Champions of South America. Decimators of the European holders. Unbeaten in 36 matches. Waltzing into Qatar with a squad brimming with confidence, clarity, and composure, Argentina found themselves in a rather unique position. Never before in the 21st century had they been fancied as one of the top contenders for the title in the biggest show on the planet. But their place among favourites was challenged after Salem Al-Dawsari turned and wriggled his way past two defenders at the edge of the box and found top bins with the perfect swerve.
Saudi Arabia, playing in only their sixth FIFA World Cup finals, stunned and shell-shocked the South American champions into submission. The billed “contenders” had barely competed.
Just three days into the World Cup, it’s all hands on deck for Lionel Scaloni’s brigade. Argentina, of course, are used to this fight or flight mindset. In four of the five previous World Cups held so far in this century, they have never won their opening game of the tournament by a margin of more than one goal; and in Russia, Iceland made headlines after holding them to a 1-1 stalemate.
The result against Saudi Arabia, however, will take some getting used to, given the kind of form they had been in heading into Qatar. When manager Scaloni goes back to the drawing board in his office after processing the emotional and rational repercussions of the defeat, he will continue to find the big hole circled thrice over in black marker—the spot on the left side in midfield where a certain Giovani Lo Celso should’ve been.
The World Cup continues to tease and taunt Lo Celso, who didn’t feature in a single minute of his country’s cataclysmic campaign in Russia in 2018. An automatic starter since then, his absence is a huge blow for Argentina, and even though he might have a “numerical replacement” as Scaloni claims, “football-wise there is not” one perfect solution to this problem.
Lo Celso, along with Rodrigo De Paul and Leandro Paredes in midfield, makes up the beating heart of the Albiceleste in the Scaloni era since 2019. With Paredes at the base, De Paul on the right, and Lo Celso on the left, Argentina’s midfield makes use of flexibility in roles both with and without possession of the ball and switches things up seamlessly. They share an obvious and inherent understanding of which spaces to take up and which to exploit, easing the pressure off the centre-back duo of Cristian Romero and Nicolas Otamendi and allowing Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria to do what they do best in the final third of the pitch.
A nimble, left-footed midfielder who essentially functions as a No. 10 on the pitch for Argentina, Lo Celso’s technical and creative abilities enable him to play between the lines and quite often in the left and right half-spaces, which directly influences the degree of freedom with which their playmaker-in-chief Messi operates.
The 26-year-old attracts markers along with the team’s focal point in attack, Lautaro Martinez, which often ends up creating spaces for Messi to run into or exploit with incisive passes. He’s also a more than competent dribbler and ball carrier who significantly eases the creative burden on Messi, allowing him to push further up the pitch.
However, what make him a perfect cog in the well-oiled machine are his athletic abilities and situational awareness. Lo Celso often leads the Argentine press and counter-press along with Lautaro and is a capable ball-winner. He is also quite comfortable playing in a tight and aggressive low block against a more possession-heavy side and produces a relentless work rate to cut off passing channels and cover offensive transitions. This multi-faceted role and the balance that he brings in both halves of the pitch is what makes Lo Celso so crucial for Argentina.
The consequences of his absence have been further laid bare after Argentina’s non-performance against Saudi Arabia. Despite dominating possession, La Albiceleste could neither exploit the opposition’s ridiculous high line with smart dribbles or deft passes through the middle in the first half nor offer a direct solution while chasing the game in the second.
While it’s true that there’s no like-for-like replacement for the former PSG player in the current squad, the answer to how Argentina can probably cope without Lo Celso in Qatar probably lies in dynamic solutions rather than a static X or Y direct replacement.
So far, two players seem the most likely options for Scaloni. Alexis Mac Allister started the pre-World Cup friendly against the United Arab Emirates while Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez was picked ahead of him against Saudi Arabia.
Mac Allister excelled in his role against the UAE, and the Argentina midfield looked as fluid and proficient as ever, albeit against less fancied rivals. The 23-year-old had the best pass-completion record in the first half and created the second-most chances before he was taken off after half-time.
Mac Allister, whose father played alongside a certain Diego Maradona at Boca Juniors, is also enjoying a dreamy start to the season in the Premier League with Brighton, where he has already matched his last season’s tally of five goals inside the first 14 appearances.
Compared to Lo Celso, Mac Allister is not obviously as technically proficient to operate in between the lines, but he still possesses a high level of control, dribbling, and passing abilities. The area of the game where he truly excels (and where he can cover up for Lo Celso the best) is in providing the requisite balance in attack and defence that Argentina prefer.
Having Mac Allister in the lineup would require De Paul, Messi, and Di Maria to take on more attacking and creative responsibilities, but it’s hardly a big ask of footballers of such stature. It must also be mentioned that Mac Allister makes well-timed runs into the box, and on paper, he would be an ideal solution against teams that press high and can be caught on offensive transitions.
Against sides that sit back and employ low blocks, however, Scaloni will require a more deft approach and technical brilliance.
Alejandro ‘Papu’ Gomez of Sevilla is a great candidate as he is technically outstanding. Blessed with a low centre of gravity, a sweet left foot, quick feet, a burst of acceleration, and an eye for the final pass, Papu is more suited to unlocking defense-heavy setups and adding more creative flavour and fervour in the final third.
The veteran can also be paired with a left winger, with Julian Alvarez being the makeshift option, or by pushing Di Maria to the opposite flank to create width and carve out spaces for Messi, De Paul, and Lautaro. On the field, Papu has shown versatility and can even take up positions in attack, often playing as a false second striker or a winger, or even a false nine.
However, on the wrong side of 30, his age also affects his work rate, and Argentina will have to compensate for him defensively in their lineup by either tucking the left back deep or having Paredes behind to cover for him.
On paper, Scaloni’s decision to start Papu Gomez over Mac Allister against Saudi Arabia made sense, but the execution was ridiculously off the mark. Papu essentially tucked into the left wing throughout the first half, making it difficult for Argentina to control the game in the middle through Paredes and De Paul.
Both midfielders also failed to exert their usual influence on the game as nerves seemed to get the better of them, resulting in Argentina resorting to a lopsided 3-2-5 in possession.
With everyone being on the same forward line, Scaloni’s side had to depend upon incisive passes, either grounded or lofted, to carve open the Saudi backline. Messi and Lautaro did have the ball in the back of the net on three occasions in the first 45, but all three goals were ruled out for offside.
Their deep defensive line also failed to exert pressure on the opposition forwards and recycle possession enough to sustain the intensity and momentum that was needed. All of it resulted in a chronic case of impotence as De Paul, Paredes, and Romero kept playing it wide to Di Maria, who would then pass it backwards, repeating the move all over again.
Argentina haven’t been as tactically outclassed and looked as clueless on the field since the Jorge Sampaoli days as they did against Saudi Arabia, and every game is a final for them from here on.
Will Argentina miss the services of Lo Celso in the World Cup? Definitely yes. Will manager Lionel Scaloni lose sleep over which options to prefer and what facets to tweak in order to compensate for his loss? Maybe. Will the Albiceleste completely break down and lose their shape and validity in Qatar? Prior to kick-off, the answer would’ve been a resounding no, but judging from what was on display at the Lusail Stadium, it does bear an ominous foreboding.