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Don’t blame Lionel Messi for Argentina’s struggles. Blame the coach.

Argentina’s forward Lionel Messi reacts during the Russia 2018 World Cup Group D football match between Argentina and Croatia. (Johannes EISELE/Getty Images)

Lionel Messi held a stressed, almost traumatized grimace during Argentina’s national anthem presentation before Thursday’s World Cup group match agiant Croatia. Messi — and it feels like it was only Messi — had drawn with Iceland in the opening game of the tournament, and the pressure of leading Diego Maradona’s former powerhouse back to World Cup glory weighed heavier than it ever had before.

The fans of the country whose hopes and dreams were placed entirely on Messi cheered with a twinge of nervousness, likely recognizing the improbability that their superstar could once again haul a dysfunctional cast to a deep World Cup run. Once the game started, it was clear that Argentina had little chance of performing at the level necessary to dethrone a talented, and coherent, Croatia side.

They managed a couple of chances on goal due to the world-class individual skill of some of the players, mainly Messi. But when goalkeeper Willy Caballero scuffed a pass and gave Croatia a 1-0 second-half lead, it seemed to immediately spell the end for Argentina, which has been completely incapable of creating and using space in attack.

Croatia went on to win 3-0, heaping further humiliation upon Jorge Sampaoli’s side. Comparisons with LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers almost draw themselves; the Cavs, driven by a Messi-like all-time great in James, had to revamp their roster midseason to give their superstar at least some basis around which to play for a championship.

For Messi and Argentina, Croatia is latest, largest crater in hard World Cup road

Unlike the Cavs, Argentina does not have the luxury of making trades. It must do with what it has, and while it possesses an enviable amount of depth and talent, it does not seem to quite fit together. It never has in the Messi era.

In an effort to put the puzzle pieces together (a task that has eluded many a coach), Sampaoli played a 3-4-3 formation against Croatia, using Messi as a flexible right winger with plenty of freedom to drift under striker Sergio Aguero.

One notable feature of this formation, in contrast to the 4-2-3-1 the team used against Iceland, is the width it naturally provides. Its goal is to overload the flanks with both pure wingers and wingbacks, trading solidarity in the center of the field for width. Building numbers out wide was an effort to take the pressure off Messi, who spends most games boxed in by four opposing players.

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Argentina had struggled to build through the wide areas while chasing the game against the bunkering Iceland, so a formation that looked like this (with Messi’s ventures into the middle theoretically opening space for wingback Eduardo Salvio) was a reasonable adjustment:

Per, 45 percent of Argentina’s attacks came down the left side, which is to be expected considering where much of that all-important width is situated; Maximiliano Meza and left wing-back Marcos Acuna are more likely to combine down that flank rather than drift inside like Messi.

But while Meza was closer to a pure winger, he didn’t quite fit the goal of creating more space out wide. He cut inside too often for that, and Acuna was too conservative from his wingback position to make a significant difference. Salvio was even more conservative. Croatia was effective at pinning those wingbacks deep to prevent overlaps.

As a result, the formation turned out to be more a 3-4-2-1, with Meza and Messi acting as the “2” line behind Aguero. This adaptation of the 3-4-3 proved to be an unhappy medium. It struggled to create overloads (and thus space) on the wings, but maintained the inherent central-midfield disadvantages of the 3-4-3.

Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, two of Croatia’s world-class three-man midfield, had too much space to work their magic. Everything in soccer is a trade-off, and Argentina’s trade-off was to create its own magic with overloads on the flanks and to forge slivers of space for Messi to find the ball. Without that width, it lost the trade-off.

Sampaoli, in the process of losing that trade-off, neglected to start a player who could provide connectedness and creativity in attack. (The pre-World Cup injury to Manuel Lanzini hurt badly in this regard.) Messi, due mostly to his being quadruple-teamed every time he got the ball, is not and should not be considered that player.

Whoever is that player (he was certainly not on the field from the start in either of Argentina’s games) should have had a fun time playing next to Messi. That hypothetical creator, possibly Paulo Dybala, would have had more time on the ball to pick out passes and combine than anywhere else he’s played thanks to Messi’s unprecedented gravitational pull.

Instead, Sampaoli hoped the midfield tandem of Javier Mascherano and Enzo Perez could do it. Meza certainly didn’t:

Zone 14, the circled area in the above map of Meza’s passes, is the most important place in soccer. At some point, you have to get the ball into that area to consistently create chances, especially if things are not going well on the flanks. Neither Mascherano nor Perez were able to, either.

You could put a nice big light-blue circle on Messi’s map as well, although he was more consistently in good areas than any of the above three players.

(Perez and Mascherano aren’t supposed to be in those areas, by the way. They’re a double-pivot midfield tandem! Not their job! But somebody has to do that job, and Sampaoli never had an answer as to who would.)

Argentina’s attack became an individualistic and dysfunctional mess of players standing around waiting for Messi to make something happen. He made a bunch of things happen, but not once were his teammates able to take advantage.

The intense stress of doing the things Messi has to do for this team — in both tactical terms and broad historic legacy terms — is unrealistic. Argentina long ago decided his eminence on the field liberated them from having to design actual tactics around the other 10 players, making the three previous major finals Messi dragged them to all the more impressive.

It will need a win Tuesday against Nigeria and for other results to go its way to qualify for the knockout stages and keep the all-important World Cup dream alive. A lot is going to have to change internally for that to have any chance of happening.

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