How to fix Argentina: Improve youth set-up, support Messi, sort the defence
After such a tense and traumatic qualification campaign, Argentina are definitely entitled to celebrate the 3-1 win away to Ecuador that cements their place in next year's World Cup. But the champagne might have an uneasy aftertaste. How did they get themselves in such trouble in the first place? And their main cause for celebration is the fact that they can count on Lionel Messi; imagine if he had gone through with his decision to retire from international football after the heartbreak of losing three finals in three years.
Beating Ecuador is all very well but the drama of Tuesday night makes the team's utter dependence on one player even clearer, and it leaves much to dwell on as the team look forward to Russia, and beyond. There are three special areas of interest.
1. Sorting out the youth teams
The warning signs have been flashing for a while. Despite Argentina's recent runs to three finals -- the 2014 World Cup, 2015 Copa America and last year's Copa America Centenario -- they have not looked like a solid, coherent team for some time. Rather, they have been dependent on flashes of individual brilliance, largely from Messi, a dependence that's become almost comical in the current campaign.
Much of this surely has to do with the alarming decline of the country's youth sides -- in particular the Under-20 team, a vitally important level in South American football. Between 1995 and 2007, Argentina were five times U-20 World Cup champions. Since then they have been very poor at the level, something then-coach Sergio Batista warned of during a moment of triumph, when his team won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
More important than the U20 titles was the conveyor belt of talented youngsters who graduated through to the senior ranks. This has stopped happening and as a result, Argentina are weak in a number of key positions: goalkeeper, full-back and, perhaps most importantly, centre-back.
The most important task faced by the Argentine national team is to restore the competence of the U20 set-up. In the golden age, under current Colombia boss Jose Pekerman, Argentina did a fine job of identifying and developing promising youngsters, not an area in which new senior national team boss Jorge Sampaoli has a great deal of experience. During his time in charge of Chile, he had little contact with their U20 side; indeed, after failing to make it through to Russia, Chile will themselves have to deal with their own difficult process of rebuilding.
The overall boss of Argentina's youth sides is former international midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron. He will choose the coaches and lay down the framework, which now makes him one of the most important figures in his country's football.
2. Finding a structure around Messi
While Veron deals with the long term, Sampaoli takes care of the short. He now has time and peace in which to build a team for Russia, and both are valuable commodities.
With next to no time on the training ground, it was very hard for Sampaoli to come in and take charge of the last four rounds of qualification. He is not a conventional coach and has a commitment to a certain model of play: namely an aggressive pressing of the opposition in their half of the field.
His initial idea was of an attacking trident featuring Messi and Paulo Dybala behind centre forward Mauro Icardi but it always looked like a gamble. The trio hardly know each other, while Messi and Dybala like to occupy the same space. After two poor games the idea was abandoned for the vital last two rounds. But now that Sampaoli has time to plan, which way will he go?
The manager talks of the need to have little partnerships in the team. There was no evidence of that in the Messi-Dybala-Icardi combination but plenty of evidence on Tuesday. Against Ecuador, Sampaoli went back to a trio, with Messi and Angel Di Maria behind centre-forward Dario Benedetto. The Messi-Di Maria combination effectively won the match as at long last, Messi had a partner.
Di Maria had been used in a variety of different roles, but often way out wide. Now able to float across and link up with Messi, the pair came up with quick combinations that undressed the opposing defence and lead to several clear chances and the first two goals. For Argentina's third, the cross-field movement of Benedetto played an important role in opening up space for Messi, but the obvious centre-forward to link up with Argentina's captain is not Benedetto or Icardi: it is Sergio Aguero.
The pair go way back. Aguero, of course, is out of action at the moment after his car crash but last month he could not even get off the bench when Argentina were desperate for a goal at home to Venezuela. Messi and Aguero paired up as starters just twice during the course of the campaign and both times Argentina won. It is one of the hidden statistics of the campaign, and it should guide Sampaoli as he seeks to construct his World Cup team.
3. How will the team defend?
This is the big question that hangs over Argentina's World Cup quest. The current defensive unit contains neither great quality nor much speed, something that has been a problem for a while. In qualification for the last World Cup, then-coach Alejandro Sabella fielded an attacking formation and confessed that there were times when his team was under attack and the only thing he could do was close his eyes and pray. Come Brazil 2014, with his attacking stars tired, he found himself forced to play from a bunker, defending deep.
Sampaoli will not want to do the same thing. He usually goes for a high defensive line and an intense press, running the risk of opening up his side to opposing counter-attacks. But Argentina's current crop of defenders would seem ill-suited to such a strategy.
Certainly, his back-three formation, anchored by the lumbering Federico Fazio, did not look at all comfortable in last month's draw at home to Venezuela. On Thursday, he went with a more conventional back four against Peru but he began the Ecuador game with a three-man unit again, whose vulnerability (both in the air and against pace) was exposed after less than a minute. In the second half, Sampaoli switched to a back four but lost some of his attacking fluency as a result: it's not a problem defending a lead against Ecuador but it could be a huge impediment to this side's chances in the World Cup.
How, then, will he set up his defence? It is a question that addresses an area much broader than the team's defensive record; it also probes the issue of how bold Sampaoli is prepared to be. Will he be sufficiently ambitious to go for a style as daring as the one used in his successful time in charge of Chile? Or might he think that in the circumstances his best bet will be to cover up and hope that, with a little bit of help here and there, Messi will tip the balance?
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.