Comment: Argentina need Messi to be more like Modric
The Barcelona man's genius going forward is pointless if nobody has the ability to get the ball to him
Three minutes into the second half of the game against Croatia, at a point when Argentina's World Cup chances were still in their own hands, Lionel Messi made a run from just behind the Croatian midfield towards a gap in their defence.
On the halfway line, Javier Mascherano was on the ball with space, looked up and one of two things happened. Either he didn't see the run made by Messi, which is bad enough; or he saw it but didn't think he had the ability to chip a straight 30-yard pass over the top of the Croatian defence that Messi might have a chance of getting. If that was the case, it's damning.
Instead, Mascherano did what he did all night (picture 1, above) and, much like the old joke about a bad midfielder's passing being just like a haircut, it went short, back and sides. Mascherano chose a safer option and five passes later, the ball came to Marcos Acuna who tripped over his own feet and the ball went out for a Croatian throw-in. In the middle of the pitch, Messi loped back into position waiting for the whole miserable process to begin again.
Like putting Styrofoam in the green bin, this type of pointless recycling happened all night. Argentina's defenders gave the ball to their midfield, who didn't have the bravery or the ability to do anything with it.
Almost mockingly, Croatia sat back and kept their eyes on Messi (picture 3), safe in the knowledge that there were six Argentina players who didn't trust each other enough to retain possession under any pressure. Eventually, after what a former coach of this column would describe as "p**s-passing", the ball was knocked long, Croatia won it back and showed Argentina how it's meant to be done.
Put Luka Modric into the Argentina midfield and they'd be favourites for the tournament. Their defenders would always have an option of a simple pass and their forwards could make runs like Messi's knowing that, unlike with Mascherano, they would have a player with enough ability to pick them out.
Modric isn't a defensive midfielder in the manner of a Nemanja Matic but has enough game intelligence to intercept passes or just get himself in the way to break up an opposition attack so that he's not a defensive liability - and that's the weakest point of his game.
When his team are on the ball, he's a master of finding space with five- to 10-yard movements which give team-mates the joy of an obvious and easy pass to a player who isn't automatically going to give it back to them. If he does take that option, it will be for the purpose of manipulating the opponents' positioning so that, in the next moment, the team can do something constructive. As he is in most games, Modric was three or four steps ahead of his opponents when Argentina, by contrast, couldn't even do Step 1.
Against Iceland, Jorge Sampaoli started in a 4-2-3-1 formation before switching to 3-3-1-3 against Croatia and, in both instances, Messi is positioned in the third section of the formation. Yet both games underlined the sheer pointlessness of having four good forwards, if the six players behind them can't get them the ball.
When it's done well, both formations work like a well-oiled machine but Argentina are closer to a triathlete going into a race being the best cyclist and runner in the field. The only problem is that the triathlete doesn't know how to swim so their chances of doing anything in the race have drowned before getting the chance to play to their strengths.
Like most things in the Argentina team, the potential answer comes down to one man and if they are to have any chance of seizing their slim chance, they need Messi to be like Modric more than they need him to be like Messi.
Four minutes before half-time, Mascherano again took the ball off his defenders and gave a relatively straightforward pass to Messi who had created a pocket of space from himself on the halfway line (picture 2, above). There were two simple options for Messi to go backwards but instead he took two quick touches with the outside of his left foot, and fired a pass towards Sergio Aguero who had made a run between two defenders.
Aguero was tackled and the chance was lost but in that one moment where Messi took three of the 20 touches that he had in the entire first half, he showed what was missing from Argentina as an attacking unit.
In that instance, and a few more in the second half as Messi dropped deeper in the vain hope of creating a goal, Croatia were at least presented with a problem, much like the one Argentina never solved in dealing with Modric.
If Croatia stood off Messi and gave him space, he could dribble at them or find a forward pass from which to link up play and, if he then rejoined the play from a deeper position, it would be far more difficult to pick up.
If Croatia pressed him on the halfway line, it meant that one piece of skill from one of the greatest dribblers the game has ever seen would leave their defenders with the likes of Aguero to watch, while simultaneously keeping an eye on Messi running towards them.
In Modric's case, albeit with Argentina throwing bodies forward, it meant he could choose his moment with 10 minutes remaining to go forward (picture 4a) and check that he was in enough space before receiving a pass (4b) and firing his team's second goal to seal the victory.
Mascherano couldn't do either of these things and neither could Enzo Perez in midfield beside him. The latter was eventually replaced by Paulo Dybala and, for 10 minutes while he was on the pitch and before Modric scored Croatia's second goal, Argentina at least looked more dynamic.
Dybala isn't as good as Messi - nobody is - but immediately after his introduction, Messi took the ball from Niclas Otamendi on the halfway line, dropped his shoulder to beat his opponent and create space and almost found the Juventus player will a pass that could have troubled the Croatia defence.
The caveat, obviously, is at that point Croatia were happy to sit back and defend a 1-0 lead but what Argentina would lose by not having Messi in the opponents' third so often, they would gain by actually getting the ball there in the first place.
In a similar way to how Jack Nicklaus winning 18 Major titles means his stunning achievement of 56 top-five Major finishes is rarely mentioned, Messi's goalscoring also distracts from his ability to create chances for others in a career of 250 assists, added to over 600 goals.
Whereas Version 2.0 of Cristiano Ronaldo has developed into a clinical central striker from his previous wide position, Messi has the ability for his next reincarnation to be in a Xavi-like role where he pulls the strings and sets the tempo for those around him to flourish.
Yesterday's victory for Nigeria against Iceland hands them a lifeline but, if they stick to the same approach, Nigeria will simply crowd the area in front of their defence, use Jon Obi Mikel as a clamp on Messi and take their chances that nobody else will have the ability to hurt them.
If Messi plays deeper, in a similar position to Modric's with Croatia, he will at least know that beating one player won't mean he is immediately faced with two or three more as has been the case against both Iceland and Croatia.
In desperation for a game they potentially need to win well, Mascherano could slot into a central defensive role while Messi should start in a position which gets him on the ball as often as possible where he can empower others to perform in front of him instead of being the safety net if they don't.
Last season Angel Di Maria won a domestic treble with Paris Saint-Germain, Aguero helped Manchester City to a record points and goals tally in the Premier League while Dybala and Higuain were part of a Juventus team that won an Italian double for the second consecutive season.
Playing Messi in a deeper role may hurt Argentina defensively if they come up against the elite of the World Cup but, for now, beating Nigeria is all that matters without worrying about what comes next.
If nothing changes after three hours of football with one goal against Iceland and Croatia, they won't get another chance.