Right at the start of Argentina's 2-0 win over Mexico on Tuesday, Mauro Icardi scored his first international goal. Nearing the end, Paulo Dybala, at last, also opened his account.
This serves as a fitting symbol for Argentina's post-World Cup fortunes. In Russia they were nothing short of a shambles. Since then, under the caretaker stewardship of the inexperienced Lionel Scaloni, things have gone better than anyone could have hoped.
Argentina's was the oldest squad in the World Cup. Scaloni has carried out a huge renewal job, giving a total of 16 debuts in the six games under his charge. A generational change is taking place. Lionel Messi is out of action, although it is not yet known whether this is permanent or temporary. But if Messi's international future is uncertain, it would seem clear that many of his former teammates will find it difficult to get back into the squad. Things have moved on. A new group of players have come through. And despite all the changes and the experimentation, bearing in mind the lack of time to prepare on the training ground, a clear idea of play has emerged. Scaloni's Argentina do not seek to be a patient, possession-based team. He looks to play a pair of wingers and a central striker, and move the ball quickly to the flanks to mount rapid attacks.
But how long will they be Scaloni's Argentina? Big decisions now have to be taken. The original idea was that Scaloni would mind the shop, and do it cheaply, while the Argentine FA took their time finding a big-name replacement. But there is already a change of tone. The possibility of Scaloni staying on is being muted. The current group of players would seem to support him. And the results have been positive: four wins, a draw and a single defeat (in the last minute, to Brazil), with 11 goals scored and just one conceded.
The numbers are good. But then again, it can be all too easy to get carried away with numbers in friendlies, as the case of Brazil makes clear.
The five-times world champions rounded off 2018 with what looks like a wonderful record: 15 games played, with 13 wins, one draw and one defeat, 29 goals for and three against. The problem is, though, that they lost the one that mattered -- that World Cup quarterfinal against Belgium when, in a fateful first half, Brazil conceded two of the three goals they let in all year.
Since then their record looks marvelous -- six games, all wins, with 12 goals scored and none conceded. It may look as if things could hardly be better. But in fact Brazil end the year under something of a cloud. In September they beat an inexperienced U.S. team and brushed El Salvador aside. Since then they have been unimpressive. Coach Tite is still clearly straining for the right blend, with the centre-forward position, so often a Brazilian strong point, continuing to prove something of a problem.
Following the disappointing World Cup of Gabriel Jesus, Tite has put his faith in Roberto Firmino to lead the attacking line. So fat, at least, it has not been a success. His game is to drop and combine, but Brazil have not been able to knit this into their attacking pattern and are lacking penalty-area presence. Their last three games -- against Argentina, Uruguay and Cameroon -- have been single-goal triumphs, with the goals coming from set pieces. The bright spot has been the emergence of Richarlison. Cutting in from the flanks, the Everton man is a mixture of wide striker and centre-forward. When he has come off the bench, more attacking thrust has been apparent, and a place in the squad for next year's Copa America is surely his for the taking, especially after heading home the only goal Tuesday in a 1-0 win against Cameroon.
He could be tried at centre-forward -- it worked well against El Salvador. But the possibility is that it would not function so well against the stronger teams. Tite has recognised that Richarlison is a direct, front-to-goal striker. He is probably better used wide, when he has space in front of him, than in the centre, where better defences force him to be patient and work with his back to goal, combing with the midfielders. So who will wear the No. 9 shirt? Stick with Firmino? Back to Gabriel Jesus? There are not too many other candidates around, unless Tite were to take a flier on someone like Joelinton, the Hoffenheim target man.
There is little time for experimentation. Only the March FIFA dates remain before the squads for next year's Copa America are called up. Tite, then, will be spending the next few months dwelling on the attacking balance of his side -- while Argentina will be wondering if Scaloni might be the right man to take them into the next cycle of competitive matches.