Argentina knocked out of FIFA U-20: the good, the bad and the ugly

Mascherano’s squad need to rethink their strategy, but Argentina has no shortage of play – and players – to be proud of

Argentina U-20 squad. Source: Télam

In a shocking turn of events, Argentina’s U-20 football team was knocked out of the World Cup last night when they lost 2-0 against Nigeria in the round of 16 at the Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario. The African side got ahead of the hosts in the second half thanks to goals from Ibrahim Beji Muhammad and Rilwanu Haliru Sarki.

The emotional rollercoaster – failing to qualify before getting a miraculous second chance when Argentina stepped up as host nation – is over, leaving fans of la albiceleste on the fence about the team’s performance. While fans are divided over coach Javier Mascherano’s team-building, the sportsmanship on display made it clear that Argentina’s next generation of muchaaaachos have got it all going for them.

The good

Argentina’s World Cup performance saw some beautiful moments. The players’ attitude towards every game, every time they got benched, every time they caught precious minutes on the pitch as late substitutes, and their relentlessness against defeat was a display of true professionalism by a youth team with bright futures ahead. 

It’s clear the group chemistry on display when they have the ball is established off-pitch, too, in the dynamics of joint interviews and social media posts. It would be smooth sailing to a championship game if the strategy revolved more around that and less on countering and fast attacks. 

Argentina lost 2-0 to Nigeria on Wednesday night. Image: Télam

The players who found their best form under this tactic were Rosario Central striker, Alejo Veliz, the leading goalscorer; Argentinos Juniors midfielder, Federico Redondo, showing promise as a proficient number 5 worthy of his name; and Lazio’s Winger, Luka Romero, who surprised everyone for his explosive pace on the wing.

The bad 

As youth players, Argentina’s squad still has loads of room for improvement. However, the first thing to tweak is the defense. The coaching staff couldn’t impose a consistent starting lineup, resulting in complete disorganization for the defenders, who had to work on new dynamics every outing. That made it impossible for players to consolidate their style and get into the rhythm these high-level matches require.

This can be attributed to a lack of preparation from Mascherano and his assistant, Leandro Stilitano, who resigned from the U-20 squad after a very underwhelming performance in the regional tournament, and weren’t initially expected to be in charge of the U-20 squad for this World Cup. 

The ugly

Argentina’s coaching plan for this tournament was barely a plan at all. After failing to qualify in the first place, the project felt doomed from the start. 

But after the Argentine Football Association’s (AFA) President Claudio “Chiqui” Tapia miraculously secured Argentina as the host nation when FIFA withdrew Indonesia’s candidacy, Mascherano and his coaching team had a chance to redeem themselves, scraping into the tournament as the hosts. 

Moments after the dramatic defeat at the hands of the Nigerian team, the squad coach stated: “Sometimes, in this sport, merit has nothing to do with the final result… It hurts deeply because we did everything in our power to stay in the tournament.” 

Regarding his future as head coach of the U-20 squad, the former Barcelona and Liverpool player said he would stick with the gig as long as Tapia would have him: “He knows that every day I can resign if he asks and the decision is his”. 

Coach Javier Mascherano. Image: Télam

Even though the tactical scheme wasn’t worked as hard as it should be, and Argentina couldn’t rely on some of its most powerful weapons due to a conflict of interest between local clubs and the national side – some clubs didn’t want to lose players mid-season, such as Alejandro Garnacho of Manchester United, Nicolás Páz of Real Madrid, and Facundo Buonanotte of Brighton – fans still caught a glimpse of what this class of players could be in the future. 

Diamonds in the rough

Not only did the European league players show why some of the biggest teams in the world trust them at their young age, but local league players such as Braian Aguirre, Alejo Veliz, Federico Redondo, Valentín Barco, Ignacio Maestro Puch and many more, are starting to merit the title of “diamonds in the rough” if given the right support and training. 

The U-20 team will now have to wait two years before they get another shot at doing what the adult team did in December and carrying home the football World Cup. Some say their failure to qualify and loss in the round of 16 is a sign Mascherano and his crew should bow out. 

Nonetheless, he seems to have bonded with the players and gave the young team a chance to shine. Only time will tell, as he’s just been assigned with the U-23 to win the next edition of the Olympic games of 2024 in Paris.


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