Maradona: Method in his madness
Maradona's much-maligned tactics rooted in pragmatism that may yield unlikely glory
If two Englishmen were playing for the clear favourites in a Champions League final, they might reasonably expect to be included in the nation's World Cup squad.
Not so for Argentina. But then conventions rarely bother coach Diego Maradona. Still, this week's omission of Internazionale's Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso from Maradona's 30-man provisional party has raised eyebrows throughout the football world. As has Maradona's announcement that he won't be playing full-backs in his World Cup XI.
Madness? That's certainly what it looks like to the Argentine public. And it's something they've become accustomed to.
Maradona has selected a staggering 107 players in the 18 months he has been in charge. He has been suspended by Fifa for an obscenity-laden tirade against the media. He has fallen out with Juan Roman Riquelme, who he at first pledged to build his team around.
As well as Zanetti -- Inter's captain and Argentina's record caps holder -- and Cambiasso, he also left out Barcelona's Gabriel Milito and Real Madrid's Fernando Gago, selecting instead several domestic-based players.
What he has not done is find a playing shape and philosophy which brings the best from Lionel Messi. Certainly bookmakers in Europe do not fancy Argentina as candidates for the World Cup, offering odds of around 10/1, well behind the likes of Brazil and Spain -- and even England -- no doubt reflecting the commonly held belief that Argentina have a nutter at the helm making random decisions.
However, scratch beneath the surface and a different picture of Maradona's reign as manager and Argentina's prospects for the World Cup might emerge. The truth is Maradona inherited a poor team that were making atrocious errors at the back and already struggling at the halfway stage of the World Cup qualifying campaign.
The disastrous 6-1 defeat in the high altitude of Bolivia was one of Maradona's first games in charge. "Every goal was like a knife through my heart," he said, but it can be seen as a one-off due to the extreme conditions.
That's not to absolve Maradona of the blame entirely, but the signs are that he has learnt from that bitter experience, placing greater emphasis on defence since. Too much for some, but the strategy of playing "four centre-backs" (Maradona's words) is not quite what his critics claim.
Gabriel Heinze may have started his career as a central defender in Argentina, but followers of European club football will know that Alex Ferguson successfully converted him into a left-back at Manchester United.
Maradona went to great lengths this week to explain how the four centre-back formation works. He did not want Heinze and Nicolas Otamendi, the classy Velez Sarsfield central defender who will play right-back in South Africa, pushing forward and delivering crosses.
"That's the role of wingers, Jonas Gutierrez and (Angel) di Maria," he said. But with Javier Mascherano playing just in front of the four 'markers', Argentina will not be an easy team to penetrate.
And it is a case of lies, damned lies and statistics, regarding the 100-plus number of players Maradona has used. The reason for this high figure is that the Argentina Football Association (AFA) arranged a series of B-type internationals against second and third-rate opponents such as Haiti, Jamaica, and Ghana reserves on non-Fifa calender dates, when all the European-based players, and even Argentina-based players whose teams were playing in Copa de Libertadores, were unavailable.
In the actual qualifiers, the matches that count, Maradona used no more players than most other international managers.
Following a three-month ban for his profane outburst at journalists after Argentina had just clinched World Cup qualification last November, Maradona fielded the same formation and tactics against Germany that he had successfully employed against Uruguay in the last qualification match.
As in Uruguay, Argentina left Germany with another impressive 1-0 victory. At long last, Maradona's team appeared to be coming together. He's settled for a counter-attacking 4-4-2 system, almost British in its style, with two pacy wingers, Newcastle's Gutierrez and Benfica's Di Maria patrolling the length of the flanks, tracking back and defending.
Crucially, the Argentina squad do not have any injury issues, and the six strikers that Maradona will take to the World Cup are all bang on form -- Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Milito, Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, and even 36-year-old Martin Palermo, who recently broke the all-time top scorer's record at his club, Boca Juniors.
Unlike many international managers this week, Maradona went out of his way to explain his ideas and the reasons for his selections. Quite simply, Zanetti and Cambiasso do not fit into the 4-4-2 system and style of football he wishes to play and, as they will not feature in the final 23, then it was pointless including them in the 30 and raising false hopes.
He added that his team "will never play in the way Mourinho's Inter played against Barcelona".
Maradona claims to already know his first-choice team for the finals, the one that started against Uruguay and Germany. Juan Sebastian Veron is a key player for the coach, "my representative on the pitch and the director of the play".
But it is Messi that Maradona has built his team around. He has spent time in Barcelona, holding long talks, not only with the player but also with his parents, as well as seeking advice from Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola on how to get the best out of the shy prodigy. "I want him playing all over the pitch because he has that tendency to play freely, to be the free man," Maradona said.
Comparisons to the 1986 team -- in which manager Carlos Bilardo (currently Argentina's general manager and an adviser to Maradona) built a squad that combined a 'supertalent' (Maradona) with a functional team based around him -- have been made.
Expect the Maradona madness to continue in South Africa, and expect to hear some colourful comments as he attempts to become only the third man in history, after Franz Beckanbauer and Mario Zagallo, to win the World Cup as both player and manager.