Julián Álvarez evokes Argentina’s spirit of Kempes and can resurrect old glories | World Cup 2022

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The oddity of this Argentina side is that it arrived in Qatar having gone 36 games unbeaten and yet has still found itself making it up as it went along. For once there seemed no questions about selection. There were few doubts about how Argentina should play or who should play up front with Lionel Messi, even after the injury to Giovani Lo Celso. There was a sense of stability and a quiet confidence. They had won the Copa América last year. There was no need to change anything. Then they lost to Saudi Arabia.

Argentina are habitually poor starters at World Cups. In 40 years their only really impressive opening performance was the 4-0 win over Greece in 1994 and that culminated in Diego Maradona failing the drug test that would end his international career.

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The defeat by Saudi Arabia caused panic. Argentina had enough chances in the first half to win it, they dominated the xG, had a goal ruled out for the tightest of offsides and the two Saudi goals in four minutes came against the run of play.

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What cost Argentina was not the first half in which their only real fault was playing a little too quickly, snatching at the game, but the meltdown that followed.

A sober assessment might have been that they just needed to play the same way but more calmly. But an accumulation of failure, memory of past embarrassment, the need to win Messi his World Cup, led to the brink of desperation and demands for change. Far more than in the club game, in international football the present lives always in the shadow of the past. Ripping up blueprints has been an Argentinian habit at World Cups.

Even in 2014, when they last reached the final, the talk had all been of a 4-3-3 only for them to line up against Bosnia-Herzegovina in a 5-3-2, apparently because Messi wanted to play more centrally. They spent the rest of that World Cup fumbling from shape to shape. In 2018 it was no better, the back three hastily adopted against Croatia bringing a crushing 3-0 defeat. But the difference this time, as Jorge Valdano has said, is that the early defeat has probably been beneficial. The change it provoked was necessary.

It is one of the great paradoxes of football: if winning leads to stagnation, a sense that there is no need to adapt or evolve, then success leads ultimately to failure. Things have to change to stay the same. Long unbeaten runs, as Xabi Alonso acknowledged after Spain’s ended against the USA at the 2009 Confederations Cup, can become a burden. Protecting the run starts to interfere with the specific business of that match and there is an inevitable reluctance to tinker with a side that in being unbeaten comes to seem unbeatable.

The Saudi defeat opened the door to change and through it have come Alexis Mac Allister, Enzo Fernández and Julián Álvarez, three young players who were not in the reckoning when the long unbeaten run began. Mac Allister is 23. He was first called up in 2019, only for injury and Covid to get in the way. Fernández is 21 and won his first cap only in September. Álvarez is 22 and made his Argentina debut in June last year. Mac Allister and Fernández have added snap and intelligence to the midfield while Álvarez is a mobile and skilful foil for Messi. Crucially, unlike Lautaro Martínez who missed chance after chance against Australia, he seems capable of scoring goals, four so far at the World Cup.

There is a proud lineage of forwards emerging over the course of a World Cup having initially not been in the side: Toto Schillaci in 1990, Geoff Hurst in 1966, Pelé in 1958.

Schillaci did not start for Italy until the third group game in 1990 but by the end of the tournament he had won both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball. For all the planning that goes into the modern game there is still space for an in-form player to arrive and make a huge difference, particularly in a tournament when the football is less sophisticated or as controlled as at club level, and momentum and confidence more of a factor.

But Álvarez is far more than just a finisher. His goal against Australia demonstrated great awareness to seize on Mat Ryan’s error and then squeeze in his shot, while his second against Croatia in the semi-final, arriving on Messi’s cutback, was a classic centre-forward’s goal. His first strike of the tournament, turning in the box against Poland and arcing a finish into the top corner, was admirably fluent and precise.

Mario Kempes celebrates after scoring Argentina’s second goal against the Netherlands, in Buenos Aires in 1978.
Mario Kempes celebrates after scoring Argentina’s second goal against the Netherlands, in Buenos Aires in 1978. Photograph: AP

It was his first in the semi-final, though, that stood out. It was an odd goal, hard to define, scruffy yet requiring great balance and technical ability as he bounced through a series of challenges before poking the ball in. It was not a goal, it is fair to say, practised on the training field, not the result of an intricately plotted move. Yet for Argentina, a country besotted by its own history, it had its precursor in Mario Kempes’s second goal against the Netherlands in the final in 1978.

No country is so in love with its origin myth as Argentina, with all its talk of pibes developing their skills and their cunning on the unruly vacant lots of the city. This felt like a goal of the streets. Álvarez does not quite fit the stereotype in that he grew up not in Buenos Aires but in the small village of Calchín in the province of Córdoba, but he was trained by a van driver and his talent did, in the approved manner, first become clear when at a very young age he beat five players to score.

Álvarez evokes the ancient spirit of the Argentinian game but the fact he plays under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City is enough to define him as a very modern forward. But he is more than that: he is confident and in form and he is part of the injection of young talent that might be about to make Argentina world champions again, part of the change that can resurrect old glories.

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