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FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi in Argentina's World Cup Strategy

At times criticized for his performances in the national team, Lionel Messi is flourishing under Alejandro Sabella. Will he light up the World Cup?

Jeff Zelevansky

"He can't do it when he's not in Barcelona!"

That was the charge levied against Lionel Messi for years. Some still repeat the claim. But under Alejandro Sabella, who has taken over as coach since 2011, it's just not true.

Under Sabella, Messi has scored 21 goals in 25 games, at a truly shocking rate of 0.84 goals per game. Consider that Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina's best ever pure goalscorer, netted at a pace of 0.72 per game. Yet, Messi does a lot more in the game besides score. A more apt comparison may be Diego Maradona's rate of 0.37.

The Rosario native has yet to really find his groove in a big tournament, but in fairness, he's yet to play under Sabella in a big tournament. Messi's scoring rate previous to Sabella was a good but comparatively paltry 0.28.

Messi's deployment under "The Sloth" is pretty different than his role at Barcelona. Would Luis Enrique consider having Messi play a similar way when when he starts coaching his first games?

For Argentina, Messi frequently is partnered with Gonzalo Higuain, who takes up a more stationary role upfront. Higuain has three main functions: (1) take up space and distract the opposing defense, (2) score when given chances, and (3) hold up the ball and link play.

Higuain's role is not too dissimilar to his function at Real Madrid, where he used to play until this previous season. He is a born scorer, but despite his impressive scoring record, Los Blancos opted to sell him and keep Karim Benzema.

Benzema does not have quite the same lethal instinct, but he's better at working with his teammates and setting the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo up.

Still, Higuain has worked well with Messi, and they finished 3rd and 2nd, respectively, in the South American qualifiers top scorers chart.

At Barcelona, Messi rarely enjoys this type of partner. Sure, the managers have experimented putting David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez, and even Gerard Pique as a "pivot" upfront but only in desperate times or other specialized situations. None are really the right fit, either.

There was also the Zlatan Ibrahimovic experiment, but again, lack of link up was a problem.

There are murmurs that Luis Enrique is in the market for a striker that could fit the bill, but so far, nothing has happened. And it's not the first time that such a rumor has surfaced.

What's interesting is that the idea of a more traditional center-forward at Barcelona is seen as a strategy against teams defending deep, but Argentina have become famous for their counter-attack as much as anything.

Messi has played even deeper than he does playing "false 9", almost as a traditional attacking midfielder. His direct dribbling and ability to pick a pass with great accuracy make him an asset on the counter-attack, where players typically have more space.

A player such as Higuain - who is a scorer but not selfish, good in the air but mobile - could work. But there is understandably a reluctance to significantly change the makeup of the attack.

On the other hand, there's a good chance that Javier Mascherano will return to playing in central midfield next season, the way he does currently for Argentina.

His lack of height is a problem when played as a central defender, which has been his position for the majority of the time at Barca. If the board completes moves for new defenders, and if Marc Bartra continues to improve, it would make plenty of sense to ship Alex Song out and deploy Mascherano as a defensive midfielder.

Sabella's Argentina finished their two pre-World Cup friendlies, and he showed two different formations. One, a lopsided 4-3-3-ish formation, which could be his principal formation. The other, a 3-5-2, could be an alternative. He has yet to show his hand, having missed one key player or another at all times during the friendlies.

Sabella has shown a willingness to be flexible and picked flexible players. In his defenders, he favored players known to play at least two positions. He prized midfielders who worked hard and defended well aside from having good technical ability.

For some time, the World Cup and other international competitions have provided little in the way of tactical innovations. With coaches having little time to drill their players, they have decided to keep it simple.

Could Argentina be an exception? And will Luis Enrique pay any mind?

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