Argentina usually find a way. Not always the most thrilling team at the World Cup in Brazil four years ago, the South Americans still managed to reach the final, having won their knockout games with an early goal (against Belgium), a late goal (against Switzerland and on penalties (against the Netherlands).
They found a way, somehow, during qualification for Russia too. Underwhelming for the majority of the CONMEBOL campaign, La Albiceleste were bailed out by a Lionel Messi hat-trick in the final game against Ecuador.
They had done the job but just about but friendly defeats to Nigeria and Spain, the latter a humiliating 6-1 demolition, did little to establish a sense of optimism ahead of Russia.
That ambivalence surrounding Argentina seems well-placed now following the 1-1 draw with Iceland in their Group D opener.
Argentina, like Portugal and England before them, failed to overcome the spirited Scandinavians at a major tournament. Having dropped two points, beating Croatia is imperative for Argentina and Jorge Sampaoli, their increasingly under-fire head coach.
The Croatia match offers a different – and arguably more difficult – proposition for the two-time World Cup winners. Argentina must find a way to unlock the Croatian defence while taming the threat of Luka Modrić et al.
There have been reports that Sampaoli is considering tactical changes for Thursday night’s clash. Here, we look at five key dilemmas facing the 58-year-old.
Change in central midfield
It came as quite a surprise. The last time Sampaoli lined up with Biglia and Mascherano anchoring the midfield, it ended in a 6-1 defeat to Spain.
Against La Roja, Mascherano struggled and was hooked off after 56 minutes. In the Iceland game, however, Biglia was replaced by Éver Banega after just 54 minutes. Almost immediately, the dynamic changed. Banega introduced more enterprise to the Argentine midfield, finding pockets of space from which the Sevilla man sought to find Messi.
Although Iceland held firm for a point, it seems highly likely that Sampaoli will opt for a bolder, more adventurous approach.
The former Chile boss may decide to use Banega from the start but has other options. Giovani Lo Celso, who started in the pre-tournament friendly victory over Haiti, is one. Enzo Pérez, who replaced the injured Manuel Lanzini a week prior to the tournament, is another.
He may also choose to shift Maximiliano Meza, the Independiente midfielder who only made his debut in that defeat to Spain in March, to a central role. The 25-year-old made five key passes against Iceland.
Sampaoli has several combinations to consider but we’d be highly surprised if he opts for the ultra-conservative Biglia-Mascherano pairing again.
Pavon’s chance to shine?
Meza wasn’t the only Argentina-based player to catch the eye against Iceland as the highly-rated Cristian Pavón made an impression after replacing Ángel Di María.
The 22-year-old Boca Juniors forward made a fast start to life in senior international football, creating the winner for Sergio Agüero in the 1-0 win over Russia before notching another assist in his second cap, also for the Manchester City striker, during the 4-2 defeat to Nigeria.
Di María has been a regular starter under Sampaoli but there is a perception that he hasn’t quite been at his best lately. He was certainly underwhelming against Iceland. The Paris Saint-Germain wide man failed to even attempt a dribble, perhaps illustrating a lack of confidence and strengthening the argument that turning to Pavón could introduce fresh ideas and quicker rhythm on the flanks.
Sampaoli opted to go with Eduardo Salvio at right-back against Iceland. The 27-year-old, often deployed as a right winger in the Benfica line-up, is the more attacking option on that side.
For Croatia, however, Sampaoli will almost certainly go with Gabriel Mercado. The Sevilla right-back is the more reliable defensive option and Sampaoli will perhaps favour his positional discipline and man-marking skills when considering the threat posed by Ivan Perisić down that side.
As for the central defensive pairing, Sampaoli may consider replacing Marcos Rojo with Federico Fazio. The Manchester United defender looked unnerved by the physicality of Iceland’s Alfred Finnbogason at times, losing half of his six aerial battles. Fazio, standing 6ft 5in, unsurprisingly, dominates such situations, leading Serie A defenders for aerials won in the 2017/18 season with 4.65 per 90.
With Mario Mandzukić to stop, Sampaoli may well turn to the Roma centre-back with Rojo dropping out.
Dybala’s return unlikely
Paulo Dybala wouldn’t have enjoyed his first taste of the World Cup very much. The Juventus playmaker remained seated on the bench for the full 90 minutes, watching Messi and co attempting to break down the Icelandic barrier.
Fresh off a 26-goal season with Juventus, Dybala would have been excused for expecting a call from Sampaoli. It never came. The 24-year-old would have been disappointed, especially seeing as Gonzalo Higuaín, who scored three fewer for Juventus last season, replaced Meza after 84 minutes.
However, Dybala is merely a victim of Argentina’s attacking riches. La Joya, as he is known, seems the most natural successor to Messi in this Argentina team, but he may have to bide his time a bit longer before given the opportunity to fully express himself at a major tournament.
Dybala is not an out-and-out striker and, while he can operate from a wide position, players like Pavón and Di María are more natural wingers. Dybala’s role is very similar to that of Messi’s and fitting them both into a system effectively has been a problem for Sampaoli (the pair have started just three games together).
There are, however, those who believe reinstating Dybala could be a key ingredient in Argentina recapturing their golden touch.
As you can see from their player comparison personas below, Dybala’s game for Argentina is characterised by dribbles and crosses more than Messi’s. He is also extremely adept at breaking the lines with his movement, a dynamic and unpredictable presence that was lacking against Iceland.
Speaking at the press conference ahead of the Croatia game, Dybala made clear his thoughts on playing alongside the Argentina captain: “Messi wants to change our situation the most. There’s no substitute for him, not here, not anywhere. Obviously we can play together.”
Even that confident declaration most likely won’t change Sampaoli’s mind.
Tweak to the formation?
Following the Iceland game, Sampaoli tinkered with his system, testing a three-man back-line which saw Nicolás Otamendi, Mercado and Nicolás Tagliafico as the three central defenders, with Salvio being pushed further up as a wing-back.
Biglia was reportedly replaced by Marcos Acuña. Personnel changes are almost guaranteed. Sampaoli hasn’t kept a starting line-up in consecutive games during his time as Argentina manager and his rearranging is likely to continue against Croatia.
Whether he reverts back to a three-man defence, however, remains to be seen. The coach often used a 3-3-3-1 formation during his time at Chile and Sevilla and even tried a 3-3-1-3 against Russia and Nigeria. That system essentially gives Messi a free role and his coach may be tempted into restoring it.
It’s not an overstatement to say Sampaoli’s job is on the line. These decisions carry with them enormous significance. Thursday night will be a fascinating battle. Whether it’s a battle that ends in an Argentine victory will be largely shaped by Sampaoli’s decision-making.