Five Points: Argentina, Netherlands cancel each other out in cagey semifinal
JUL 09, 2014 11:30p ET
The sensational events on Tuesday yielded to a rather more pragmatic encounter on Wednesday. Argentina and Netherlands entered this affair with little appetite to replicate Germany’s swashbuckling performance against Brazil in Belo Horizonte. They preferred to exhibit caution instead.
It showed in the way this semifinal unfolded. This edition of Five Points explains how the two teams produced the first scoreless semifinal in World Cup history and ultimately sent Argentina through to the final against Germany on Sunday.
Both managers learn from Scolari’s mistake and stay the course
The primary surprise in the team selections came from the return of Nigel De Jong. The combative midfielder overcame a groin injury expected to rule him out of the tournament to take his place in the center of the park. His inclusion in Louis van Gaal’s 3-5-2 setup offered a fitting sign of the defensive struggle ahead.
Van Gaal relished the presence of de Jong in his lineup to help close down Lionel Messi. He instructed de Jong -- or one or two players in his stead -- to track the Argentinian schemer in midfield at all times to restrict his time and space. The measures continued the Dutch’s willingness to man mark in that department and underscored the commitment to maintaining shape instead of pushing numbers forward to support.
Alejandro Sabella opted for a similarly consistent course with his 4-2-3-1 setup. Marcus Rojo reclaimed his place at left back after serving a one-match suspension, while Enzo Perez replaced the injured Angel Di Maria. The emphasis here -- even with Rojo inserted in place of the more conservative Jose Maria Basanta – focused on closing down in midfield, restricting the time and the touches afforded to Arjen Robben and staying compact enough to reduce the exposure over the top.
The balance and the deportment of the two sides foreshadowed the nullification ahead. Neither side entered the game prepared to risk the shape to chase a goal. Both teams were instead intent on retaining their structure and trying to nick something through a mistake.
Argentina mines right wing without producing the necessary end product
Most of the attacking thrust in the first half came in the space behind Daley Blind on the Dutch left flank. Blind meandered a bit in his positioning and often ceded too much space behind in a bid to increase numbers in midfield. His decision to push a bit higher gave Bruno Martins Indi too much ground to cover and forced him to make difficult decisions.
Argentina identified the weakness quickly and used Ezequiel Lavezzi to venture into that space to some effect. Lavezzi runs willingly enough and plays an important role in stretching the field horizontally to aid Messi, but he often flounders when asked to do something with the opportunities provided to him. His inability to convert any of his crossing opportunities in the first half (zero of five from the run of play, per Opta statistics) frittered away one of the few encouraging signs in the game.
The tense and tight dynamic of the first half ultimately favored Argentina. Netherlands once again looked adrift in possession. The Dutch struggled to bring Robin van Persie into the game or find space in behind for Robben (six touches in the first half, per ESPN). Lavezzi’s forays provided a genuine advantage and tipped the balance in their favor without engineering a tangible profit from it.
Van Gaal adjusts after halftime to quell threat on Dutch left
The opening to perhaps snatch a goal from the run of play essentially evaporated when van Gaal tinkered with his team at half time. Martins Indi – booked for a challenge on Messi right before the break -- departed to instigate wholesale alterations in defense. Blind moved inside to fill the vacancy, while Dirk Kuyt -- relentless and generally disciplined when deployed as a wingback in this tournament -- flipped over to the left to allow Daryl Janmaat to occupy the right.
Van Gaal solved most of the first half issues by revamping his defensive shape. Lavezzi worked his way free to serve one decent cross early in the second half (Higuain headed it into the ground under duress), but he faded out of the game and eventually schlepped off in the extra time. Ron Vlaar marshaled the line superbly to limit the threat posed by Gonzalo Higuain and provide support as the midfield trio stifled Messi.
Both teams produced exactly one chance in the second half in a bid to break the deadlock. Higuain diverted Enzo Perez’s cross from behind the line into the side netting with a quarter of an hour to play. Robben finally made it through the line after good work from Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder complemented his bursting run, but Javier Mascherano -- the best player on the park by quite some distance – tracked him dutifully to charge down his potential winner on the stroke of full time.
Argentina shaded the play over the course of 90 minutes, but this match appeared destined for extra time well before the final whistle. It proved largely appropriate given the lack of chances created from the run of play and the strength of the two defensive shapes.
Argentina edges extra time before claiming victory on penalties
Sabella switched his attacking options in the waning stages of regular time with Higuain and Perez making way for Sergio Agüero and Rodrigo Palacio. Palacio essentially served as Perez’s direct replacement on the right, but he also floated into the middle from time to time to support Agüero through the center channel.
The movement did create the odd problem for the Dutch in the largely static extra time exchanges. Messi conjured a chance over the top with a delightful clip, but Palacio failed to get any purchase on his header to waste the chance to avoid the first scoreless semifinal in World Cup history.
Van Gaal made a rather curious choice with his shooting order on penalties, though he claimed after the game one of his players begged off to force him into it. He opted to start with Vlaar and paid the price when Sergio Romero made the first of his two saves. The initial stop eventually paved the way for four converted penalties past Cillessen -- still without a penalty save in his professional career -- and a place in the final for the first time since 1990.
Messi positioning will prove key in the final
The onus will fall on Sabella to find a way to free Messi against Germany on Sunday. It should prove a simpler task than the one he faced on Wednesday. Netherlands devoted much of its energy to ensuring Messi did not exert his influence on the match or muster the moment of brilliance required to win it. Germany will certainly play him close attention, but Jogi Löw and his players will not construct their entire game plan to prevent him from scurrying about menacingly.
Messi must figure out away to extricate himself from the midfield three of Sami Khedira, Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger. His best bet involves drifting over to the right flank to attract the attention of Benedikt Höwedes – much improved from his early outings in this tournament, but still the weak link at the back – and try to create opportunities to run at the defense.
This final will provide Argentina with more chances to break on the counter and perhaps more openings for Messi to exploit. It must use them wisely to cope with the German threat and secure a first title since 1986.