Chile was the best team of the Copa America, by a distance. They’re the only big team in South America that currently relies more on collective play than individual brilliance, and that deserves to be rewarded.
But the truth is that Argentina failed to make it hard for them in the final. They made the same mistakes we’ve seen them make so many times. I’m not sure what exactly Martino’s game plan was, but it seemed like the team was utterly incapable of finding any cohesion and instead, chose to try to run the ball all the way to the Chile box. The amount of times I watched Di Maria (and later Lavezzi) or Pastore dribble to a dead-end made the match very frustrating. If I was standing on the touchline in Tata Martino’s shoes, I would’ve told them to look up and link up. It is said that South Americans have what we know as ‘la pausa’ – the ability to slow things down for a short moment, which allows teammates to join the attack. Argentina had no pausa on Saturday.
They did have great chances for great counter attacks. Some were stopped by Chile’s fouls, some ended in an Argentine trying to run past everyone and failing to find a teammate. There was space to be exposed at the back, but Argentina went about it the wrong way. The only time anything dangerous came out of a transition play was when Messi finally got to start one at the very end. Had Lavezzi and Higuain done better to finish it off, it would be a different story. But make no mistake: transition plays could’ve been a great asset for Argentina as Chile constantly committed men forward. Perhaps overwhelmed, perhaps anxious, the Argentinians failed to take advantage.
While it’s clear that Messi didn’t play his best game, two of the three great Argentina chances still came from his boot. All he needed was a companion – just one – who could have taken some of the responsibility while he was busy either being isolated out wide or trying to get something going from deep positions. Aguero did a decent job when he was on, although he mostly had to battle for long balls because Argentina oftentimes found no other way forward. Why he was taken off for Higuain is – to be frank – beyond me. Neither is a target man, but by now everyone should know that Higuain is not the player you want on your team when you need a big goal.
And speaking of target men and long balls, it’s baffling how often Argentina resorted to trying to just kick the ball as far up as they could. Chile midfielder Marcelo Diaz had more touches in the game than Javier Pastore and Lucas Biglia combined. When the latter two are supposed to be the ones building up the Argentina game, you can probably see where the problem is (although Pastore was, of course, subbed out on the 80th minute). They couldn’t get anywhere under the Chilean pressure, as though Sampaoli’s men’s pressing had come as a surprise. When similar issues arose in Barcelona last season, Messi would drop to a midfield position and give his side tranquility with the ball. This time, it seemed like Martino’s idea was to keep Messi high up or out wide in order to break the backline. But the ball rarely got there.
Ever Banega came on for Pastore late in the game and had a positive impact, Mascherano looked for sharp passes between the lines every now and again, but it was all very little against a side with such a brilliant collective idea. Messi couldn’t beat a brilliant Germany on his own last year, nor could he beat a brilliant Chile on his own this year. The problem is that no one really stepped up to help him. No one makes space for Messi, no one creates chances for Messi. He gives and creates and gets nothing in return.
But although Argentina played a bad game, they still had the chance to win it all on penalties. Chile’s first shooter put the ball into the top corner, Messi stepped up and put his in the bottom corner. In this Copa America and in the last two World Cups, the first team to miss a penalty always went on to lose, so the pressure was on. Arturo Vidal scored Chile’s second although Romero got his hand to it. And then someone decided that Gonzalo Higuain shooting a penalty in a final was a good idea.