There was only one piece of good news for Argentina on Thursday after the dust settled on a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of rivals Brazil. Paraguay, who were leading 1-0 in their match earlier in the day, surprisingly collapsed and were beaten 4-1 at home by Peru. A Paraguay win, which had been predicted, would have taken Argentina down to seventh in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualification table.
Other than that, though, there is nothing to console Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza. His team was in shambles, and though he is trying to retain a steely “man of destiny” exterior, it is clear that he is a worried man.
Plan A against Brazil worked well enough for 25 minutes. His cautious 4-4-2 formation sought to contain Brazil’s individual talent down the flanks, and provide a platform for Lionel Messi to work his magic. But how to do both things — achieve defensive solidity and get enough players close to Messi to help him generate some danger — proved to be a question Argentina couldn’t answer.
Ultimately — and this was the story of the game — Argentina could not maintain their defensive solidity. Brazil coach Tite loves to have his attacking midfielders float across the front line. And when Philippe Coutinho roamed across to link up with Neymar on the left, it raised a problem which Bauza’s defence was unable to answer. The evidence has been there for some time now that Bauza’s defensive unit is creaking both individually and collectively. They have now conceded seven goals in their last three away games and they could have conceded seven in this game had Brazil been more ruthless in the second half.
Bauza has next to no time to work with his players, and it is difficult to see which way he will turn next. On Tuesday, Argentina host Colombia, who will enjoy launching their counter-attacks against the Argentine defence. Also coming up is a crunch game with Chile and a trip to the extreme altitude of La Paz to face Bolivia. Argentina also have to go to both Uruguay and Ecuador. They will trust that Messi can come up with enough magic to get them over the line, but their qualification for Russia 2018 is by no means a foregone conclusion.
As for Tite, things are almost going too well. True, his team had to overcome a tricky start against Argentina. Brazil’s coach said that he thought his opponents had started the game better — and the fact that Fernandinho had picked up a yellow card after just six minutes was undoubtedly a concern.
But Brazil came through it. They found a solution, imposed themselves on the game and ended up winning with astonishing ease. Tite still wants to see how his team reacts to going behind. Can they keep the emotional cool as well as trusting in the game plan? Five consecutive wins is a highly impressive achievement — not since Marcelo Bielsa’s Argentina in 2001 has a team looked so dominant in South America’s World Cup qualifiers. Tite will not need to be reminded of what happened to that side — knocked out of the group phase of the 2002 World Cup.
For the time being, though, there is plenty to celebrate. He has found a formula that allies exciting individual talent with a compact, collective formation. And all of his hunches are paying off. In goal, the inexperience and lack of activity at club level of Alisson has raised a question mark against his inclusion, especially with the form of Diego Alves at Valencia. But just before the Coutinho goal, Alisson prevented Argentina from taking the lead with a flying save from Lucas Biglia’s shot.
Paulinho’s recall was much criticized, but the midfielder’s versatility was of great importance in Brazil’s win, dropping to help with the marking in the first half, driving forward to good effect in the second. Teenager Gabriel Jesus was a real gamble in the centre-forward position. He had been very poor there in the first two games of Brazil’s Olympic campaign and was moved to the left wing. But he scored four goals in Tite’s first four games, his pace worried Argentina all night and he produced a magisterial pass to Neymar for Brazil’s game-clinching second goal.
The team are winning games and winning friends. Everything is going right. Tite is well aware that for them to go right when it matters most, they need to go wrong from time to time. Perhaps a rejuvenated Peru will give his team a stiffer test in Lima on Tuesday night.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.