5 talking points from Argentina’s friendlies with Ecuador and El Salvador



Sadly for Argentine supporters everywhere and particularly those in Washington and New Jersey, the latest friendlies did not provide the opportunity to see Lionel Messi in the blue and white shirt. However with such little time before the Copa América, there was still plenty for Gerardo Martino to ponder over from the matches with El Salvador and Ecuador and decide who he will task with ending Argentina’s 22-year trophy drought.

1. Javier Pastore to bring the enganche back to the Selección

Over the course of two fairly drab friendlies against sides who Argentina were expected to beat there were not many players who came away with an overwhelming amount of credit. However, in the absence of Messi against Ecuador, Javier Pastore produced perhaps his best performance for La Albiceleste and might just have edged into the pole position to take a starting place in the midfield.

Argentina loves a good enganche and not since José Pékerman’s 2006 side with Juan Román Riquelme at its core have there been too many true enganches. Pastore’s career has perhaps stalled a little in Paris after bursting onto the scene with Huracán and dazzling with Palermo but his talent is unquestionable.
Old-fashioned in many ways, Pastore represents a dying breed of player. The unhurried playmaker who creates himself space where there is none, drifts past defenders and spots passes that are unnoticed by most. His skills and performance against Ecuador suggest he could bring this to the national side.

Martino has already said that Messi will take his place on the right of the attack and that will not matter whether it is a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1. In both formations Pastore could take the central role behind the attacker as Mascherano and Biglia provide the defence with protection.

With Messi as one of the available runners in attack, a partnership with Pastore in his natural enganche role could be of real interest in the Copa América. There is little time to test this but Martino might just have seen enough.


2. Who will be Argentina’s number nine?

Competition for places before any major competition is always fierce but none more so than for Argentina’s number nine shirt. An abundance of riches has already seen several players enjoying superb seasons at club level overlooked completely and Gerardo Martino has admitted that from the current squad Sergio Agüero, Carlos Tevez and Gonzalo Higuaín are all vying for just one starting spot.
Given that Paulo Dybala, Luciano Vietto and Mauro Icardi were all overlooked with so few friendlies available to Martino I think it is a safe assumption that they are not in the thinking for his Copa América squad. That will leave a straight decision between the three from this current squad for that central striking role.

Perhaps most significantly Tevez and Higuaín started against El Salvador which most viewed as Martino’s second string side. Higuaín was largely anonymous and although Tevez fared better and was certainly involved more, this was when he dropped far deeper than would be expected of a number nine.
And so the decision to start Agüero centrally against Ecuador in the match that Messi was expected to start is a good indicator that the number nine shirt is his at the moment.

The Manchester City striker didn’t have a great game but did score the opening goal from his only real sight at goal and although Higuaín has the best strike rate for Argentina, it is Agüero that perhaps links best with Messi.


3. Could Di María’s drop in form cost him his place?

The only player to start both friendlies in the United States was Ángel Di María and while this might have been because of the injury to Messi it is more likely that Gerardo Martino wanted to give him some extra playing time and a confidence boost after a bruising first season in England.

Under Alejandro Sabella, Di María established himself as the ultimate lung-busting midfielder and his injury during the World Cup was viewed as a pivotal moment in Argentina’s failure. Since lifting the Champions League with Real Madrid and starring in Sabella’s national side, El Fideo has endured a difficult last nine months. Louis van Gaal appears at odds with the 27-year-old and Manchester United have failed to see anything like the best from their record signing.

A world class talent like Di María doesn’t lose that over night but it is clear that he is suffering from a lack of confidence. Martino doesn’t appear to share Sabella’s view that he can play as one of the three midfielders and so the new manager has so far always utilised him on the left of the attack in a 4-3-3 or on the left of the 3 behind the sole striker.

Against El Salvador Di María was wasteful in possession but against Ecuador there were some signs of recovery. He snatched at a couple of very presentable chances that you would normally back him to score but he provided a very useful outlet for Argentina on the break and was always the playing leading these trademark counters.

Martino still retains this faith in Di María regardless of club form and among the present squad is still probably best suited to the role.


4. Did the El Salvador match really teach us anything?

With so little playing time before the Copa América kicks off in June did Argentina truly benefit from playing an El Salvador side currently ranked 89th in FIFA’s rankings. Gerardo Martino was able to give playing time to several of the fringe squad players but against a side content with putting men behind the ball was it the best workout?

There are two sides to this: Firstly, while this is true, Argentina go into the tournament as one of the favourites and against lesser opposition they will be met with similar frustrating tactics. Jamaica will undoubtedly perform in the same way and even Ramón Díaz’s Paraguay are unlikely to commit too many players forward. Learning how to break down these teams over ninety minutes is important in a tournament renowned for its defensive tactics.

However, with only another friendly against Bolivia before the tournament there are not many chances to solidify the team and for them to become accustomed to their roles. Mateo Musacchio, Ramiro Funes Mori and Lucas Orban had very little to do in defence and so it is not clear what Martino would have taken from the match. Funes Mori seems very unlikely to even go to Chile so why waste an opportunity on the struggling River defender.

5. Who makes up the back four in Chile?

Given the squad selection and who was picked for the two matches it would appear that Nicolás Otamendi is now the preferred partner of Ezequiel Garay in the centre. The 27-year-old has been outstanding for Valencia this season and although he did not really shine against Ecuador none of the back four did in truth.

The fact that Musacchio was partnered with Funes Mori for the El Salvador match suggests that he is a back-up and although there is a chance that the likes of Federico Fazio or Martín Demichelis get recalled, at this late stage that might be unlikely.

It is still assumed that Argentina’s full-backs will remain Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo even though Martino had a good look at Facundo Roncaglia during the Ecuador game. The on-loan Genoa defender was caught out for the goal when Ecuador left-back Walter Ayoví found himself in acres of space to deliver the cross but recovered well enough and offered an outlet down the right when needed. Zabaleta played against El Salvador but has done nothing to suggest being dropped from the right.

On the left, Manchester United’s Marcos Rojo will undoubtedly keep his place despite his different role at club level. Lucas Orban was his understudy in this squad but was not tested in the slightest during the El Salvador squad but Martino might look again at Cristian Ansaldi who performed well in the last round of friendlies in November.


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