Meanwhile, Argentina could pull off rare feat of marrying Messi era with youth

Ryan Baldi
Alejandro Garnacho not getting Argentina minutes
Alejandro Garnacho not getting Argentina minutes

At the risk of sounding like that meme of Tobias Fünke from Arrested Development, Argentina have the chance to do something at the Copa America that hasn’t worked for other teams…but it could work for them.

Implementing a period of transition and maintaining success are usually mutually exclusive in football. In any sport, in fact. There comes a time with any generation of high-achieving players when the person picking the team must decide whether to wring out the final drops of magic from ageing stars or start afresh with a younger group. It’s one or the other. Not both.

Manchester United probably came closest to pulling off the seldom-seen trick of having the best of both worlds in the mid-1990s. Alex Ferguson was told he’d win nothing with kids, but he threw David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Nevilles into his line-up alongside the likes of Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel and Gary Pallister and won a Double.

But even then, there was an element of ‘out with the old, in with the new’, as Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis were jettisoned to make way for the Class of ’92.

A few years later, Liverpool tried to have it both ways with their frontline. Robbie Fowler, although himself only 22 at the time, was the established goalscoring superstar of Anfield when Michael Owen made his first-team debut at age 17 in 1997. Roy Evans and then Gerard Houllier (and for a brief, bizarre period, the two managers together) chose not to play favourites and combined the pair at the point of attack. But as both players were predatory strikers lacking the creativity and selflessness to provide for each other, it never really worked.

Injuries were of course also a factor in Fowler’s decline, but after scoring 30-plus in each of the four seasons before Owen’s emergence, he never again scored more than 18 in a single campaign. Owen was the new star on the scene and, by the end of 2001, God was gone, sold to Premier League rivals Leeds United.

There is a more recent example in the NBA. The Golden State Warriors built dynastic success at the end of the last decade around star players Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. As the trio reached their mid-30s, the Warriors drafted a handful of high-potential rookies. The aim was that the team would operate on ‘two timelines’, continuing to compete for titles on the back of their big-name talent while simultaneously nurturing the next generation.

The former objective was achieved – Golden State won the 2022 NBA Championship and Curry earned the Finals MVP award for the first time. But one timeline ate the other. The kids hardly featured and those who remain with the team are no further along in their development now than when they started.

But despite these cautionary tales, Argentina have the perfect set of ingredients and circumstances to make it work.

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Lionel Messi, at 37, remains one of the best players in the world and is clearly still driven to succeed. Not only is there no need yet to go all in on a succession plan for the eight-time Ballon d’or winner’s eventual retirement, his leadership and selfless playing style means there is no better figurehead around whom young players can coalesce and develop. The same is true, albeit to lesser degrees, of Angel Di Maria and Nicolas Otamendi, who are both now 36 and long-time stalwarts of the Albiceleste.

And Argentina can afford to experiment; to absorb the necessary trial-and-error processes every young player must navigate. After winning the Copa America three years ago and the World Cup in 2022, the crushing pressure Messi and co. were under previously has lifted.

What’s more, two games into their 2024 Copa America campaign, they are the first team to have booked a place in the knockout rounds after back-to-back victories over Canada and Chile.

The narrow 1-0 scoreline in the latter might suggest Lionel Scaloni has little margin for error. But Argentina could easily have won more comfortably on another day. They had 22 shots to their opponent’s three. Messi created five chances, including setting up opportunities from point-blank range that were squandered by Alexis Mac Allister and Nahuel Molina and the pass that led to Nicolas Gonzalez rattling the bar in the second half.

Lautaro Martinez came off the bench to provide the breakthrough in the 88th minute, firing home after an Argentina corner. And the Inter Milan striker somehow conspired to not add a second in the final moments when Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo – the oldest player at the Copa America at age 41 – scrambled away his chipped effort after a Di Maria-led counter attack.

They’re through with one group-stage game still to play and zero goals conceded. They can afford to think beyond the current Copa and start banking crucial experience for their youngsters that could pay dividends at the 2026 World Cup and beyond.

Yet Scaloni appears reluctant to entertain this notion. Of the 26-man squad he picked for the tournament in the United States, 11 are over 30 years old. There are only four players under the age of 25. Given that squad sizes had been expanded from 23 for this edition of the competition, opportunities could have been given to the likes of Manchester City-bound attacking midfielder Claudio Echeverri, Brighton’s promising teenage left-back Valentin Barco and 19-year-old Boca Juniors centre-back Aaron Anselemo, who is a reported target for Manchester United.

Valentin Carboni of Inter and United’s Alejandro Garnacho, both 19, are the youngest members of Scaloni’s squad and neither has played a minute thus far at the Copa. Carboni played 31 times in Serie A last season on loan with Monza and Garnacho was one of few standout performers for United, starring and scoring in an FA Cup final triumph over the club’s biggest rivals. Scaloni needn’t be worried about either player’s temperament or readiness for top-level competition.

“Garnacho is comfortable and enjoying being with us,” was the manager’s non-committal response when asked whether the United winger might be unleashed at the Copa America. “We have a lot of options. He is training well.”

Argentina do have a lot of options. And one of those options is to have the best of both worlds – in with the old and in with the new.

We’re told in life you can’t have your cake and eat it. But what else is cake for? Grab a fork, Señor Scaloni, and chow down.