Understated Sabella gets results
BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- Take one look at the four remaining managers in the World Cup and the children's song "One of These Things Is Not Like the Others" immediately springs to mind.
You have his eminence, the Netherlands' Louis van Gaal, quick to joust with anyone he thinks is his intellectual subordinate, which is just about everybody. There is another big personality in Brazil's Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari. There is a presence about Germany's Joachim Low as well, and all three coaches are household names.
And then you have Argentina's Alejandro Sabella.
The man nicknamed "The Sloth" -- from his days as a creative, but not especially mobile, midfielder -- is as low key as you can get. He is a coach who doesn't look especially comfortable in the spotlight, preferring to work behind the scenes with his players.
Brazil 1-7 Germany -- reaction
- Marcotti: Scolari at a loss to explain
- Jones: Seven stages of grief for Brazil
- Duarte: Haunting defeat for the Selecao
- Delaney: Three Points - Brazil broken by Germany
- Low: German plan worked perfectly
- Behind the Numbers: Germany's historic win
- Photo Gallery: Best of Brazil vs. Germany
- Klose breaks World Cup goals record | Highlight
- Social reaction: Brazil, did that just happen?
If that image is at odds with his fellow semifinal managers, it's even more jarring when compared to some of his predecessors as Argentina manager. Alfio "Coco" Basile's basso profundo voice could dominate a room. There was the larger-than-life character that is Diego Maradona, whose emotions always meant he managed more with his heart than his head. One could argue that the trend toward less bombast started with Sabella's immediate predecessor, Sergio Batista, but even he is a more charismatic figure.
Yet perhaps the departure from such big personalities is precisely what Argentina needed at this World Cup. Sabella served his apprenticeship as the longtime assistant to another large presence, former Argentina manager Daniel Passarella, and was long considered the tactical brain to complement his mentor's strengths as a motivator. When Sabella finally took on his first managerial role with Estudiantes de La Plata in 2009, he immediately turned the club around, winning the 2009 Copa Libertadores and the 2010 Apertura championship.
Such success, and Sabella's more thoughtful approach, made a believer out of Juan Sebastian Veron, who not only captained that Estudiantes side but at one point did the same for Argentina.
"[Sabella] is a coach who transmits tranquility to the team," Veron told the BBC. "He is very concerned with detail, preparing for each match by going over everything that could happen on the pitch. From a strategic point of view, he is really intelligent during the game."
He has also managed to get the most out of Lionel Messi. In some respects, Sabella's approach isn't demonstrably different than Maradona's. Both gave Messi complete tactical freedom, and Sabella has surrounded him with many of the same players as four years ago, including Angel di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero. Now those players all have more experience. And matters certainly improved for both Messi and Sabella after Argentina junked the 5-3-2 approach for a more Messi-friendly 4-3-3.
Messi has been given more of the credit for the change than Sabella, creating the impression that it is the player who runs the show. It's an interesting narrative, but one that doesn't always match reality. It was Sabella who cut Messi's good friend, Ever Banega, from the final 23-man roster. When Sabella felt that another Messi confidante, Fernando Gago, wasn't performing well, he made the decision to drop him against Belgium.
Certainly it's difficult to argue with the results, for both the team and the player. Argentina has won five matches in a row, and Messi has had a hand in five of the Albiceleste's eight goals at this World Cup, scoring four of them. The cacophony of complaints that the Barcelona man has delivered only for his club and not his country has diminished under Sabella's guidance.
"[Sabella] forms extremely good groups," said Veron. "He has finally managed to get Messi operating to his full potential after the highs and lows before, but it has not come at the group's expense."
But some are still unconvinced by Sabella's usage of one of the best players in the world.
"It seems to me that Argentina today has no idea," Maradona told Spanish outlet AS after Argentina edged Switzerland 1-0 in the round of 16. "In the first half, the team did not have one chance. My team were a lot more offensive than this one. It looks bleak for us, if I'm honest. I wish the team played differently, that it exploited all the ability its players have."
The team may be less offensive, but it also has more balance than Maradona's edition, a point driven home by the quarterfinal against Belgium. It's a result that has changed perceptions a bit, as it was Higuain's goal that proved to be the difference, and Sabella's personnel changes in the back effectively shackled Belgium's impressive array of attacking talent. The Albiceleste have conceded just three goals in five matches.
Even then, Belgium manager Marc Wilmots described Argentina as "ordinary." But so long as Argentina keeps winning, that will be just fine with Sabella. As a World Cup-winning manager, once again he'll be different than almost all the rest.