If you were coach of a team about to compete in the World Cup, would you want your side to arrive at the tournament firing on all cylinders, or prefer your players to peak later in the competition?
It is a question with no easy answers. But once the tournament starts, all you can do is adapt to your situation as best you can. That is certainly the case with Alejandro Sabella's Argentina, who, ahead of their Round of 16 duel against Switzerland, seem to be hitting form at just the right time.
After a shaky debut against Bosnia and Herzegovina and a narrow and, at times, painful victory over Iran, Argentina finally looked convincing in their 3-2 win over Nigeria. The victory meant the team finished top of Group F with maximum points.
"We should be happy with our results so far. It’s not easy to take nine points from three games at the World Cup," full-back Pablo Zabaleta told FIFA. "What’s most important, though, is that we’re improving as the tournament progresses. Against Nigeria we played better than we had in the previous two games, which was our objective. From now on the slightest mistake can send you home," added the 29-year-old Manchester City defender.
"If you want to grow during a tournament, the key thing is to learn from your mistakes, and that’s what we’ve done,” agreed Fernando Gago. “We’ve been improving bit by bit, and now we’re in a situation where one point is no longer enough for our opponents. That should open up more space for us, and we’ll be able to play to our strengths," added the midfielder, who made his 52nd international appearance against the Super Eagles.
Unfinished business at the back
Aside from the evolution of the side described by the two players, who were team-mates at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2005 and the 2008 Olympic Football Tournament, it is clear that the performance of the team’s rearguard remains a hot topic for both Argentina and their opponents.
"I think we’ve been playing well," argued Zabaleta. "Because of our style of play, we sometimes leave a lot of space for our opponents to exploit on the counter-attack, which is never easy for a defender. But that’s our philosophy, and we’ve had two years of good results playing this way," added the full-back, who won his 40th cap against Switzerland.
As part of the back line of a highly attack-minded midfield, Gago provides vital support not just to the defensive unit, but also to his team-mates. "I heard some criticism of the goals we conceded against Nigeria, but both came from counter-attacks, and for the second goal, I think I accidentally knocked the ball into the path of the Nigeria player.”
Zabaleta and Gago are right. The images of the last two games show that while Iran took advantage of the spaces that the two players mention, making goalkeeper Sergio Romero the Argentina hero that day, the story was very different against Nigeria. In that fixture, credit must be given to Ahmed Musa for both goals. For the first he hit a blistering diagonal strike that flew past five defenders, while for the second he pounced on the failed clearance that Gago mentioned.
Despite their team’s improvement, the two players are aware of the danger that Switzerland present. "Their forwards are very quick, so we’ll have to be on our guard. But we have plenty of pace of our own, and our style of play can make things difficult for them," said Gago. "We have to stay focused," added Zabaleta. "There are no easy games at the World Cup. Just look at the teams that have been knocked out, and those that are still in the race. Everyone wants to get to the final. I hope we can take our first step against Switzerland.”