Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: ‘Sloth’ Alejandro Sabella slowly adapting his team

Former Sheffield United midfielder has built a side with a new twist on an old Argentinian theme of using a ‘link’ player behind the two strikers

Buenos Aires

Alejandro Sabella may bear scant resemblance to the dark-haired moptop Alex Sabella who used to play for Sheffield United (1978-80) and Leeds (1980-81), but they are one and the same person. And Argentina’s press still calls him Pachorra (the sloth), a reference to the slow pace at which the elegant No 10 used to play the game.

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Like Ricky Villa at Tottenham, Sabella initially found it hard to adapt to the English game, not just because of the speed, but because his position of the enganche (the link), the free man who plays behind two strikers, simply did not exist in English football then. It is a very specific role, traditionally played in an Argentinian 4-3-1-2 formation that requires much understanding and interchanging between the enganche and the strikers, especially over who should move out to the wing and when.

Sabella’s coaching career has evolved slowly. After a decade as assistant to Daniel Passarella at various South American clubs – River Plate, Corinthians, Monterrey – as well as Parma in Italy and the Argentina and Uruguay national teams, Sabella emerged as a manager in his own right at Estudiantes, where he won the 2009 Copa Libertadores (South American equivalent of the Champions League) and then lost 2-1 to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, in their prime, at the 2009 World Club Championship, Lionel Messi scoring the winning goal in extra time.

Despite this success, Sabella, 59, still had the air of a No 2 about him before this World Cup, and it has even been questioned whether key tactical decisions have actually been taken by the players, or perhaps by the technical director, Argentina’s 1986 World Cup-winning coach Carlos Bilardo.

“That’s nonsense”, reckons Juan Sebastian Veron, who was also thought to be running things when winding down his career under Sabella at Estudiantes. “He’s a good listener, and likes to hear everyone’s opinions, but he’s no patsy.”

The team talk before extra time in the semi-final against the Netherlands that the camera from the air so intriguingly captured, certainly supports Veron’s view. While Messi and Javier Mascherano both said their bit, there was no doubt who was in charge. Unlike his off-pitch persona, Sabella was commanding, cajoling, organising, with the players hanging on his every word.

 

Argentines took to the streets en masse as soon as Maxi Rodriguez’s winning penalty in the shoot-out hit the back of the net. Spontaneous neighbourhood parties continued well into the morning, the event conveniently coinciding with the country’s Independence Day holiday. By making it to the final, Sabella has not only managed to bring people together, he has also pulled off the not inconsiderable feat of satisfying all of Argentina’s divided football fraternity.

As the saying goes, there’s a manager on every street corner in Argentina, and there have always been arguments over style of play. In the 1980s, you were either a Menottist, a follower of Cesar Menotti, the long-haired, chain-smoking bohemian whose 1978 side won the World Cup with a refreshing attacking style of play, or a Bilardist, aligned with Bilardo, who played in the notorious late-1960s Estudiantes side, infamous for their anti-futbol (the term originated then in Argentina). In the 1986 World Cup triumph, Bilardo set up a defensive unit as a platform to get the best out of Diego Maradona.

When Bilardism reached its nadir in 1990, with two Argentina players sent off in an insipid World Cup final, the pendulum swung back the other way. Alfio “Coco” Basile delivered some fantasy football at the 1994 tournament, fielding four forwards: Maradona, Claudio Caniggia, Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo, but it all came to an abrupt halt when Maradona failed a drug test.

When Passarella, with Sabella as his assistant, led Argentina into the 1998 World Cup, he declared himself a disciple of neither Menotti nor Bilardo, borrowing from Tony Blair in talking about a third way, but by the 2000s the old arguing over tactics had started up again, albeit in a different form.

Marcelo Bielsa had introduced a high-tempo pressing game and his subsequent influence on world football has been immense, from Pep Guardiola, who spent a lot of time in Argentina studying Bielsa’s methods, working out how to add pressing to the traditional Barcelona passing model, to Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino, who played under Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys and the national team. But Bielsa has always had his critics.

“It’s too fast, too frantic, too European,” said the anti-Bielsa half of the Argentinian press. Controversially, Bielsa’s system had no place for an enganche, and therefore no role for the gifted and popular Juan Roman Riquelme.

Bielsa was able to keep the wolves at bay while results went well, qualifying convincingly for the 2002 World Cup. But when they lost 1-0 to England in Japan, and crashed out at the group stage of the tournament they were meant to win, the anti-Bielsa brigade let rip.

Since then, perhaps conscious of the need to get back to a more traditional Argentinian way of playing, the country’s FA has appointed a series of managers who spoke eloquently and tried, but mainly failed, to build teams around an enganche figure. Jose Pekerman, currently managing Colombia, brought Riquelme back into the fold, reverted to 4-3-1-2, and his team played some delightful football at the 2006 World Cup, before losing to the hosts Germany in the quarter-finals.

Pekerman’s replacement could not have been more old school, as back came Basile, complete with greased-back hair, open shirt and medallion. His penchant for whisky and cigarettes had by now given him a gravel voice, but he struggled to find ways of getting Riquelme and Messi on the ball, or on the same wavelength, before a departure shrouded in mystery.

Maradona was next up, but his grand plan of using Riquelme to feed Messi never got off the ground as he fell out with Riquelme in a very public spat. Following Maradona’s departure after the 4-0 drubbing by Germany in the 2010 World Cup quarter-finals, another 1986 World Cup winner, Sergio Batista, took over. Outspoken, and convinced of his methods, he said that Argentina must never sell out to a European style of play, and that the enganche was sacred to that, but he was sacked after a poor showing at the 2011 Copa de America. This time it was the pro-Bielsa lobby in the media that was demanding the country move with the times.

And that’s when Sabella came in; a left-field appointment, he was about to embark on a coaching job in the United Arab Emirates before he received the surprise call.

Unlike every previous Argentina manager since the 1970s, Sabella is not a natural talker, and neither does he share their general enjoyment (Pekerman excepted) of a good argument. When pressed about tactics, Sabella speaks quite calmly about the importance of balance, something not easy to strike with so many attacking players at his disposal. In fact, he admits his team will always be unbalanced to a degree. “Tactical anarchy”, he once called it, but that is disingenous, hiding a deeper level of thought.

You don’t see Messi in one-on-ones with the goalkeeper in this World Cup. His four goals so far have all come from outside the penalty area. Whereas at Barcelona, Messi has Xavi and Andres Iniesta to play him through, Sabella decided that their Argentina equivalents, Javier Pastore and Ever Banega, were not good enough for the squad. But instead of worrying about who is going to put Messi through on goal, he has turned the conundrum on its head and decided Messi himself will play deeper and feed the other strikers. Of course, Messi is still always looking for space to run into at his electrifying pace, but he is also pausing more on the ball, looking up more, slowing it down a little, playing a modern version of the old enganche role.

The team has evolved during the tournament, a couple of tweaks here and there. Martin Demichelis, better at bringing the ball out from the back, has come in for Federico Fernandez at centre-half; Lucas Biglia, slightly more attacking, in for the more defensive midfielder Fernando Gago, and striker Sergio Aguero’s niggling injury could be a blessing in disguise as his replacement Ezequiel Lavezzi is more suited to pulling out wide and running down the wing as the system requires.

Climate change in South America has seen some species of sloth in danger of extinction but, by adapting traditional Argentinian methods and formations to the modern game, Alejandro Sabella is keeping the endangered enganche alive; quietly going about his business, sloth-like.

Neil Clack is author of  ‘Animals, The Story of England v Argentina’

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