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Argentina is struggling, and getting Lionel Messi back won't fix everything

This international break has been just this side of disastrous for Argentina. What brought this on?

Argentina v Chile: Championship - Copa America Centenario Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

A draw to Peru over the weekend and a shocking loss at the hands of Paraguay on Tuesday has left the Argentina national team and its fans stunned. Things have quickly gotten ugly for the Albiceleste, and the Argentines need answers quickly before things spin out of control -- they're currently sitting outside of an automatic World Cup qualifying spot.

The obvious answer to the question of Argentina's woes is the absence of Lionel Messi. The talismanic attacker is still out with a groin injury, and his absence means that Argentina had to use a completely different set of tactics, as no one else in the squad is capable of doing the same kind of things Messi does, much less at the level he does them at.

But their problems go much deeper than Messi's absence right now. Some are related, to be sure, but not all of them.

The defense is a mess

Perhaps the most glaring issue for Argentina to deal with right now is their defense. Martin Demichelis is getting old, slowing down, and skills that were perhaps never as good as advertised are starting to degrade. Despite that, he's been their most reliable defender of late, and that's a bad sign.

Worse is that the revolving door of partners for him in central defense doesn't inspire confidence. Ramiro Funes Mori lacks mental discipline. Federico Fernandez lacks tactical discipline. Matteo Musacchio simply isn't good enough. Ezequiel Garay, Nicolas Otamendi, and Gonzalo Rodriguez haven't put together a consistent run of good performances in a long time. Javier Mascherano could help, but at this age he's just a band aid, and he's needed more in midfield anyways.

Things aren't better at fullback. Marcos Rojo has regressed, Pablo Zabaleta is getting old, and their reserves lack the quality to really push them.

There's no magic fix here. There's no one obvious player coming up in their system who can step into the lineup and make everything better on the back line. There are a few youngsters with huge potential, sure, but none are ready yet. For a nation with a reputation of producing excellent defenders, Argentina has struggled to do that in recent years. They have a bunch of average, aging players, and they haven't figured out which four to put together to make a unit better than the sum of its parts.

The midfield balance is out of whack

Some of this is down to similar depth and development woes as their defense, but Argentina's issues in midfield are somewhat down to tactical and coaching decisions.

That's typified by the choice to play Ever Banega as part of the midfield pivot against Peru, a role he struggled badly in and was perhaps Argentina's weakest player on the night. While early in his career Banega played regularly as a deeper lying player, at this stage he's better off as the most advanced midfielder of a central trio, or as a playmaker sitting ahead of a pivot — not as part of the pivot himself. The less you require him to play a defensive role, the more Banega can give your team, as he's better at picking passes and pressing high than he is at switching the ball and tracking runners.

But with Lucas Biglia and Augusto Fernandez both out injured, Argentina lack the depth to do much more than move Banega back. Worse, the long hoped for development of Matias Kranevitter as a solid and reliable defensive presence in midfield has yet to come to fruition — he's good at times, but has nowhere near the kind of consistency and reliability that is needed from him at this level.

With those injuries and Banega struggling while playing out of position, it's little wonder that Argentina struggled so much against a team that plays hard in midfield like Paraguay. Those struggles served to amplify their problems elsewhere on the pitch, especially with the attack getting starved of sufficient service.

Yes, they miss Messi too

That lack of service meant that even with the form the likes of Gonzalo Higuian and Sergio Agüero have enjoyed with their clubs, their attack struggled to get much of anything meaningful going. Both are elite goalscorers, but can't reliably make things happen for themselves — especially if the players behind them can't get them the ball in dangerous areas often.

That's something Messi gives Argentina that no other player in the squad provides. If you can get him the ball, he can force the issue, either by creating chances for himself or playing in a teammate with an efficiency that few players around can match. Paulo Dybala has some of that sort of talent, but not to nearly the same degree — and he can't provide that spark from the bench, where he began the Paraguay match and where he frankly stayed for far too long.

Getting Messi back would certainly help Argentina a lot, and they likely would have earned more than one point from two matches during this break if he was available. But their problems run so much deeper than his injury. Argentina need to figure out a number of personnel issues if they're going to challenge Brazil and Uruguay atop CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. Adjustments in tactics to take better advantage of players available would likely help as well, but most of all they need to find new and better options at several positions. Figuring out how to win without the influence of Messi would help, but fixing their wider squad issues would go a long ways towards doing exactly that.