Can Maradona maximize Messi impact?
When the best player in the world sets foot on South African soil at the World Cup this summer, it is logical to assume that his team will be one of the favourites.
In the Champions League quarter-final second leg match between Barcelona and Arsenal last week, Barcelona's Argentine star Lionel Messi single-handedly destroyed the English club. His four sublime goals led his team to a 4-1 victory and served to underline his dominance as the world's best player.
Yet despite Messi's brilliant form for his club team, we have rarely seen him reach his full potential when pulling on the blue and white jersey of his homeland. It begs the question: how can a player perform heroics for his club team, while at the same time fail to shine for his country?
The answer, in my opinion, is twofold.
Club form vs. country form
First, there is a level of comfort that all players achieve when playing for their club side. Training with those teammates day in, day out, week in, week out for years at a time breeds familiarity. An understanding is developed whereby players go out on the field not as individuals, but rather as a unit. This familiarity is difficult - if not impossible - to re-create at the national team level. There is simply not enough time spent training together prior to competition for that familiarity to grow.
Second, one has to question the tactical approach being taken by the national team coach. In the case of Argentina, while Diego Maradona was arguably the world's best -ever player, he has yet to demonstrate a similar ability at the managerial level.
While nothing can be done to increase the amount of time that national team players spend together prior to competing, the tactical preparation that they are given before a competition is an area where improvements can always be made, especially in the case of Argentina.
To call Maradona an indecisive manager would be a monumental understatement. He has, over the course of Argentina's World Cup qualifying campaign, selected over 50 different players to represent his country. He has fallen out with integral players such as Juan Roman Riquelme, and has shown an inability to control his emotions and make clinical decisions that are in the best interest of his team.
Perhaps most importantly, Maradona has failed to be consistent in his choice of tactical formation. He has at various times during Argentina's qualifying campaign played with three defenders; at other times he has employed a system that utilized four defenders. He has switched formations between a 3-5-2, a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-1-2, and generally shown very little consistency in his tactical approach to the game.
What this does is destabilize his team, to the point where players like Messi are unsure of what their role in the team will be from one game to the next.
Maradona would be better served by choosing a formation that is suitable to the players he has at his disposal and then sticking with it. Argentina has a pool of players that is as good as any country in the world; choosing a formation to suit their strengths shouldn't be a difficult thing to do.
Following Barca's example
Given that Messi is playing the best football of his life at just the right time (just prior to the World Cup), I would suggest that Maradona take a leaf out of Barcelona's book and employ a similar system to the Spanish club.
Choosing to play a 4-3-3 system like Barcelona would allow Lionel Messi to occupy the same role for his country as he does for his club. Playing on the right wing would allow Messi to pick up the ball in wide areas and run at defenders, a skill that he has used to maximum effect for Barcelona.
Some might say that Barcelona focus most of their attacking play through Messi, and that Argentina should look to do the same. I think that argument does a disservice to Messi's teammates at both Barcelona and Argentina.
Neither is a one-man team, and neither should be. In Barcelona, Messi has the luxury of playing alongside great players like Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Carlos Puyol, Gerard Pique and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. For his national team, Messi is in the company of Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Aguero, Fernando Gago and Gonzalo Higuain.
A front three of Tevez, Higuain and Messi will be as dangerous an attacking force as anything put forth by the competition in South Africa. Mascherano will anchor the midfield, with Gago and Esteban Cambiasso also capable contributors in the middle of the park. Playing with a back four will allow Argentina to be more solid defensively, which is where I believe they are their most vulnerable.
Maradona has to decide on a formation and be consistent with its application so that his players can develop cohesion prior to the World Cup. If he can do that, then Messi has every chance of fulfilling his reputation as the world's best player.