It has been 24 years since Argentina last experienced a World Cup semi-final. Lionel Messi, the greatest player of his generation, and possibly, when all is said and done, the greatest player in the history of the sport, has never looked better in the white and light blue stripes of La Albiceleste. Yet, the man behind these two monumental successes (and they are monumental) has been the subject of more criticism and second-guessing than almost any other manager in Brazil.
Let’s go back to before Argentina began their World Cup campaign. La Albiceleste came out on top of CONMEBOL qualifying ( a very difficult task, no matter the amount of talent at your disposal) and Lionel Messi was finally recreating his Barcelona form in an Argentine shirt. Sabella, who was thought to be too cautious and defensive by many in the Argentine media at the time of his appointment, centered his team around the embarrassment of talent they have in attacking positions, and centered the system around Messi in a very offensive 4-3-3 that made Argentina vulnerable defensively, but able to overwhelm opponents with unrelenting skill in attack. Sabella admitted that when the opposition was on the offensive, all he could do was “close his eyes and pray”, yet he continued to play to his squad’s strengths, and they were rightfully rewarded.
Sabella was rightly praised for what he did with the Argentine squad during qualifying, yet the fountain of praise has quickly dried up in the heat of Brazil. It began with an odd change in formation before the first group stage match against Bosnia & Herzgovinia, switching to a 5-3-2 that lasted one very ineffective half before reverting to the 4-3-3. Speculation began to run wild as to what drove Sabella to make this change. Did Messi ask to be played up top alongside Aguero, as they had played when they were younger? Was Sabella afraid of Bosnia & Herzgovina’s attacking ability? Had, as some rumors have suggested, Messi “ordered” they switch to a 4-3-3 at halftime, bringing on Gonzalo Higuain and Fernando Gago? Whatever the truth is, a consistent storyline started to take hold: Argentina’s success will be down to the individual brilliance of Messi. They will win despite of Sabella, not because of him.
It is a cruel paradox for Sabella that the further his team goes, the more criticism he receives. Sure, Argentina hasn’t lost a game, but where is the style, the attacking flair, the breadth of attacking talent overwhelming lesser opposition? Yeah, Messi has never played better for Argentina, but why are they so reliant on him? The fact is, even if Argentina win this tournament, the narrative that Sabella has been riding his luck will continue to be pushed by many. Sabella himself seems to know and understand this, saying, “Every four years, Messi is criticized. Now we say we depend on him too much. It’s not easy.”
Sabella, however, hasn’t let the criticism keep him from making big decisions. Against Belgium, he made three changes, one of which included the seemingly undroppable Gago, and it paid off. It looked to be the most coherent Argentina performance at the World Cup, despite the fact it was only a 1-0 victory. The team whose defense looked to be almost absurdly porous at times during qualifying held the extremely talented Belgian squad to only four shots on goal, and in attack they had a rejuvenated Higuain and, well, they still had Messi. Even if he doesn’t score or assist he creates goal-scoring opportunities for teammates by drawing two, three, four defenders at a time. The decisions made by Sabella were incredibly brave, and they paid off in the form of a trip to the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 24 years, but not many have talked about that. Once again, it was more about what Argentina didn’t do, instead of what they were accomplished.
The fact is, the challenges facing Sabella at this World Cup are staggering. He was charged with leading Argentina to their first World Cup title in 28 years in the most hostile location possible. A hornet’s nest where every game, every stadium, there would be thousands of neutrals against them. He had to do all this while being able to accomplish what none of his predecessors were able to do; get the very best out of Lionel Messi. On top of this, he had to find a way to balance a team that was so top heavy in attack, it seemed like the opposition would have a chance to score any time they could mount together a coherent attack. Oh, and they had to play brilliant attacking football at the same time. Aside from that, it’s been a piece of cake for him.
Sabella is two victories away from accomplishing the greatest achievement in the history of Argentine football; a World Cup victory in Brazil. The type of moment that never dies, nor fades from history, but has received almost nothing but criticism for the way his team have got here. Perhaps that is one of the curses of coaching a country like Argentina; the only thing acceptable is a form of perfection that doesn’t truly exist, except for in the romanticized past. Whatever the future holds, Sabella has taken his country further than they have been in the past 24 years, in the biggest competition, in the biggest possible location. Not bad, for someone who is apparently in over his head.