The Copa America match that featured Argentina vs Paraguay was, for this neutral, endlessly fascinating throughout, and entertaining after the final result.
After the match, of course, it was the expected, “Tata Martino screwed up.” But a very interesting Tweet from a pair of hyper-intelligent minds (and BFB mods) got me to thinking:
“What really gets me about the last 10 years as an Argentina supporter is the repeated self-sabotage. Bad subs, Maradona, the Tevez issue …”
And the reply:
“Is there a common denominator, or just history repeating? Different coaches, different players, similar patterns.”
This year, to make the Stanley Cup finals, the Chicago Blackhawks defeated the Anaheim Ducks. It was a remarkable comeback. The Hawks were down 3-2 in the series, on the precipice of elimination, then won games 6 and 7, the last on Anaheim’s home ice.
“Remarkable!” “Amazing!” trumpeted newspapers, as delirious fans celebrated reaching the Stanley Cup final. But then, on the game 7 post-match, came the bombshell. For the third year in a row, under two different coaches, the Ducks went up 3-2 in a pivotal playoff series and caved in, each time losing game 7 on home ice.
What does that do to the tone of the celebrations? More importantly, in the context of what happened with Argentina in today’s match and over recent time, what does this say about the psychology of a collective, and what can be done to counteract such a thing? It’s easy to say Martino bottled it. But is that correct? More importantly, is that simple answer too simple?
As everyone knows. last year at Barça was a mess, psychologically. One of things that Enrique stressed, in addition to the physical side of things, was the mental side. Basically, a team has to get that crap out of its system. If you’re Argentina, how must it feel rolling into an important tournament with that World Cup final still in your mind as you don the famous Albiceleste shirt?
“This time is different.”
Then Paraguay does what it does, and this time is pretty much the same. What’s the deal? Because nothing is as reliable as crowd-sourced outrage, it didn’t take long for the cries to start, that Tata Martino (yes, THAT Tata Martino) bottled the match by making the wrong substitutions. So long and loud were these cries, that a dummy like me who has to see stuff, went back to look at the two Paraguay goals, to understand what happened.
Goal 1: A midfield turnover led to a Paraguay break. The man with the ball was never marked, never challenged. As he ran up to the Argentina box, he saw the keeper way off his line and took a speculative shot. Golazo and suddenly, Paraguay was back in it.
Goal 2: This is late in the match now, into injury time. Argentina makes the defensive play, and the uncertain defender plays the ball back to the keeper, who hoofs it long. A ball-hawking Paraguay contests the header and wins the turnover. An Argentina player, quite stupidly, fouls the Paraguay attacker. On the ensuing set piece, Paraguay floods the Argentina box, as four Albiceleste players just stand there and watch, so Argentina is outnumbered in its own box on what is probably Paraguay’s last gasp (7 attackers to 6 defenders). A straight ball into the box yields a carom, which is slammed home by the one unmarked Paraguay player.
What if even one of those four Argentine spectators decided to join in defending? What if, like so many teams, it was “everybody back” on those last-gasp plays, because at that point you don’t need to score, you just need to not concede?
Going deeper into the match, it was looking to be an Argentina stroll in the park, even if you discount the penalty that shouldn’t have been. But Paraguay’s keeper kept them in it, stopping Messi point blank, parrying a Pastore hammerblow and watching a number of other Argentina chances just miss. That match was there for the grabbing, and Paraguay decided to attack.
Martino’s subs were odd, in that he didn’t opt for match control, bringing on ball handlers, shoring up the midfield and building a stable base to let his team see out the match. We can start by acknowledging this, even as we also have to wonder something else: if you know your job, why don’t you do it?
From an even more rudimentary sense, your mother tells you, “The pot handle is hot, don’t touch it.” You learn the hard way, but then you know. It’s knowledge that carries you through life. As a player, as a professional of the quality required to make a spot on one of the top national teams in the world, you know what to do, even if you don’t have a coach in your ear, telling your exactly what to do. As one ex-player said on the post-match coverage when making that very same point, you can’t even hear the coach at a time like that, you don’t even see him screaming. You’re supposed to know what to do.
So whose fault is this result today, leaving out the fact that Argentina, being in a group that includes Jamaica and Uruguay (without Suarez), will still be fine? Is it Martino? Is it players who didn’t do what they were supposed to do? Is it fate? Is it this odd sort of psychology that finds teams of different players under different leadership still reverting to similar patterns, with similar results?
The reason sports psychology is such a fascinating thing is because athletes develop rote mannerisms that allow them to shut off their minds. If Messi has to think about controlling a pass, he can’t think about beating those defenders. So athletes work and work until these rote things become reflex. They just happen.
But then you have a different level of athlete, one who is considered “clutch.” Ordinary athletes feel pressure. Even at the highest level, reflex becomes something different when you have to think about it. You get tight. And suddenly, it isn’t so easy. Clutch athletes are the same, whether the game has just begun, or the ball is at their feet or in their hands with a few seconds left and their team needs to score.
Messi is clutch. Michael Jordan was clutch to a degree that makes him alien. But sport is also filled with players who, at times when nobody else has any interest in making a difference, step up. They aren’t necessarily great players, but they are possessed of an extraordinary concentration and motion control.
When the Chicago Bulls were in danger of losing to the Los Angeles Lakers because Jordan kept trying to win the game himself, the team’s coach, Phil Jackson, asked Jordan, “Who’s open?” Jordan said, reluctantly, hesitantly, “Paxson.”
Now John Paxson was a journeyman, a jump shooter and hard-nosed defender who pretty much was a specialist. As talented players go, he was pretty much fit to carry Jordan’s luggage. But Paxson was possessed of concentration and a single-minded specificity that made the moment immaterial. So Jordan fed him, and Paxson buried the jump shot. Jordan fed him again, and Paxson buried the jump shot. And again. An athlete doesn’t have to be great to be clutch. But there is a psychology necessary to enable them to see out a complex situation.
The key errors for the second goal came from the substitute keeper (also sharing culpability for the first goal), and a substitute in Biglia (a substitute for Banega). They weren’t clutch. But Argentina was outplayed in the second half as a collective. Did the “Uh, oh …” sense begin to build, or was it a simple case of lightning striking? Before leaping to answer that, it’s worth considering history.
Argentina lost a World Cup final in extra time, a match that should have been over in regulation as big-time players missed chances. Higuain missed, Messi missed, Palacio missed, all of them chances that at other times in other situations, they bury. What happened?
You can’t absolve Martino of culpability here, because coaching is part of a team’s overall performance. But at what point to players either make or not make plays, and what effect do those plays have on the outcome of a sporting event? Tevez had an open header, deep into injury time, with the goal at his mercy, and pushed the ball into the ground and wide of the target. Why? Further, what of collective, sustained failure? Can this be handed down, like a legacy, from team to team? I don’t have answers, but I sure have plenty of questions and hopefully, something to think about.