“When I stand in front of the chalkboard, I’m the best with formations, putting circles and crosses here and there. The problem is that the moment the game starts, players start to move. They move!”
In his idiosyncratic style, Alfio Basile uses to joke very seriously about tactics. Basile, an old-school manager who believed in the free will of his players, resigned as Argentina coach after losing to Chile in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010. He is one of the six coaches (Jose Pekerman, Diego Maradona, Sergio Batista, Alex Sabella and Gerardo Martino being the others) that thought day and night about where to deploy Messi, and where to get the best out of him. Only a few partially succeeded.
He’s a winger. He’s a nine. He’s a 10. He’s Super Leo. Nobody would dare to question Messi’s superhero abilities, but few are capable of saying exactly what kind of superhero he really is. Is he a nine? Is he a 10? Is he something else? Does he need an out-and-out striker? Or is it better to play him as false nine?
The questions that have been floating in the air for the past decade will be present again on Saturday night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, when Argentina face Venezuela in the Copa America quarter-finals. It will be Messi’s first game in the starting XI following his recovery from the back injury he suffered in a friendly against Honduras, which forced him to start from the bench against Panama and Bolivia. There are also doubts whether Gonzalo Higuain, who hadn’t scored yet, or Sergio Agüero, Messi’s best friend, will play up front.
When Martino, a former No10, took over the national team after a disappointing season in charge of Barcelona, he decided Messi should start again as right-winger – almost as he did 10 years ago, when he started playing top-flight football.
The problem was that Messi didn’t seem comfortable with being confined to a fraction of the pitch. Like a true star, in astronomical sense of the word, Messi held his own gravity and had his own magnetic field: the team should revolve around him, rather than the opposite. Pushed out on to the right, he was left out of some of Argentina’s attacking play.
It was this feeling that also forced Guardiola to “make room” in Barcelona, getting rid of Eto’o and Ibrahimovic and putting Messi in a more central position, offering him more active participation.
Messi’s tactical evolution at Barcelona has been remarkable, and last season saw another landmark in his growth: he left the penalty box to Suárez and worked more as a No10 than a No9, becoming Barcelona’s main assist man. It’s what Argentina had tried to do with him for many years, without success. At least as far as trophies are concerned.
How many is too many?
Argentina have a historical abundance of top strikers capable of putting any manager in tactical trouble. In USA ‘94, Abel Balbo (who had scored 21 goals for Udinese in 1992-93 before moving to Roma) was forced to play left midfield, to make room for Maradona, Claudio Caniggia and Gabriel Batistuta up front. In France 1998 and Korea-Japan 2002, Hernan Crespo waited on the bench: both Daniel Passarella and Marcelo Bielsa believed in the one-No9 policy. And Batistuta was the obvious choice, ahead of the man who had briefly become the most expensive signing ever, after his record move from Parma to Lazio.
Germany 2006 was the first Batigol-less World Cup, but it wasn’t simply for Crespo, either. It was the first tournament for a young Messi, who scored his first goal in the 6-0 defeat of Serbia and Montenegro, 10 years ago on Thursday. But Pekerman, a devotee of 4-3-1-2, had to choose only two from Javier Saviola, Carlos Tevez, Crespo, Julio Cruz (who had scored 21 goals for Inter that season) and Messi. Juan Roman Riquelme was the untouchable No10. When Argentina were beating Germany 1-0, Pekerman decided to send on Cruz and left Messi on the bench. Germany equalised and won on penalties.
Four years later, Maradona had the same problem – “a beautiful problem,” he would note – in South Africa: Higuain, Agüero, Messi, Tevez, Diego Milito (a Champions League winner that season with Inter) and Boca’s Martin Palermo, all available and in their prime. Tevez ended up playing almost in midfield against Nigeria; Messi wore the armband for the first time as a No10 against Greece. It was an audacious decision from Maradona, but Messi, who had scored 47 goals during the season, couldn’t find the net in five games as Argentina exited in the quarter-finals, thrashed 4-0 by Germany in Cape Town.
Messi’s best moments with the Albiceleste jersey came under Sabella, who took over after Argentina’s early exit from Copa América 2011. While his predecessor Batista tried to copy Barcelona’s strategy without success, Sabella created his own team, more similar to Mourinho’s Real Madrid than Guardiola’s Barça: less possession, more explosiveness, better use of counter-attacking, and a happy Messi, without a fixed position. A temporary defeat, against Colombia, was needed to change Sabella’s mind and add a fourth attacking player (Agüero) to a starting XI that already had Angel Di Maria, Messi and Higuain.
It was Messi’s request: he wanted to play with all of them, he felt more comfortable that way. With this virtual 4-2-4, Argentina easily topped the qualifiers and then advanced to their first World Cup final in 24 years, but the team’s makeup drastically changed during the tournament: injuries to Aguero and Di Maria made more room for speedy midfielders, leaving Messi isolated and less happy than in the qualifiers, as the World Cup final proved. It was Messi who sacrificed for the team, rather than the team sacrificing for Messi.
Argentina’s best scorer ever?
All in all, and without ever playing as true No9, Messi had already scored 53 international goals, and needs only two to become Argentina’s all-time greatest scorer, a record that is currently held by Batistuta, with 54. “It will annoy me, but I will have the consolation that I lost my record to a player of another dimension,” Batigol said recently. “Argentina have always had the best strikers in the world. It’s fun to have wingers that cross the ball for you, but when two intelligent No9s play together, they understand each other better than with the wingers.
“It’s what happened to me with Totti at Roma. He was a No9 playing like No10, but had the mindset of a nine. It was a pleasure to know that the ball would come where I wanted. As it was a pleasure to play with Maradona, and it would a pleasure to play with Messi today,” he said.
Despite his impressive goalscoring record, Messi could probably mutate into a classic No10, as Maradona foresaw. But some disagree, like former River star Norberto Alonso, who played as a 10: “Messi is not, and will never be, a 10. He doesn’t understand the position – he starts the play and finishes it. To me, he is a No9, or a forward.”
If the “what to do with Messi” question has proved to be a challenge, the “what to do without Messi” has been terrifying, as became clear at the start of qualifying for Russia 2018: it was Argentina’s worst start ever, with just a single point in the first two games.
Considering he’s potentially the best footballer ever, it wouldn’t be difficult to think that Messi will evolve both as a No9 and No10, becoming a false nine and a false 10 at the same time. But will this genius ever be truly understood by his manager and team-mates?
This, Basile, would probably agree, might look very simple on the chalkboard. But it becomes extremely complicated on the pitch.
This article was written by Martin Mazur, for theguardian.com on Saturday 18th June 2016 10.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010