Relying without accepting: Messi, Argentina and Ronaldo
Watching Argentina is like watching the old joke about the guy who has asked God to be rescued from a rooftop while a flood rages all around him. After rejecting offers of help from two boats and a helicopter in the belief that, no, no God will rescue me, he eventually reaches the pearly gates and asks St. Peter why God didn’t save him. The reply, ‘I sent two helicopters and a boat.’
Argentina have a rotar-fitted-catamaran, but they don’t seem to want to use him. Tonight, as other nights, they demonstrated the faith that their diminutive-demi-deity Leo Messi would rescue them without even attempting to build a helipad so he could land.
Argentina’s defense and midfield are definitely the downpour causing the flood. In these areas they fundamentally lack the players, you could argue. Mascherano is 34 and playing in China and Perez didn’t look up to it at this level. Otamendi has been much improved for City this season, but still has a mistake in him and the other names along the back line don’t exactly jump out. This is a side that conceded six to Spain.
But what about the rescue? Why are Argentina refusing to use their catamaran?
Simply putting his name on the teamsheet and letting him run out onto a pitch isn’t enough. The media have, to an extent, rightly fixated on the poor quality of this Argentina side, and while they’re not stellar they should have enough quality going forward to turn in a better performance than they did last night and against Iceland. Argentina started last night with Higuain and Dybala on the bench. And, obviously, they’ve got that man. So, what’s the problem?
I’ll quote Michael Cox’s tactical analysis here, which you can read in full on The Independent.
“Leo Messi, playing in a familiar inside-right zone but in a completely unfamiliar system, swapped a couple of chances with the overlapping Salvio, but nothing about Argentina’s system helped him advance into dangerous positions.
Sergio Aguero isn’t the type of centre-forward who comes towards play to allow Messi to play one-twos, and the absence of proper width meant Croatia’s defenders played narrow and crowded him out when needed.”
Ok, so that explains how Argentina didn’t focus on Messi, and why he couldn’t rescue them. But it doesn’t get to the how. I think the answer lies partly, of course, in incompetence, but also at least partly in Argentina’s pride.
They seem to want to have all the comfort of relying on Messi, without any of the loss of face involved in building a team around one star. Argentina want to have the swagger of a Brazilian forward line which has Neymar, but can also boast Gabriel Jesus, Firmino and Douglas Costa.
By contrast, Portugal accept who and what they are, and they, and Cristiano, thrive because of it. As a result of all of this, talk of Messi vs Ronaldo has exploded again. No one wants to revisit Messi vs Ronaldo, least of all me. Except I do. But not to refight which player is the best on any objective level, but just to look at how the two have been enabled by their teams, both at club and international level.
At Real Madrid, despite it being a team of galacticos, everything is built around Ronaldo. Modric and Kroos provide a platform, rather than shining as stars in their own right – and we’ve seen at this tournament just how good the former is. Benzema is in the team because he draws defenders out of Ronaldo’s way. Even deliciously talented players like Isco and Ascencio seem designed to fill in when Ronaldo has an off day, or needs a rest, rather than truly compete for the spotlight on the biggest stages.
Right now, you could arguably say the same is true for Messi at Barcelona, but I think that’s a relatively recent development. Historically, Iniesta, Xavi, Suarez and even Neymar (despite his protestations) were genuinely allowed to compete for the spotlight rather than simply being there to facilitate Messi. This obviously worked for Barcelona, all the prodigious talent in those sides functioned as cogs in a machine, rather than worker bees serving a Queen.
This is what much of the argument boils down to. Messi, for me, is a better player. He’s certainly a more enjoyable player to watch – where Messi brings a joyous grin, Ronaldo elicits a wry smile, and very occasionally an open-mouthed gape. Ronaldo, though, on the biggest stages, is allowed to shine for Madrid, and to rescue Portugal. Messi often isn’t.