The headlines and the spotlights are all on Argentina’s Lionel Messi, and so they should be. The last dance, if that is what it was, proved to be the best dance as the “Little Genius” won the World Cup at the fifth time of asking.
But it would not have happened without the other Lionel. The golden rule of football is that the stars shine brightest when the collective balance of the side is right — and the man responsible for surrounding Messi with the best, most coherent team of his long international career is rookie coach Lionel Scaloni.
The 44-year-old Argentina boss, with no previous senior coaching experience, got it right once more on the big day of the World Cup final in Qatar.
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Previously the Argentine media had been largely correct when they predicted the team, but this time Scaloni threw them a dummy. Most thought Scaloni would start the game with the inclusion of Lisandro Martinez as one of three centre-backs, and that winger Angel Di Maria would be left on the bench. Scaloni did the opposite.
He was full of respect for France, but with little fear. During Russia 2018, Scaloni’s task on the Argentina coaching staff was to observe future opponents. There, he was especially struck by France, who knocked out Argentina in the round of 16. And, briefly, when he took over as Argentina head coach after the 2018 World Cup, France were a role model.
Scaloni was wary of their quick transition, their capacity to win the ball and their ability to be in position to shoot within three or four seconds. It seemed a natural assumption, then, that he would go with three centre-backs and give himself extra cover, but Scaloni clearly came to another conclusion.
To approach the World Cup final afraid of France would be to admit that the opposition was more important than his team. But if he began from the basis that Argentina were more important, how could he find a way for his men to impose themselves on the game? The answer was to go with a back four, and bring back a fit-again Di Maria into the starting XI.
Once the starting line-up was announced, it was then thought that Di Maria would play wide on the right in a 4-4-2, teaming up with Messi and probing the weakness of the left side of the France defence, where full-back Theo Hernandez has had some awkward moments. Instead, Scaloni sprung a surprise by using Di Maria wide on the left. Now he had a front three, with Messi on the right and Julian Alvarez working furiously through the middle.
With the front line covered, France found it harder to play out from the back and their early minutes were full of passing errors. Also, it obliged France’s midfield pair of Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot to cover more space, which made life hard for Antione Griezmann. Throughout this tournament, using Griezmann as the attacking part of the midfield trio had been a solution for France; Argentina turned it into a problem — and while they were doing that, Di Maria was doing his part to win the game.
So often the unsung hero, so often the man who turns up on the big occasion, Di Maria was the outstanding player on the field for the first hour of Sunday’s final, thoroughly vindicating Scaloni’s decision to use him from the start and go in search of victory, rather than opting to hang on and hope.
Argentina, as we saw for the third (and, in extra time, the fourth) occasion in the tournament, are not at their best when forced to hang on. The game started to change after Di Maria was withdrawn, and once France had built up a belated head of steam, the game slipped away from Argentina as it had against Netherlands, and as it had threatened to do against Australia. Scaloni’s tactical tinkering had almost got them over the line, but in a breathtaking final 45-plus minutes, they needed to dig deep into team spirit and resolve. Again, the coach must take some credit.
In tournament football, once the action gets underway, it is like time speeds up — no one remembers warm up friendlies or qualifying matches. Problems arise, truths are revealed and the coach has to find quick solutions. Scaloni has done this exceptionally well.
Without undue panic, he reacted to the shock opening day defeat to Saudi Arabia with a sequence of changes that have been largely wise and successful. A vital one was the decision to replace Lautaro Martinez up front with Alvarez. Messi was going to be more of a sporadic figure than Scaloni had planned, and so the extra mobility of Alvarez was a necessity. The entry of 21-year-old Enzo Fernandez into the midfield was a masterstroke.
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Switching to a back-three against Netherlands, packing the midfield against Croatia, the changes made for the final — all of these decisions from Scaloni paid off. But the team spirit goes deeper, because if on the one hand tournaments are like time sped up, they are also the consequence of a process that takes place over prolonged periods. And this Argentina team started to be assembled some three-and-a-half years ago, in the 2019 Copa America in Brazil.
It was there, after Argentina fell in the semifinals to Brazil, that Scaloni confronted reality and quickly ditched his idea of imitating France, moving towards a more possession-based game. After that tournament was also when Argentina’s now-core group started to be formed — when Messi finally was assimilated into a collection of younger players who had grown up idolising him and were prepared to sweat blood to support him and succeed together.
Since their loss in the Copa semifinals, their only other defeat came in the opener of this World Cup against Saudi Arabia. The group had gone on to win the 2021 Copa America, also in Brazil — an essential step on the way to lifting the World Cup. That Copa triumph — Argentina’s first senior title in 28 years — gave them extra confidence, took away much of the pressure and lightened the mood.
Scaloni has presided over a prolonged bonding experience, and he laid the groundwork to win this World Cup far ahead of the Argentina squad’s arrival in Qatar. Both his knowledge of dressing room dynamics and his tactical flexibility have proved invaluable to Argentina’s triumph. This indeed is the World Cup of the two Lionels.