Where does any journey begin? You can always go further back, always trace causes of causes, and then the causes of those causes of causes. If Argentina go on to win the World Cup in Brazil - and, the host aside, it is the favorite - three moments will stand out in the development of Alejandro Sabella's side, two of which took place before he was even appointed.
The first perhaps stands as an example of the old Argentina. It came before the Argentina's second group game in the Copa America in 2011, against Colombia in Santa Fe. "En el nueve," said the stadium announcer, "el mejor jugador del mundo... Lionel Messi." In the number nine shirt, the best player in the world. There was polite applause. The announcer went on. "Y en el once, el jugador del pueblo... Carlos Tevez." In the eleven, the player of the people. The stadium erupted in cheers. Whatever the rest of the world may have thought about the respective merits of the two players, here, even in Messi's home province, he was respected but Tevez was loved.
Two games later, Argentina returned to Santa Fe for a quarter-final against Uruguay, both sides having disobligingly scuppered the seeding procedures by finishing second in their groups. Uruguay had Diego Perez sent off in the first half, but held out for a 1-1 draw and then won on penalties. Tevez capped a miserable game by missing the vital kick in the shoot-out and the public mood began to change.
Sergio Batista, who had replaced Diego Maradona as coach after the World Cup, was sacked and replaced by Sabella, who had led Estudiantes to the 2009 Copa Libertadores and the 2010 apertura with tough defensively minded side. His breakthrough came in June 2012 with a 4-3 victory over Brazil in New Jersey. It was only a friendly but it was key in proving his methods, his theories, worked. He set up Argentina in a 4-4-1-1, with two holding central midfielders in Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago, two industrious wide men in Angel Di Mari and Jose Sosa, and Messi operating just off Gonzalo Higuain.
Lionel Messi stands behind Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella during training (Photo: Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images).
Given a solid defensive platform, Messi thrived, scoring a hat-trick. When he excelled again, despite missing a penalty, in a 3-1 friendly victory away to Germany two months later, it had become impossible for Argentinians to moan that Messi never turned it on for the national side. Those displays obliterated the reserve with which he was treated in his homeland, seemingly rooted in the fact that he had never played in Argentina, leaving for Barcelona at the age of 13, leading to doubts about just how committed he really was to the national team.
It had made it much harder too to complain about the players who were being left out. Both Maradona and Batista seemed to feel burdened by the array of attacking talent available to them -- Messi, Higuain, Tevez, Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore -- and had tried to squeeze as many of those players as possible into the side. Sabella, given the perfect excuse to drop Tevez when he walked out on Manchester City and spent six months not playing competitive football, was bold enough to leave out stars. For him, as he had shown at Estudiantes, the system was key.
Although Argentina faltered initially, losing away to Venezuela, Thursday's 3-1 victory against Peru makes it 13 games unbeaten in qualifiers. Sabella, never afraid to modify his approach, switched to a back three for the difficult away games at altitude in Bolivia and Ecuador, content to grind out draws rather than risk the sort of humiliation Argentina suffered in La Paz in qualifying for 2010, when it was beaten 6-1. The back three as a negative ploy, sacrificing possession to create an additional spare defender, was something he'd employed successfully at Estudiantes, most notably in the 0-0 draw away to its nearest rival Velez Sarsfield that effectively sealed the apertura in 2010.
Those games in the mountains aside, Sabella - seemingly because it is what Messi prefers - has switched to a 4-3-3, which allows him to fit in more of that attacking talent. In the 5-2 win on Paraguay, Messi operated in a loose right-sided role, although with license to roam, with Gago deployed as cover on the right side of midfield behind him. Di Maria, thrusting forward on the left, linked midfield and forward lines with Aguero through the middle, Rodrigo Palacio on the left of the attack and Lucas Biglia operating as the true holder in central midfield - although Mascherano would surely have taken that role if available, as he did in the 3-0 win over Venezuela in March. On that occasion, Messi again had his free role on the right with Gago as cover, with Higuain as the central striker and Lavezzi on the left.
There's been a sense in recent games that, with qualification assured, Sabella has been experimenting, trying to find the right blend. He knows the 4-4-1-1 works and his use of that early in qualifying and in those two prestige friendlies both established Messi in Argentinian hearts and earned him credit. Against Peru, Sabella omitted Messi, Higuain, Gago and
and Javier Mascherano were all missing, with Ezequiel Lavezzi taking his chance with a double to secure a comeback win. Sabella's tinkering since, albeit with the fixed points of Mascherano, Gago and Messi, seems like the search for a more attacking, more fluid alternative. The first job is complete; now it's about preparing options for the finals.