Old fashioned. Proper. Target man. Centre forward. You know the type; good in the air, difficult to play against, etc. And so valued here. England? Norway? Argentina, actually. Welcome to IBWM Dan Colasimone.
Argentina’s ability to produce highly skilful, creative attacking midfielders and second strikers is seemingly boundless. No sooner does a Maradona retire, than the likes of Ortega, Aimar and Saviola emerge to (as well as anyone could) plug the gap in la Selección. Just as those players start to fade, Lionel Messi pops up. As soon as Riquelme gets too old and cranky to play for the national side, a breath of fresh air like Pastore wafts in. And those are just the ones at the front of the conga line. Behind them is always a second and third tier of players who would make it into most national teams’ starting elevens, but are forced to content themselves with backup roles within the Argentine set up, due to the country’s embarrassment of riches in such positions. Players like of Ezequiel Lavezzi or Lisandro Lopez would surely walk straight into the current Italian or English first teams, yet they remains on the fringes for Argentina.
Concurrently, or perhaps consequently, the country also continues to develop outstanding defensive midfielders. These are the guys who grow up endeavouring, ninety minutes at a time, to stop the kinds of players mentioned above exploiting their preternatural abilities, meaning that if they aren’t cynically effective talent-suppressors by the time they get out of their teens, they’re unlikely to last in Argentine football.
In the defensive zone, Argentina is less blessed, yet there always seem to be one or two outstanding individuals who can paper over the cracks. That is to say, for every Martin Demichelis, there’s usually a Walter Samuel, Roberto Ayala or Daniel Passarella. Most national team coaches cobble together the best of what defenders that they have, and hope that their team will so dominate in other areas of the pitch that any failings won’t be fatal. Of course it doesn’t help when players like Javier Zanetti are ignored at the World Cup, but that’s another story.
One position that cannot be undervalued for the Argentine national team is that of the ‘number 9’. There’s nothing more cherished in Argentine football than a genuinely good ‘punta’, or centre forward in the traditional sense. This may seem an odd statement in a country that has an eternal love affair with the ‘enganche’ (playmaker) position, but as mentioned earlier, the supply of enganches doesn’t appear to ever dry up, whereas big target men are a rarer breed. Diamonds may be the most alluring of precious stones, but perfect red rubies are actually considerably more valuable due to their incredible rarity. Likewise, the magic in the Argentinian team may come from its array of highly skilled creators, but their usefulness depends greatly on having a high quality striker to play off – and such plays are not so easy to find. When asked on the eve of the 2006 World Cup if he would like to see Carlos Tevez, Javier Saviola, Pablo Aimar and Lionel Messi playing together in attack, AFA President Julio Grondona replied, “No, if that’s the case, I’d prefer to rent out ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’” His point was clear, and could be applied to any recent World Cup. The midget artists need a punta to give their work direction and purpose. Maradona has famously stated that his ‘goal of the century’ against England in the 1986 World Cup Quarter Final depended partly on the collaboration of his punta, Jorge Valdano. "I made the play to give it to Valdano, but when I got to the area they surrounded me and I had no space. Therefore, I had to continue the play and finish it myself," explained ‘El Diego’ in his autobiography.
Recent History of the Position
Argentina has produced some wonderful strikers over the years, but the truly elite have only ever come along once or twice per generation. The Abiceleste’s first World Cup win at home in 1978 will forever be associated with the guile, the goals and the flowing locks of ‘El Matador’ Mario Kempes. He may have worn the number 10 on his back because of an alphabetical quirk, but he was the prototype number 9 for future editions of the national team. From there, a simplified genealogy of the position can be mapped like Abraham’s descendents in the New Testament; Kempes begat Valdano who begat Caniggia who begat Batistuta who begat Crespo. Argentina has been very fortunate for the consistency with which these world-class strikers have appeared, which has served to hide a lack of depth in the position at times. Looking at the 2002 squad, for example, the backup for Batistuta and Crespo was a 35-year-old Claudio Caniggia who at the time was plying his trade with Rangers of Scotland, with his ‘Son of the Wind’ days well behind him. Likewise, many wondered how another 35-year-old, Martin Palermo, could gain selection to the 2010 World Cup while many highly regarded players were left at home. Such a decision can only partially be attributed to coach Maradona’s eccentricity – as once again Argentina’s stock in truly world-class target men was limited to two; Gonzalo Higuain and Diego Milito. Players like Tevez, Aguero, Lavezzi and Lisandro Lopez all make accomplished forwards, but none offer the presence, ability to hold the ball up and aerial threat up front as a traditional punt
The Current Crop
The current heir to the likes of Crespo and Batistuta is the man who led Argentina’s line at the 2010 World Cup, Gonzalo Higuain. Higuain has the physical attributes, speed and positional sense to end up high on the all-time Abiceleste goal scoring charts, although he has not shown himself to be as lethal a finisher as many of his predecessors -- at least not yet. He left South Africa with four goals, but with the creative talents of Messi, Tevez and others behind him, he could have had more if not for some wastefulness. Diego Milito was not given much of a chance to impress at the tournament, although with his intelligent passing and accurate shooting, he offers a more complete package than the younger Higuain. At the age of 31, though, it may be too late for him to make his mark at international level. Maradona opted for Palermo as his third choice, yet whomever he had chosen would have represented a big step down in quality from the first two, with names like Fernando Cavenaghi and Maxi Lopez among the alternatives.
What the future holds
Of the next generation of target men emerging in the Argentinian league, two in particular stand out. The current Boca and River squads are by no means classic ones, but they do contain a couple of exciting talents in Lucas Viatri and Rogelio Funes Mori, respectively.
Viatri, a hulking forward with a good touch and a conviction for armed robbery, has had his career thus far hobbled by injuries, but he promises to be a devastating attacker if he can remain injury free and out of trouble. Playing so far this season without the genius of Riquelme behind him, and another, static, number 9 in Martin Palermo alongside, Viatri has tended to drop ten yards behind the defensive line and use his fine ball control and vision to direct Boca’s attacking play, while at the same time offering a goal threat himself. Despite his added creative responsibilities, he has still managed to score four goals in eight games in the Apertura. Once a coach can find the right team set up to take advantage of Viatri’s attributes, he will surely repay in kind with a hatful of goals.
Funes Mori is perhaps an even brighter prospect in terms of the Argentinian national team. The lanky 19-year-old has size and strength that is a rarity in the Primera Division, and yes, he does have a good touch for a big man. He tends to miss more chances than he puts away, and at times looks quite ungainly, but the excitement around his emergence in the past year proves just how much big centre forwards are valued in Argentine football. It is only a matter of time before he moves to Europe, and if he continues to develop at his current pace, within a couple of years he could be in the reckoning for an Abiceleste call up.
It may be diamonds like Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez who make the Argentina team sparkle, but players like Viatri and Funes Mori remain rare as rubies.
You can read more from Dan at Argentina Football World