Five Points: Traditional powers exercise caution as World Cup semifinals commence
Jul 7, 2014 at 10:00p ET
The last four of the World Cup offers little room for surprise. The four remaining teams often march through the tournament and reach this stage of the proceedings. They are tried and tested. They continually pose a threat to lift the trophy.
By cutting out any potential interlopers, the remaining quartet -- Argentina, Brazil, Germany and Netherlands -- complicated the road toward glory. The next two steps -- the semifinals in midweek and the final on Sunday -- are fraught with peril. This edition of Five Points evaluates how each team can secure a trip to the Maracana on Sunday.
Conservatism reigns as stakes increase
The free-scoring, wide-open nature of the group stage feels so ever long ago. Cynicism and pragmatism reign now. It is no surprise to see teams adopt more conservative tactics during the knockout stage, but the hard veer toward pragmatism constitutes a shocking contrast with the fare preceding it.
Do not expect a course correction at this point. Brazil and Netherlands live for the counter. Germany finds solace in a firmer defensive base even with its creative figures going forward. Argentina steers toward a modest approach to provide Lionel Messi with a chance to win the game. The strength of these sides and the stakes at hand make a return to those expansive days unlikely.
Brazil must rely on structure to overcome personnel issues
Luiz Felipe Scolari must somehow prepare his side to face Germany without Neymar and Thiago Silva. The loss of Brazil’s two most important players – the attacking inspiration in Neymar, the defensive rock in Thiago Silva – leaves the Selecao to once again trust in its collective shape and its overall structure to overcome the Germans.
Scolari must first make the right choice with his team selection to guarantee the proper shape. Willian makes the most sense to replace Neymar, though the more defensive Ramires could also feature given the need for Brazil to chop up the rhythm of the game to win it. Willian allies earnest defensive work with the willingness to spread the field moving forward. He isn’t quite as dynamic as the fleet Bernard (a likely substitute), but he offers more to the comportment of the side as a whole. Dante constitutes the most likely replacement for Thiago Silva in central defense. He is a solid, uncompromising sort, but he won’t provide the same cover for the occasionally wayward David Luiz or supply the same security of the missing Brazilian captain in that department.
The onus falls on all of the selected players – Maicon perhaps holds the edge over Dani Alves at right back with dependability at a premium – to adhere to the principles set forth by Scolari. This side remains dedicated its counterattacking approach, a feature all the more necessary with the Germans likely to operate in possession for much of this game. Hulk and Oscar must accept more meaningful roles with the right flank a necessary strength in this game with Benedikt Höwedes limited for pace. Neymar’s absence also places additional emphasis on wringing goals off set pieces, though the absence of Thiago Silva strips away a regular threat there, too.
All of those efforts may not prove enough to overcome the loss of two integral players ahead of a World Cup semifinal. Shape and structure can only take a team so far. It is down to the individuals available to lift their levels accordingly to make sure Brazil does not falter one step before the Maracana.
Germany must focus on pressure first and foremost to unsettle Brazil
It is difficult to anticipate how Brazil will react without its two integral figures at the outset. The team may rally around their absences or exhibit frailties Germany can exploit. It is down to the Germans to assess the situation early with a bright start and figure out the task at hand on the day.
Everything starts with the incisiveness in the final third. Germany continues to flounder a bit when asked to translate possession into production. Jogi Löw turned to Miroslav Klose to provide a touchstone in the quarterfinal victory over France, but this task might require more constant movement to test the communication between the revamped back four.
Even if Klose retains his place and Löw sticks with the same side, the Germans must figure out a way to overwhelm Brazil without sacrificing the solidity acquired against the French. The dynamic requires more clever work from Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger in midfield to snuff out the break early and more support for a back four with one glaring concern with Höwedes still stationed on the left. This is the sort of game where the Germans can thrive with efficiency and a timely dash of inspiration.
The formula worked well enough against France to seal a place in the last four. This assignment against Brazil presents a more exacting challenge. Germany must maintain its discipline to avoid the Brazilian counter and use its work on the ball to ramp up the pressure on a home side with personnel issues heading into this game. The measures may or may not work, but they present the best chance to hand Brazil its first competitive defeat on home soil in nearly 40 years.
Argentina must retain disruptive approach to quell Netherlands
Alejandro Sabella can lean on the familiarity of his game plan against Belgium to provide the framework for this test against the Dutch. Most of the same tenets apply here. If Argentina can replicate the performance from the quarterfinal victory against Belgium, then this side will likely progress to its first final since 1990.
Argentina cannot afford to allow the Netherlands -- and Arjen Robben, in particular -- to counter quickly through midfield or play behind the line. The shape must remain fairly compact from back to front and the line must not invite those diagonals over the top. It is a matter of closing and compressing the play at the right times to ensure the Dutch do not break when the ball turns over further up the field. Javier Mascherano -- perhaps Argentina’s best player in the non-Messi category in this World Cup -- plays a vital role here to limit the space afforded to Wesley Sneijder as he attempts to play directly to Robben and Robin van Persie.
Sabella’s caution works well here because he can adopt a modest approach and commit few numbers into the attack to support his superlative number 10. Lionel Messi continues to pick apart defenses with incisive passes and timely runs into dangerous areas. The increased emphasis on wide play -- a concern now with the influential Angel di Maria (thigh) ruled out -- affords Messi additional space to exert his influence on the game.
The formula isn’t particularly complex for Argentina at this point: keep it tight at the back and then wait for Messi to produce a moment of magic to win the game. The improvement against Belgium bodes well for this assignment against the Dutch. A similar performance here will likely see the Argentinians through to the final on Sunday.
Van Gaal must devise something special to see the Netherlands through to the final
This Dutch side entered the tournament with relatively modest expectations. Its resulting success stems from effective work on the counter and the tactical tinkering of Louis van Gaal throughout the competition. Van Gaal now faces his most difficult task of the tournament to date: He must somehow concoct a way to limit Messi and then provide a platform for his side to counter. It is no easy task.
The absence of Nigel de Jong (groin) reduces the options at van Gaal’s disposal. De Jong is rather perfectly suited to thwarting Messi with his industrious and robust approach in midfield. Van Gaal does not possess a player with similar capabilities within his ranks. He must instead rely on his midfield trio -- 3-5-2 looks the most likely of the formation choices here -- to close down Messi to guarantee a sound defensive structure.
If the structure holds, then the Dutch must move swiftly to create problems going forward. Argentina established dominion over Belgium by slowing the tempo of the match. This Dutch side cannot afford the same sort of fate. It must transition quickly to lean on its strength (countering through Robben) and reduce any reliance on its primary weakness (conjuring anything of note during extended spells in possession). The potential introduction of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in the second half supplies a more direct and potentially necessary option to chase the game, too.
Van Gaal and his players will follow any avenue to reach a second consecutive final, but a victory in this semifinal may prove beyond them. There is no shame in bowing out at this stage if it comes to that point. Van Gaal, however, will try to find some sort of solution to avoid that looming fate.