations, allowing them to repatriate veteran superstars like Ronaldinho and hang on for much longer to up-and-coming idols like Neymar and Lucas.

The financially feeble Argentinian league, on the other hand, is constantly pillaged of its most promising talent by clubs from Europe, Mexico and, yes, Brazil. Reigning champions Vélez Sarsfield are a case in point. They have only won three out of nine matches in the current Apertura, having lost star players Santiago Silva, Ricky Alvarez and Maxi Moralez to Serie A clubs in the off season.

In short, nobody expected an Argentina team filled with journeymen and also-rans to be competitive with a powerful looking Seleção.

Competitive they were, however, especially in the first leg, and this can largely be attributed to the guile and intelligence of new Albiceleste coach Alejandro Sabella.

The days of star-studded Argentina teams being overrun by tactically superior opposition would seem to be over. Finally, here is a manager worthy of the players sat in front of him in the dressing room.

The rest of the footballing world may not have realised it yet, but one of its superpowers is about to shake off the stupor of a long hibernation. Argentina has a real manager for the first time in five years. Pay no heed to the misleading nickname, ‘El Pachorra’ (The Sloth), is the sharpest tactical mind to lead the national team since José Pekerman in 2006.

Though the players may have been inferior to those he will use in the full-strength squad, Sabella gave an indication of the tactical setup he is likely to favour from the outset of his tenure in charge of Argentina. He played with a 5-3-1-1 which could also be interpreted as a 3-5-1-1 that largely stifled Brazil’s attacking flair over the two legs of this series.

Argentina has issues in defence at every level, yet the very mediocre central defenders Sabella was forced to call up for the Brazil games were rarely exposed for their flaws due to the solid midfield unit playing in front of them. The team had width and the link-up play was good. A gem was even uncovered in Vélez youngster Hector Canteros, who excelled in the first game, spraying Pirloesque passes from his deep-lying midfield position. He may now be in contention for the full national squad.

Make no mistake, this was a conservative formation. But who could blame the manager for playing it safe when the odds were so heavily in Brazil’s favour? That is the beauty of Sabella as coach; he is able to adapt his tactics to the opposition in front of him and the personnel at his disposal, something his two predecessors, Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista, showed they were unable to cope with. Sabella even famously won the Argentinian title with Estudiantes without a recognised striker on his books.

This is why many Argentina fans are quietly keyed up about the prospects of the Selección in the near future. If Sabella can mould a group of average players into a competitive unit, imagine what he can do with the likes of Agüero, Higuain, Mascherano and Messi. The days of star-studded Argentina teams being overrun by tactically superior opposition would seem to be over. Finally, here is a manager worthy of the players sat in front of him in the dressing room.

We already have some indication of how Sabella will play in Argentina’s fast-approaching World Cup Qualifiers against Chile at home and Venezuela away. Something similar to the 5-3-1-1 against Brazil is likely to be used, but as mentioned, the manager flexible in his approach. He has already stated a preference for a front three of Gonzalo Higuain, Messi and José Sosa, a player Sabella is familiar with from his Estudiantes days.

The Copa America showed that the gap between the big and the small in South America is ever decreasing. That means there are no easy matches anymore, no matter how clichéd that sounds. Those first two games will give an indication of how Argentina’s new coach administers the fabulous players at his disposal in a competitive setting. There is little room for failure and patience is not a virtue in Argentinian football. In Alejandro Sabella, however, there is at last a man with a plan at the helm of the national side. And there is cause for optimism.

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