Jorge Sampaoli has a problem.
He is a coach with a proven record at the international level. He took Chile to its first international title, beating Argentina on penalties in the final of the 2015 Copa America. He represents the modern face of Bielsista football and has always dreamt of leading his national team. He is probably the first truly top-class coach Argentina has had since the departure of Coco Basile in 2008. But his football requires quick defenders and Argentina’s are slow.
There is a terrible irony in this, that just as Argentina has the coach it needs, it has players who don’t fit his ideal of pressing hard and maintaining a high line. Sampaoli was the third coach Argentina used in qualifying, the three draws and a win he managed in his four games in charge just enough to get La Albiceleste over the line. But what followed when he tried to impose his philosophy in full was deeply worrying. Although there were wins over Russia and Italy, Argentina also conceded four against Nigeria and six against Spain. The lesson was clear: Sampaoli’s football played with Nicolas Otamendi and Marcos Rojo at center back was highly vulnerable.
Sampaoli’s solution was radical. Others might have stuck with a familiar solution and hoped for the best. They might have done what Alejandro Sabella did at the last World Cup, which was to pack men behind the ball and hope Lionel Messi could do something. But Sampaoli decided to announce a new way of playing three weeks before the World Cup began and the use of a system that, if it has ever been played in the 155 years football has existed in its present form, has never gained any traction.
“It’s clear that we need to have a base system, which could well be the 2-3-3-2,” Sampaoli said at the squad announcement. “This will allow us to occupy different levels on the pitch, and develop our game in a way that will increase the difficulty the opponent has in containing us. Over and above having a compact, like-minded team of course. It would be through said different levels we are able to show our superiority–by dominating with the ball.”
Diego Maradona has already dismissed the plan as “ridiculous,” although given how badly his time in charge of the national side at the 2010 World Cup went, Sampaoli is unlikely to take too much notice of that. And the truth of it is that the formation may not be quite so outrageous as it initially sounds–and that it has been in the process of development since at least the friendly against Singapore last year.
Messi, as ever, is the key. Sampaoli had wanted to add additional security by adding a third central defender and deploying a 3-4-3, something he had done with Chile. Messi, though, played in that shape at Barcelona last season under Luis Enrique and found it both restricted him and drew opposing markers into the space, in a sort of inside-right position, in which he liked to operate.
He explained his reservations to Sampaoli, and they agreed that the best way for Messi to play was as a second striker drifting off a front man, almost certainly Gonzalo Higuain. Messi’s forthrightness in putting forward his opinion surprised many, but he is far more tactically engaged than is often realized; he often spends the first few minutes of games doing nothing other than wandering about assessing the opposition, which is why such a tiny proportion of all the many goals he has scored have come in the first five minutes of games.
But to play Messi in a front two with no other creator risks a huge dependence upon him, which has been an issue numerous managers have failed to resolve. Sampaoli’s solution is to add another, deeper-lying, playmaker, probably Ever Banega, supported by two shuttlers, probably Giovani Lo Celso and Angel Di Maria (although Di Maria was used wide in the recent friendly against Haiti with Lo Celso in a slightly more defensive role).
Either way, there is then a need for both a pivot to anchor the midfield–Javier Mascherano–and two wingbacks to offer width. That leaves a goalkeeper and two central defenders: 2-3-3-2. As Sampaoli pointed out, though, given how modern fullbacks play, very few back fours these days actually operate with four defenders, which the use of a deep-lying midfielder to offer cover as a third defender is standard for teams who use attacking fullbacks.
With formations there is always an element of arbitrariness about precisely when the snapshot is taken, and it doesn’t take much squinting to see the 2-3-3-2 as little more than a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond and attacking fullbacks. But that is not to downplay the boldness of what Sampaoli is doing.
He has taken the central issue of how best to use Messi, found a solution that, at least in theory, is coherent and exciting, and promised his side will look to dominate the ball. It may work or it may not, but what it means is there will be a fascination in watching Argentina at this World Cup that extends beyond its best player.