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Copa America: Lionel Scaloni's Argentina project is reaping benefits

They had emerged from a dismal show at the 2018 World Cup, and are now on the rise

argentina-scaloni Argentina's coach Lionel Scaloni | AP

Lionel Scaloni took over the reins of the Argentina national team in 2018, at a time when there was disarray not only in the team but also in the football association. The country had emerged from a dismal show at the 2018 World Cup, and the players were unhappy with the decisions by the board. Jorge Sampaoli had been coach for little over a year and had lost the confidence of his players by the end of the tournament.

The 40-year-old Scaloni, who was the assistant coach, was given interim charge of the top job. A string of good performances got him the permanent role and, for a team in flux, his side impressed at the 2019 Copa America, finishing third. Two years on, the long-term project that was set in motion by his appointment seems to be reaping its benefits. 

When Argentina met Uruguay in the 2021 Copa America group stage, Scaloni was up against the grand old man of Uruguayan football, Oscar Tabarez, in the opposition dugout. Tabarez, 74, has built a team methodically since 2006. Unlike with the Argentina side that has been subject to constant changes in personnel and tactics, Tabarez has brought stability to the Uruguayan team, having a core group of players at every stage to ensure continuity and smooth progression.

But, on Saturday, Scaloni emerged victorious. A 1-0 victory had settled it. It looks like Scaloni might just be taking a leaf out of Tabarez's playbook. His side that beat Uruguay has a set of consistent performers who have come through under Scaloni. Forwards Lautaro Martinez and Nicolas Gonzalez, midfielders Guido Rodrigues, Rodrigo De Paul and defender Nahuel Molina were all starters in the game who were groomed by Scaloni.

While Argentina's 2018 World Cup squad was the oldest in the tournament, Scaloni has kept his team young and vibrant, with only a few members of the old guard like Lionel Messi, Angel di Maria and Nicolas Otamendi getting regular game time. Scaloni has so far averaged 2.1 points a game since 2018—way better than his predecessors Sampoali (1.67) and Edgardo Bauza (1.38).

One area that Scaloni has succeeded in is the duties handed to Messi. For several years until the 2018 debacle, Messi has been playmaker, goal-scorer, set-piece specialist and everything else his coaches wanted him to be. Scaloni has changed that to relieve the pressure on the ageing Messi. He has given the Barcelona star a free-role to roam and he is no longer the sole creative outlet of the team. 

Messi has thrived in this system. While the likes of De Paul, Rodrigues, Gonzalez and di Maria have taken up the task of building up play between themselves, opposition teams have realised that by simply marking Messi, they cannot stop Argentina. Messi drifts in and out of play, conserves energy for his attacking bursts when he is in space, and when defenders converge on him, he finds his teammates with pinpoint precision. It was his cross that resulted in the headed goal by Rodrigues against Uruguay. 

The team frequently plays the ball down the wings, widening the field of play and getting the full backs to overlap and provide crosses too. The dynamism that Argentina has in attack is something that has long eluded the team despite the wealth of attacking talent. Now, with youngsters coming through, Scaloni does not really solely on star power, but in efficient passing between players who are not only comfortable on the ball but who have also built good chemistry between themselves.

While defence was a major worry, especially since the departure of the reliable Javier Mascherano, Scaloni is working on that by deploying sturdy defenders and midfielders like Leandro Paredes and current Manchester United-target Cristian Romero. Their physical presence and hard tackles have rattled opposition attackers. Furthermore, goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez has been rewarded for a sensational season with Aston Villa by earning his first two competitive games for his country against Chile and Uruguay in this edition of the tournament.

The 2021 Copa America campaign for Argentina has begun on a comfortable note with a draw and a win against the two toughest opponents in the group. Should Scaloni's men excel over the next few weeks, they will eventually run into a red-hot Brazil. And even if Scaloni delivers Argentina its first major trophy since 1993, the project will not be complete. Helping Messi lift the elusive World Cup at Qatar next year is no doubt the ultimate goal.

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