Did Lionel Messi fail his team? Or did he never have a chance to succeed?

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Argentina lost to Croatia in embarrassing fashion on Thursday, leaving them with one point after two games and looking at a scenario where it’s exceedingly hard for them to get out of the group stage. It was a poor team performance that got worse when Argentina goalie Willy Caballero made a bad mistake, and the team unraveled on the way to a 3-0 loss.

Because Lionel Messi is involved, however, the game has to be about him.

Did he quit on his team? Did he not get involved enough? Did he not assert himself enough? Did he not use his mind lasers to guide Caballero away from making that dumb, dumb play?

I’d argue that Messi was more let down by tactical decisions from his coach Jorge Sampaoli, who took a calculated bet on a style of play that failed, and then let down again by a team that all but quit when one bad mistake happened.

We’ll get to all that. But first, The Messi Thing.

Yes, he wasn’t good on Thursday. He was barely involved, and never had one of those moments where he forced himself on the game. A kind way of looking at it is he played the position he was supposed to play, took up defenders, and cleared out space that the other Argentina players weren’t able to take advantage of. An unkind way of looking at it is: Messi didn’t want to be there.

I have no idea which is true. It could be a bit of both. After the match, Sampaoli said that Argentina “clouds Messi’s brilliance,” a kind way of saying that Argentina let him down. The tactics started bad and then got very bad, and Messi was never able to get going like a player of his caliber should.

Messi also didn’t seem to want to do anything to change the issue, so I guess it’s your choice on how you want to see it.

With regards to the tactics, though, the weird thing is, I can sort of see what Sampaoli was trying to do.

Especially today, with Sampaoli going with wingbacks to press high up the field, you could see his line of thinking: Bring on a lot of runners, from Salvio to Acuna to Perez to Meza, have them push high up the field and pressure Croatia in their own half. If they could turn the ball over, and get the ball into the feet of Aguero and Messi in a good spot, that’s a great way to create goals.


Argentina v Croatia: Group D - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After Argentina was unable to pick apart Iceland in the first game, Sampaoli advocated for a system that he hoped would create a bit of chaos, basically. Put pressure high, hope for turnovers through midfield, with the idea being that that chaos would free up Messi to get the ball in unsettled situations.

But it wasn’t happening. Croatia’s midfielders figured out how to play out of trouble, and when they couldn’t, the two teams just took turns fouling each other, especially at the end of the first half. Messi remained patient, waiting off the ball and staying where he was supposed to tactically, trying to make sure he was in a good spot when Argentina turned the ball over and gained possession.

But, again, it never really happened. Argentina wasn’t winning possession in the spots they wanted, and when they did, Croatia was so quick to lock down on Messi he couldn’t get involved. Messi wasn’t able to do the old thing he used to do where he’d run all over the pitch to get the ball at his feet when Argentina had possession, because Argentina didn’t dominate possession like they did against Iceland. And when they did have possession, because of their personnel, it was usually frenetic.

After the Willy Caballero howler that gave Croatia the lead, Sampaoli completely lost the plot, throwing on Higuain, taking off Aguero, bringing on other attacking players, as Argentina kept trying to do the thing they’d been doing all game, only more so. It was a catastrophe, and after Luka Modric scored a beauty to beat them on the break, Argentina all but quit. The late Ivan Rakitic goal was a formality, most of the Argentina players not even bothering to jog back onto defense by that point.

Don’t believe me? Ask Sampaoli:

Sampaoli: “After they scored on us, we kind of lost our way and we were emotionally broken, and we didn’t have any footballing arguments to make to change the course of events.”

Next, a Ronaldo goatee question! This is so good.

— Брайан Страус (@BrianStraus) June 21, 2018

I’m sure there are bigger issues going on with this Argentina team. From before kickoff, they looked disjointed, unhappy — Messi spent the national anthem clutching his forehead, as if experiencing a migraine. A lot of questions will be asked about team unity, about roster selection, about a lot of things. (Enzo Perez had a middling season for River Plate, he wasn’t even supposed to be on this team, he joined them from his vacation, there were serious questions about his fitness, and he started the second game of the World Cup.)

For his part, Sampaoli owned it, admitting that he didn’t read the match correctly.

Maybe this Argentina side was doomed from the start. They barely qualified, and haven’t looked right in a long time. But Sampaoli’s tactics did them no favors on Thursday.

Good managers either figure out how to get their best players on the field, or figure out the best system for their team. Sampaoli somehow figured out how to do neither. He left quality players on the bench in service of a system that didn’t work for his best player, and by the time he realized it, it was too late.

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