Last week in Bajo Flores, the neighbourhood of San Lorenzo's stadium, football returned with an uncommon display of fluidity and grit with a deserved 2-1 victory for los Santos over Colon from Santa Fé. My lack of updates mirrored the under-performing, at times absent, and more or less struggling San Lorenzo side. New signings over the summer, 17 in total, along with a longer list of players cut contributed to Manager Caruso's calls for calm after the team's slow start. Weeks of on-and-off intense rain and two transfer started by Argentina's tax-man AFIP were also to blame.
Football, despite all the attention on Messi's dazzling dribbling skills and curving free-kicks or Ronaldo's solo runs at defenders, is a team sport. Familiarity and a shared 'understanding' of how to move the ball forward a disputes nd collectively occupy space can lead to more success than any 'star' ever could bring – ignoring that most stars fail to have an impact in the modern game without their supporting cast. Messi's performance with Argentina, until recently, is a testament to the sport's duality: individual talent vs. collective effort and intelligence.
Nearly five weeks ago in Cordoba, San Lorenzo's attacking hopes were ruptured along with the ligaments of 'Pipi' Romagnoli's left knee in an otherwise uneventful 0-0. Then San Lorenzo lost at home, something that had yet to happen to Caruso at the Nuevo Gasómetro, 0-1 to Estudiantes de La Plata. Another underwhelming performance, San Lorenzo failing to find any offensive creativity; unexceptionable for a “Grande” in Argentina. Doubts were growing about Caruso. Viggo Mortenson, the most internationally recognizable Cuervo, even participated in the media critique – claiming that Caruso's line-ups had been uninspiring and unfit for San Lorenzo's history. Caruso retaliated before a mildly genial resolution was orchestrated by the media who had created the crisis. In the bars and terraces, debate raged about the merits of Caruso's training – never really the most informed places to look for tactical advice, but certainly the most passionate and entertaining. I've heard that San Lorenzo has a team comparable to Barcelona and that it's been Caruso holding them back.
Off the field, politics at the club was happily marching forward to the democratic coronation of Vice-President Tinelli with his President Mattias Lammens. Rather than political campaigning, finding a replacement for Pipi was their central concern. Despite the free flowing rhythm of the country's most famous players, the tactical imagination of Argentines feels constrained. Positions are described by their number – 2 and 6 in the centre of defence, 5 is a defensive midfielder – a tradition less common in other parts of the world because of changing formations. A team without an 'enganche' – the '10', a forward given free reign to attack across the final third – produces anxiety about the offensive potential of the team. San Lorenzo lined up diminutive Rolle in the interim and quickly found him lacking. Ignacio Piatti returning from to Argentina after a short stint at recently descended Lecce in Italy was presented as the solution. Before supporters were given a chance to judge, however, the Argentine tax-man had some questions about his contract. Striker Stracqualursi's contract also drew AFIP's attention leading to a suspension of both players (Piatti's entrance, in reality, had yet to be completed).
AFIP's investigation appears justifiable given that Piatti as well as 'Straqua' arrived to San Lorenzo on loan. San Lorenzo, reportedly, did not pay a cent for the loans, strange. Welcome to the wonderful world of Argentine contracts, mysterious black boxes of multiple owners and divided percentages. Complex and one of the more likely places of corruption given the millions of pesos that are spent during each transfer period. Making sure tax is paid on these transactions seems like the only active motivation to clean up this part of Argentine football.
It was bad timing. San Lorenzo was to play their first 'clasico' of the year against the returned River Plate. For Caruso, though, an away-match at River's Estadio Monumental lowered the expectations for attacking football. In the mythology of Argentine football, when visiting any of the Cinco Grandes – Boca, Independiente, Racing, River and San Lorenzo – it is acceptable to 'play for a tie'. This suited Caruso's compressed and defensive 4-4-2 starting line-up. And while San Lorenzo came close, Jara crashing the cross-bar, most of the match was spent smothering the midfield and preventing former French international Trezeguet from influencing the match. A 0 – 0 tie was not pretty, not very useful in the fight against relegation, but for the most part understandable. For the most part San Lorenzo's hinchada was contented with humiliating the “Borrachos del Tablón”. A reported 55 000 people, around 6000 cuervos, filled the stadium but it was hard to believe at times given the silence that characterized River's hinchada. During half-time, we taunted “Que silencio atroz,” before shushing our voices and revealing an eery silence. Those watching of television could clearly make out the lyrics of San Lorenzo's songs.
Caruso, known to be more concerned about losing points than winning them, had continued his defensive team when we travelled up to Victoria to meet Tigre. Last season Tigre romped to a 3-1 victory, sending San Lorenzo into utter panic. Tigre in the interrum have lost several key players and found themselves under pressure. But a lapse in concentration led to an open header for Castaño on the corner, Tigre one up. San Lorenzo responded in four minutes. A wonderful 16 pass goal by new Uruguayan midfielder Aguiar showed that San Lorenzo has the potential to orchestrate meaningful attacks; but stupidity and tired legs prevented anything more in the second half. Franco Jara, carrying a reputation for diving, received a yellow card early for falling too easily in the penalty area. He picked up the matching pair at the start of the second for practicing Tai Kwon Do and was sent walking; Caruso soon joined him in the locker room. Outside of the goal, there wasn't much of value to the match and the second half was a huge disappointment. Nothing to cheer for and it seemed that those who talked about 'anti-football' had some evidence to their claims. How much longer would supporters allow this boring show to continue? Six points in five matches wasn't going to keep San Lorenzo from relegation.
Patience. It is a paradox for football supporters – it is at the same time necessary and dangerous. San Lorenzo still carries the very real risk of descending at the end of this season. They need to collect points to lift their three season average. Ties and worse losses are lost opportunities to lift the average or stay just ahead of the pack – so the campaign that Caruso had been organizing was taking San Lorenzo in a dangerous direction with few wins against “small” Argentine clubs. On the other hand, all the new players needed time to become familiar, develop a collective awareness and style, which is in part the responsibility of the manager. A deep debate amongst San Lorenzo's hinchas was how much time was going to be 'too much'.
For me last Saturday's match felt like the first watchable match of live football I've seen in Argentina. I'm sure my memory is playing a few tricks on me. But seeing plays build out of the midfield, reach the strikers in areas of potential danger – whether the final pass was lacking or the finishing didn't put the ball in the back of the net, the sensation of 'the next one' coming at any moment and watching the opposition pushed back into their own half is an experienced raised to great heights when shared by thousands of yelling and singing fans.
Emotionally the last season's match against Newell's, where San Lorenzo's hopes were saved by an unlikely 3-2 comeback victory, or the back-to-back must-wins vs San Martín and then Instituto to avoid regulation were more captivating experiences than last Saturday. But there is a different feeling of satisfaction of watching your team play well. It was far from a perfect performance, physically it is obvious the starting eleven do not have more than 70 minutes of gas. Physical fitness continues to plague the team, particularly in the centre of pitch, despite dropping several kilos over the summer. It remains to be seen if this will be an ongoing problem, or is a symptom of the recent 'lack of football' for many players.
Buffarini returned to a form that he had last season; an irrepressible, if undersized, winger who seems to bounce back onto his feet after every rough challenge. More importantly, after all of his hard work for San Lorenzo he was finally rewarded with a goal – driving to the fair post to meet the ball that Piatti had passed sharply across the goal. Buffa's impact was once again felt when his curling cross took an opportunistic bounce and Stacqualursi's header buried the ball into the back of the net. Piatti's presence in the enganche position was important, providing inspiration and a fluidity to the passing. Prosperi, another new recruit, continued his string of decent performances at right-back. But the dominant performance began to wain, as San Lorenzo's limited fitness continues to be a problem especially in the final 15 minutes. Concentration dropped in the defence, a horrible give away at the top of the box and defenders caught watching allowed Gerardo Alcoba score right from an onside position in front of the goal. San Lorenzo's “doble-cinco” of Kalinski and Mercier in the midfield seem not yet to have match-fitness and again the problem of 'patience' returns. How long can San Lorenzo keep trying Mercier to see if he can regain his speed.
Colon's small hinchada left the stadium to the Butteler's full voice, singing against arch-rivals and 'friend' of Colon, Hurucan.
Unfortunately all of this exciting build-up from last week has dissipated in two days of training. Prosperi and Piatti will be out with injuries, not making the trip to Rosario for Sunday's match against Newell's Old Boys. Caruso is sounding a return to the team's earlier withdrawn and defensive form; I wonder though if it would not be worth the risk to search for the win. Newell's sits two points above San Lorenzo in the promedios, while also sitting near the top of the table. Newell's is not considered a 'small' club in Argentina – Rosario's two big clubs, Central being the other, seem to be outside of the “grande” vs. “chico” debate – and their attacking prowess gives legitimacy to Caruso's plans but it would be unfortunate to be teased with a match of entertaining football only to see another 90 minute grind, where not even a tie is ensured.
In other footballing news – and in some ways more important to me than San Lorenzo, was the uplifting win at home for Canada's men national team last friday against Panama. Hopes were only to be disappointed by a flat performance and 2-nil loss in the return leg. Canada's world cup qualification route is not impossible but requires a very-possible win against Cuba before heading off to hostile Honduras looking for at least a single point.