In defence of Argentina’s defence

Garay ArgentinaWith their passage to Brazil already confirmed, Argentina’s final two qualifiers gave boss Alejandro Sabella an opportunity to experiment with his squad selection, especially in light of Lionel Messi’s absence through injury.  The inclusion of Mauro Icardi and Erik Lamela certainly indicated a willingness to look for a viable Plan B if, heaven forbid, they are without their talisman come next summer.

A 3-1 win against Peru and a 3-2 loss to Uruguay – albeit fielding a second-string side – served up some mixed conclusions but nevertheless will have been a useful exercise for Sabella.

The Albiceleste’s potency upfront, arguably the best array of attacking talent in the world, is well-documented but has also led to criticism of a top heaviness. With a quartet of Messi, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Angel Di Maria the balance of the team inevitably leans towards attack but with the second best defensive record in qualifying of just 15 goals conceded in 16 games suggest that doubts, though not unfounded, might be somewhat overblown.

Sabella’s first choice centre back pairing of Ezequiel Garay and Federico Fernandez have benefitted from a settled run in the side and have begun to form a good understanding.  While few could argue with Garay’s selection, the jury is still out over Fernandez. His performance against Uruguay, without his usual cohort by his side, will not have allayed lingering fears.

It is unlikely that Sabella will ditch the partnership he has put so much faith in at this late stage but should an injury or suspension rule out either Garay or Fernandez, who would Argentina turn to?  Fabricio Coloccini has been a regular in recent squads and is an able understudy, while Hugo Campagnaro and the relatively unknown Jose Maria Basanta seem to be favoured by Sabella, if anything for their versatility. Trusted they may be but are they the men to help Argentina win a third world title?

There are, however, a number of players so far overlooked who merit a place in the squad and could easily step up into the heart of the defence.

First and foremost is Fiorentina centre-back Gonzalo Rodriguez.  A regular for Villarreal during their most successful period, Rodriguez helped them reach the semi-finals of the Champions League before injury hampered his career.  Following el Submarino Amarillo’s relegation from La Liga, he moved to Vicenzo Montella’s Fiorentina and has flourished in the highly watchable Viola side.  At 29 he is reaching his prime and his big game experience would benefit Sabella’s squad no end.

A further possibility is another Argentine currently considered as one of the best defenders in Serie A. English fans may remember Gabriel Paletta from his brief and unsuccessful spell at Liverpool, where he spent just one season before returning to Argentina, but since his move to Parma in 2010 the tall 27-year-old has fulfilled the potential he showed at Banfield.  Eye catching performances last season saw Paletta attract attention from AC Milan, prompting Parma CEO Pietro Leonardi to slap a huge €35mil price tag on him.  Still to make his senior side debut, Sabella would be wise to give him a chance.

Alternatively, a player vying for a recall is Porto’s Nicolas Otamendi.  Played out of position at right back during Maradona’s fateful 2010 World Cup campaign, the ex-Velez stopper was widely scapegoated by the local media for Argentina’s disappointing campaign.  However, consistently impressive performances for champions Porto over the past three years merit a return to the international fold.  Add the promising Lisandro Lopez, on loan at Getafe from Benfica, to the mix and there is plenty of proof that Argentina do have options and depth at centre back.

Full back, however, does remain a real cause for concern. Pablo Zabaleta aside, there is a dearth of truly top-class players.  Marcos Rojo seems to be getting the nod at left back but has yet to convince, while Clemente Rodriguez and Cristian Ansaldi are limited replacements. Gino Peruzzi has tremendous potential but a lack of experience may count against him and though unlikely, the door could still be open to the likes of Lucas Orban, Facundo Roncaglia or even Milton Casco.  Simply put, options are as short as Gabriel Mercado’s neck.

In terms of goalkeepers, Sabella at least has a steady supply of competent candidates.  Sergio Romero has endured a bit of a wobble lately and is not starting for Monaco but remains first choice, while Mariano Andujar is the established number two. The calls for Willy Caballero have been growing louder after a sensational 12 months and his performance against Real Madrid will have served as yet another timely reminder.  There are also a number of domestic keepers such as Agustin Orion, Marcelo Barovero, Sebastian Saja, Agustin Marchesin, Cristian Campestrini, Nahuel Guzman and young prospect Geronimo Rulli who could all get third choice spot.

Extending the idea of defending beyond just those players ‘in defence’ to the team as a collective unit, there may be cause for more optimism.  As well as trying out various formations, Sabella has begun to encourage a more pressing game and, though Argentina are not the main exponents of this, they certainly have the players capable of executing it and thus alleviating their backline.  Sabella has said in the past that “the first defenders must be our strikers” and in Messi, Aguero, Lavezzi etc there is plenty of energy and tireless running to pressurise opposition defenders and attempt to retain possession quickly.

As Canchallena’s Christian Leblebidjian pointed out in a recent article there were numerous examples of pressing in the game against Peru, leading to two of Argentina’s goals. Furthermore, the stats show that even when the strikers were unable to directly recuperate possession, their pressure forced mistakes and as such allowed Di Maria to have such a high number of interceptions.  Peru may not be the hardest opposition but this interesting tendency should influence the way we judge Argentina’s defence.

What’s more, take into account the defensive shield provided by Javier Mascherano in the classic number 5 ‘pac man’ role alongside a deep lying playmaker such as Fernando Gago, Ever Banega or Lucas Biglia to quickly turn defence into attack and the question of the personnel in defence seems mildly less burning.

It’s clear Argentina do not have the best defence in the world but there are viable options at centre back and in goal that Sabella could – and maybe should – call upon as the World Cup draws nearer.  Admittedly full back is a big worry but the collective defensive qualities across the side, coupled with their immense firepower, will give the fans cause to be quietly confident in Brazil.

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