Sampaoli saga highlights contrasting approaches to international management

Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina have survived by the skin of their teeth, beating Nigeria with a late goal, courtesy of Marcos Rojo, to secure progression to the Round of 16.

However, for the majority of their time in Russia, many believed that Argentina could be the first major nation to be dumped out of the tournament, due in no small part to the deterioration in relations between the players and their coach.

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In the buildup to the tournament, it seemed as if Jorge Sampaoli wished to mould the team in his precise tactical image, which included a formation with a back three.

When it became clear though that the players were both unwilling and possibly incapable of performing that system, they lined up in a more conventional back four in their opening game against Iceland for which they were still football betting favourites.

After what was a disastrous draw, which saw Lionel Messi miss a spot-kick, Sampaoli decided to do things his way. The side returned to the three defender system, which resulted in a three-goal capitulation at the hands of Croatia.

Sampaoli’s decision to stick to principle, and build a team that fits his style rather than that of his players, is certainly an interesting one.

When Antonio Conte first arrived at Chelsea, he described the role of the manager as being similar to that of a tailor, building a system that best fits the players available as if designing a well-fitting suit.

The Argentina manager clearly takes a different view on his role in constructing a game plan for his team.

While such a principle has its merits, as Sampaoli may believe that he is better suited to coaching within the intricacies of his preferred system, or that it holds special benefits which opponents will find harder to nullify.

Certainly, the “tailor” approach, when taken too far, can also have its drawbacks. Argentina’s Round of 16 opponents, France, have a setup that caters to most of the team’s star names but doesn’t provide a coherent system to link them together.

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Both Sampaoli and Didier Deschamps have faced wild criticism during the World Cup media frenzy, which seems to be because of how both lie on diametrically opposed poles of the international management spectrum.

On the one hand, Sampaoli’s commitment to his system has led him to disregard the wishes of his players, leading to a major fallout in the Argentina camp.

On the other hand, Deschamps has been criticised since he first selected his squad the tournament, widely accused of merely favoring the big names without enough consideration as to how they were going to play together in a tactical system.

Most national teams at the World Cup are at different places on this very spectrum. Gareth Southgate’s England, for example, have moved significantly towards the “Sampaoli side” since their last major tournament under Roy Hodgson.

The decisions to Dele Alli deeper into midfield and convert Kyle Walker into a center-back show that Southgate is willing to shuffle the pack to make it fit his desired system, and so far, it has been working for them.

The struggles of international management are plentiful and plain for all to see. While Argentina’s poor performances may be entirely uncharacteristic, the reason for their struggle certainly isn’t.

Sampaoli’s failings with the national team remind us just how important it is for national team coaches to strike the right balance between their ideals and their players.

The Author

Gian Chansrichawla

Aspiring football journalist living in Bangkok, Thailand. Currently working for Thai League club Muangthong United.

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