Argentina entered this tournament with grand hopes. It has taken this side a bit to live up to those objectives, but the quarterfinal victory over Belgium reinforced the increasing belief within ranks.
This group likes to entertain, but it now allies the incisiveness of Lionel Messi with a sturdier foundation. It is the sort of combination required to win the World Cup in hostile territory. This edition of Five Points shows why the 1-0 triumph over the Belgians bodes well for a country seeking its first title since 1986.
Argentina strengthens its base to negate Belgium
Every match brings a new wrinkle for Argentina. The Messi dependence during the group stage still exists, but this team is rising to the challenge around him. The width from the round of 16 victory over Switzerland created more space for him to operate. And the resolute base in this match lifted the burden to create more than one goal.
Alejandro Sabella adjusted his lineup to address his side’s instability at the back and strengthen the resolve throughout the 4-3-3 shape. Martin Demichelis and Jose Maria Basanta came into the back four for the dropped Federico Fernandez and the suspended Marcus Rojo. Both players constituted substantive improvements over their predecessors. Lucas Biglia complemented the choice by replacing Fernando Gago and scurrying about in midfield to close down space.
Gonzalo Higuain’s impeccably taken early goal provided Argentina with the opportunity to choke off the game. Biglia and Javier Mascherano closed earnestly throughout and limited the openings provided on the counter and in the run of play. Mascherano even dashed forward at points to help start the intelligent counters. Their efforts slowed the tempo down and stymied a Belgian outfit with few ideas to create space in the middle of the field. Angel di Maria – deployed as part of the midfield trio – limped off with a thigh injury before the interval and yielded the floor to the more circumspect Enzo Perez.
Belgium improved a bit after the break, but the Argentinians – bolstered by the impressive DeMichelis in central defense – largely coped with the steady diet of crosses and direct balls toward Marouane Fellaini. The lack of variety in the approach play left Belgium with few alternatives and no real method to break down the resolute Argentinian shape.
Sabella adopted a cautious course early in this World Cup and relied on his superstar to vindicate it. This performance proved yet another step in that direction. It isn’t particularly captivating, but it is certainly effective enough to warrant a place in the semifinals for the first time since 1990.
Belgium flounders without creative influence
It is a bit sour of Marc Wilmots to deem Argentina an ordinary team, but his point about the lack of space afforded to his side on the day highlighted the Red Devils’ problems neatly. Belgium isn’t equipped to win in a match with just three combined shots on goal between the teams, the lowest total in a knockout stage match since 1990. It must find a way to create chances even against the most dogged opposition in order to thrive.
This group simply ran out of alternatives when presented with such defiant opposition. Kevin De Bruyne flitted in and out of the game, while Eden Hazard barely registered during his anonymous shift. Neither player managed to complete a pass into the penalty area, according to Opta statistics. De Bruyne spent most of his time in the attacking third hitting horizontal ball after horizontal ball, while Hazard mustered just one accurate pass going forward in the middle third.
The inability of De Bruyne and Hazard to create or play through any gaps in the compact Argentinian shape made the Belgians predictable going forward. Other teams attempted similar measures to limit their influence on the game. Argentina, however, executed to the highest standard to restrict both players to peripheral roles in the affair.
Wilmots essentially threw his hands up in frustration in the final quarter of an hour and withdraw Hazard as his team chased the equalizer. The substitution spokes volumes about Hazard’s disappointing performances in Brazil and the Red Devils’ dearth of incisiveness on the day. It also showed why this promising side will now return home after a largely successful tournament.
Netherlands labors in possession once again
Louis van Gaal spotted the potential issue well before the Netherlands needed penalty kicks to dispatch Costa Rica after this frustrating0-0 draw. He deployed a 3-4-3 setup at the outset and preached the need for his players to stretch the Ticos’ shape with lots of work in the wide areas. He wanted to find a way to create space for Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie and encourage his stars to win the game.
It didn’t quite work. This Dutch side lacks the necessary incisiveness and verve in possession. Costa Rica set out its usual 5-4-1 stall admirably and soaked up all of the pressure the Dutch could muster. There were opportunities – the Dutch did hit the frame three times and prompt a couple of decent saves from Keylor Navas, after all – to break the deadlock, but the Dutch strayed offside more than they sliced apart the Ticos rearguard.
This game affirmed the Dutch’s continued problems with creating and taking opportunities from the run of play. The ball doesn’t move dynamically enough or quickly enough to catch apart the opposition. It is too often left to Robben or Sneijder to create something special to carve open the opposition drag the rest of the side into it.
Both players – and Robben, in particular – boast the ability to carry the Dutch through. They might find a few more opportunities to counter in the semifinal on Wednesday, but the Argentinian shape will present another stern for this Dutch side. They must find a way to overcome it in order to reach a second consecutive final.
Costa Rica relies on tactical acumen to reach penalty kicks
This magical run nearly carried the Ticos all the way through to the semifinals. It took a couple of spot kick saves from substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul to usher the defiant Ticos out of the competition. Their unbeaten record – two wins and three draws from five matches – is a testament to the enduring value of organization and shape.
Jorge Luis Pinto and his players submitted yet another master class against the Dutch. They kept their 5-4-1 structure impeccably and set their line perfectly. The back five remained connected at all times to close the channels and pull the trap with aplomb. There were few, if any, opportunities for Robben and van Persie to race behind the defense. The midfield squeezed the play intelligently. Bryan Ruiz supplied an outlet to relieve the tension from time to time.
By ceding possession and largely eschewing any invitations to commit numbers forward, the Ticos frustrated the Dutch for the better part of 120. They got stretched one or two times by trying to counter more earnestly, but they guaranteed those sequences – primarily in the middle of the first half – decreased as the match unfolded. They adhered to their tactical plan and nearly snatched a spot in the last four as a result of it.
Their performances in the knockout stage did not captivate, but they did drag the Ticos through to a point few expected them to reach. Credit Pinto and his players for identifying their strengths and relying on them to the very last moment. They will head home now after a job exceedingly well done.
Injuries will play their part as heavyweights prepare for the semifinals
Brazil must somehow figure out how to replace the injured Neymar before the semifinal against Germany on Tuesday. It is no easy task given his influence on the side and the massive creative burden placed upon his shoulders. Willian probably holds the inside track to his place in the team given his willingness to drop defensively and then surge forward, but Brazil must compensate as a whole. Fred will need to show up and supply a direct options to bring others into the play. Hulk and Oscar must shoulder more responsibility to create opportunities in the final third. The set piece prowess must persist, though the absence of Thiago Silva through suspension creates a void in that department (and in defense, as well). Expect Luiz Felipe Scolari to weigh his options carefully against a German side starting to find its footing a bit at the back.
Argentina also faces a potential selection headache ahead of its date with the Netherlands after di Maria limped off with a thigh injuryagainst Belgium. His potential absence leaves Sabella with dwindling options to help Messi with Sergio Agüero still recovering from his own thigh injury. The emphasis – as in the past two games – must once again fall on stretching the field horizontally and providing enough space to Messi to operate as he pleases. Di Maria is a significant loss given his performances in this tournament, but the past five games have shown this Argentina side will likely go exactly as far as Messi takes it. Messi must summon his best against the Dutch to extend this run all the way to the final.