How to fix Argentina: Drop Caballero, pass to Messi and get back to basics

Argentina are still alive in this World Cup after two dismal matches, but their chances of progressing to the knockout stage are on life support and the mood surrounding the team makes it feel as if some of the players are, too. Can they turn this around? And whether they manage to or not during this tournament, what steps can they take afterwards to recover?


Put Willy Caballero out of his misery

For years people said Sergio Romero couldn't do the job for Argentina without regular playing time at his club. For years he proved them wrong. But Caballero's poor performances for Argentina this year in friendlies and during the World Cup have underlined just what a difficult trick Romero pulled off in moving from club understudy to international leading man and making it look easy.

With Romero sidelined through injury, Argentina can't afford another goalkeeping slip-up, and while both the other keepers in the squad are also novices at international level, both have played better and far more often at club level this season.

River Plate's Franco Armani is the obvious choice to come in. Nahuel Guzman, of Tigres in Mexico, wouldn't be a bad pick, but the media clamour for Armani in Argentina has been such that if Guzman came in and made an error then Sampaoli would be crucified, whereas if Armani did, the manager would at least be able to argue that he had given his critics what they wanted and it hadn't worked. Either way, a game-losing error seems less likely with either of them than with Caballero right now.

Move the ball forward from midfield

Against Nigeria, Lionel Messi needs to get the ball more than he did against Croatia, but also further up the pitch. To do this, a midfield passer is essential. Ever Banega can be frustratingly inconsistent for Argentina, but his inclusion would be a display of intent; Giovanni Lo Celso is a decent alternative. Argentina don't have an embarrassment of riches in this role, but the squad contains sufficient quality for this game, if Sampaoli is interested.

Find a system for the players

Sampaoli has used 13 different starting lineups and seemingly as many different systems in 13 matches in charge. So far in Russia he has been hammering square pegs into round holes. Surely finding a system to suit the players he's got, rather than vice versa, shouldn't be too much to ask?

It's tricky, of course, to put together an XI that contains as many as possible of Argentina's best players in their favoured roles, while avoiding being ludicrously top-heavy, but the side actually looked at their best when pressing high up the pitch and trying to rush Croatia's defence when their opponents had the ball. If that plan can be developed, it could be worth pursuing.

Keep a cool head, and sort those substitutions out!

Sampaoli's Chile side were tactically fluid, but against Croatia (and more broadly in his time with Argentina so far) his knack for making game-changing switches has deserted him. On Thursday, the side lost all shape when they had to chase the game, ending up with two attackers on each wing and no one in midfield. In response to going a goal down, somewhat against the run of play, and with well over half an hour left, it looked like panic.

It's hard to escape the sensation that, in his dream job, Sampaoli is allowing his emotions to cloud his judgement at times. For some groups of players, that emotional edge might help drive the team on, but what Argentina seem to need more than anything at present is a calming hand on the rudder.

Medium-long term

For this part, let's assume -- contrary to certain sections of the Argentine media, but in line with common sense given the reported US$16 million cost of sacking him -- that Sampaoli remains in charge after Argentina's involvement in Russia 2018 is over, whether that's this coming Tuesday or after the final on July 15.

Plan for the post-Messi era

Like it or not, it's coming. This will almost certainly be Messi's last World Cup, and his emotional turmoil so far has been plain to see -- international retirement in the next few weeks wouldn't be a surprise to anyone. Given how completely and for how long Argentina have relied on him, it's going to be a difficult transition to make. If Sampaoli can't persuade Messi to stay on for one more tournament, a clear succession plan needs to be put in place.

That could involve finally giving Paulo Dybala -- who's often looked more suited to replacing Messi in the event of injury or suspension than to playing alongside him -- the freedom of the pitch, and it certainly should involve making creation more of a team effort. Something, of course, that ought to be a priority if Messi stays, as well.

Aim at next year's Copa America

One of the oft-cited difficulties in international football compared with the club game is that there's no immediate chance for redemption when a result or a competition goes badly. But after this World Cup there is another major international tournament in just 12 months. The 2019 Copa America in Brazil offers as quick an opportunity as is available in this context.

It should be a chance to blood various youngsters and clear out some players who've passed their sell-by dates. Having come in late in qualifying and operaing under the need to get results immediately, the frustrating reality is that we might only see the real Sampaoli's Argentina after the World Cup.

Get back to basics

On one level, Argentina's problems of the last two years can be traced all the way back to Jose Pekerman's departure as manager back in 2006. Since he and Hugo Tocalli left, Argentina's previously spectacular youth system has dried up under the tutelage of Humberto Grondona, son of then-AFA president Julio. Now, with Sampaoli's assistant Sebastian Beccacece in charge of the under-20s and Pablo Aimar overseeing the lower age groups, there's a greater degree of oversight.

There's young talent: Racing forward Lautaro Martinez has had a fine season and only narrowly missed out on being taken to this World Cup, while Estudiantes de La Plata youth product Santiago Ascacibar made 29 appearances in the heart of midfield for Bundesliga side Stuttgart in his first term abroad this past season, and only turned 21 a few months ago.

What the AFA need more than anything is a project which looks further into the future than the next couple of matches.