Undercooked Argentina need Julian Alvarez fire with World Cup glory at stake

Four games in and yet it’s tempting to say that Argentina have not yet been fully tested at the World Cup 2022. At least, not in the fullest sense of an on-pitch challenge against a group of players who are of equal standing to most of their own.

There have been other types of challenges, of course. The mental task of overcoming an opening group game defeat - and one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, at that - and the regular, but demanding, test of breaking down stubborn opponents intent on little more than not losing. And navigating a surprisingly stressful final few minutes in this first knockout game, as it transpired.

But even so, Mexico were lacking in attacking prowess and deep in a defensive block, Poland exactly the same but exaggerated in both regards and, in the round of 16, Australia topped them all for taking that approach to an extreme at times.

A 2-1 victory for Argentina over the Socceroos has seen them safely into the last eight but much more is still wanted, was always the aim. Not just for Lionel Messi either, he of the 1000th game and 789th goal, but also for a full generation or two of fans and the rest of his teammates who have contributed plenty already to reaching only this stage.

And, if they are to go as deep into these finals as they hope to, to really challenge for the trophy itself, there are still plenty of areas the Albiceleste need to improve in. Netherlands are next, and they will raise the bar both tactically and technically.

The other relevant Lionel in this Argentina group, head coach Scaloni, has had to fix a couple of issues already.

Bringing in Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister has improved the midfield dynamic from that first game, the defeat to Saudi Arabia.

The Benfica star brings plenty of deliberation in possession and cover in front of the defence, but also - along with Brighton’s Alexis - more incision and forward-thinking intent in the first touch, the first pass.

But it still isn’t perfectly balanced; for much of the first 30 minutes here the centre of the park was dominant, but dull. Controlled, but creeping. Too often the passing was simply about tilting the direction of play until a space opened up to find the No10 between the lines.

It was telling that Scaloni mixed up the middle of the park in the second half here; switching to a 3-5-2 might well have been about protecting a lead as much as anything else, but the suspicion has to be partly about testing a possible system alteration to face the Dutch, too.

Louis van Gaal showed earlier in the day as Netherlands beat USA that he’s perfectly willing to change tact to overcome a specific opponent. It’s absolutely certain that he’ll have a plan to cope with Messi and Co, too.

Which makes one of Scaloni’s own other changes all the more relevant, too: that of bringing in Julian Alvarez over the last two matches in place of Lautaro Martinez.

The Inter man has been fairly woeful, offside finish against Saudi Arabia aside, and as can be judged from his four terrible efforts in the final 20 minutes of this game, is badly lacking in confidence.

Alvarez, by contrast, has two goals in two starts and more to the point is a non-stop reference of movement, work rate and selflessness in the final third. Where the midfield lacked intensity, he brought it in deeper, wider and - later after the tactical switch - central areas. Where others have been content to wait for Messi magic, Alvarez has insisted on making madness happen, whether by industry or ingenuity.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Argentina cannot just be about one man, even if that one is the greatest there has been, and at present Alvarez is the one really stepping up to ensure that isn’t the case.

Netherlands are likely to be entirely unconcerned if they don’t have too much of the ball in the last eight; indeed, judging by their performance against USA they may engineer the game to be that way.

The onus then is on Argentina to raise their own levels on the ball, being more fast-flowing and adventurous to break down the deeper blocks, but also to raise their own levels off the ball.

Australia, improbably, almost took this game to extra time. The Martinezs, both Lisandro and Emiliano, were called upon for last-ditch, super-late interventions to prevent that happening. While on the one hand that until-the-last-moment resilience will never be a bad trait to have within the team, it seems to still be required too often, whether through a lapse in concentration or pace.

Netherlands will test that openness far more than any opponent so far in Qatar.

Argentina have made it to the last eight without really being forced to show their finest game, but that is all about to change as the stakes go ever higher.