Mauro Icardi: All that could have been

JULY 2, 2018

The World Cup has officialy began. While I’m writing these lines Russia is leading 2-0 against Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the competition. So many developments happen every day, from player injuries and players called back in their place (Lanzini -> Enzo Perez) to managers getting dismissed (Lopetegui and the unbelievable decision of the Spanish Federation). Let’s hope for a great World Cup with good football, smart tactics and lots of surprises.

After initial call-ups were made there has been a lot of talk about Icardi being left out of the Argentina squad by Jorge Sampaoli. Many people have been criticizing Sampaoli’s decision and other have been praising him for excluding the 25 year old Inter striker.

Without a doubt Icardi is an ambiguous persona. Yes, what happened with Maxi Lopez’ wife (oh Wanda) was a long time ago but this does not change the fact that Icardi is treated as persona-non-grata inside the Albiceleste’s dressing room and nobody can blame Messi and Co for this. Icardi was young but he should have known better. As it turns out that incident has greatly affected his development as a football player and is following him silently ever since.

While there is a great deal of talk focusing on that incident as the main reason behind his exclusion, I hear/read few or just a handful specialists and fans trying to focus on the football aspect. Argentina, privillegged with probably one of the best groups of forwards in the competition (Aguero, Higuain, Dybala) can live without Icardi, a player who for the majority of national teams around the world would be a starter. ​

So what If Icardi had never met Wanda Nara, if the football world just focused on his ability & in-field characteristics? After his latest two seasons where, despite Inter’s mediocricy, he has without a doubt made significant progress as a footballer would he actually deserve a call up? And if so, at whose place expense?

I could express personal opinion on the player and explain in detail the reasons why – if I was the Argentina manager- I would not include him in my plans, not for what he did to Maxi but simply because he is good for specific things: he is a fast, pacey, one-touch feed-me striker, a clinical finisher with not a lot of dimensions in his game.

This however would be a purely subjective judgement lacking significant context and validation. So despite a very hectic and tight schedule with many on-going development going on both for the Football-IQ.eu web platform as well as the Project World Cup initiative, I found a bit of time to dive into Football IQ Index and get some data about Argentina’s forwards along with Icardi.

The whole point of Football IQ’s approach is driven by the need for objectivity. So enough with introductions, let’s see what data-scouting has to say about Icardi, Higuain, Aguero and Dybala.

The following data refer to the latest season (2017-2018) and belong to the UPI’s (Universal Performance Indicators) data-set.

I thought I would need to write an essay analyzing players’ characteristics and trying to identify patterns however, after plotting the data and loading them on charts things became clear.

So in two basic charts (Passing & Attacking Behavior) lets try to understand why Sampaoli would probably not call Icardi in his 23-man squad for the 2018 World Cup even if the Argentina dressing room atmosphere wasn’t so heavy towards him.

One important parameter to remember is: the following numbers represent performance and not actual ability. Of course ability is determined up to a certain extent by performance but for this presentation we are using a pure data-scouting approach, technical-scouting-free if I could use such terminology. Moreover, the KPIs mentioned depend on productivity & efficiency.

So let’s get to the point starting with Passing chart. At first glance Aguero along with Dybala share first place with 5 top positions each. On the other hand, Icardi finds himself on the bottom of 6/10 categories and in most cases goes hand-in-hand with Higuain.

It’s obvious that none of them gets greatly involved in build-up play, something that is to be expected since we are talking about strikers. If we used only this data-set as our guide, supposing we hadn’t actually watched the players in action, Icardi seems to be the least involved in his team’s build-up play.

Getting to the opposite side of the chart to check out Assists & Creativity, Icardi is the less influential. He creates less opportunities for his teammates, the exact opposite of Aguero. Actually, despite the fact that Higuain does not really participate much in build-up either, when it comes to feeding his teammates he is among the top-pack, although when it comes to passing In Box Icardi is closer to the leaders.

Higuain is very strong at delivering Long balls (92), with Icardi’s -low threshold- strong points being Intelligent passing (72), In Box & To Space (71). Icardi and Higuain have very similar Passing performance patterns, however there exists one major difference: Higuain provides far more for his teammates than Icardi does and offers a lot more offensive contribution to the team compared to Inter’s striker.

This might have to do with team tactics, level of teammates as well as other parameters that it’s not the place nor the time to get into in this publication. Another obvious observation is the pairing of the two (Icardi-Higuain) in Crossing, both at a really low level. What this practically means is, Icardi might be short, mobile and pacey but can he actually pose a threat if used in wide areas?

With this in mind, let’s proceed to the Offensive chart, where things will become clearer.

As expected – these guys are strikers- Promising Situations and Key Touches are high, with all four of them above 92. Now, remember in Passing chart we concluded that Icardi did not actually participate in build-up play a lot. Well, this becomes proven fact after observing his Combination Play, Point of Reference & Support KPIs.

At the same time he shows the lowest Attacking Productivity of the four, plus -the most crucial parameter in the whole exclusion equation in my opinion- he is by far the worst in 1vs1 situations. In other words dribbling is not his strong point.

Of course his Finishing is right up there, he is indeed clinical. But is that sufficient to knock Higuain out of the squad? Not really. “El Pipita’s” finishing is equally high and at the same time his Attacking Productivity and Combination Play KPIs are closer to the top pack than to Icardi’s.

Based on Sampaoli’s vigorous and demanding style of football he wants his teams to apply, Icardi’s exclusion appears totally reasonable, not because he can’t adjust to such style but rather because he has been used in a totally different way at Inter than what would be expected from him at Sampaoli’s Argentina.

Moreover, Icardi has not proved so far that he can be as versatile as at least Higuain. I am not claiming Higuain to be a monster of versatiliy, on the contrary, but compared to Icardi “El Pipita” is boss.

We all know -especially when stakes are high- managers are not really fond of taking risks, preferring players exposed to and/or having demonstrated a certain amount of familiarity with the role and duties they will be assigned with.

That shouldn’t distract the fans of the Albiceleste though, with Aguero-Dybala-Higuain all top level performers that in the same squad clearly supplement one another quite neatly. As for Icardi, my suggestion is he needs to play football in Spain, keep an open mind for fresh concepts and work-work-work. He is not that old and his potential is still high, as long as he has the mental capacity to realize that.

Valencia could be a wise choice if Guedes stays put but obviously that’s just my personal subjective opinion.

In the meantime, Russia thrashed Saudi Arabia 5-0 with Golovin & Cheryshev impressing for the World Cup hosts. Oh Golovin, what a prospect!​ The World Cup has just begun and more than 60 matches are to come our way. We won’t be short of talking points that’s for sure. ​ *The article was originally posted on ​www.projectworldcup.com on June 15th 2018