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Argentina were billed as one of the pre-tournament favourites while the Dutch were widely expected to fail. The World Cup semi-final match up between them was a tightly contested affair with pragmatism favoured over panache. Arnab Ray analyzes how the 2 sides were set-up.
After the ridiculously one-sided affair in the first semi-final, the second was always going to be a tight game. After seeing hosts Brazil blown away by Germany, both sides were set-up to primarily not concede. Something that they were successful in not only for the course of the 90′ but through extra time as well. Argentina was labelled as a lot of people’s favourites but are yet to convincingly stamp their authority on the tournament as front-runners.
It is a strange accusation to level at the finalists of the tournament and yet there it is. They’ve relied on individual ability on multiple occasions in this tournament and will do so once again this Sunday. While the Dutch too have been beholden to Arjen Robben’s exploits to a certain degree, their progression has been characterized by multiple rabbits being pulled out of the hat by Van Gaal and his staff.
Netherlands (3-5-2): Cillessen; de Vrij, Vlaar, Martins Indi ( Janmaat 45′ ); Dirk Kuyt, Wijnaldum, de Jong ( Clasie 62′ ), Sneijder, Blind; Robben, van Persie ( Huntelaar 96′ ).
Argentina (4-2-3-1): Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Garay, Rojo; Biglia, Mascherano; Perez ( Palacio 81′ ), Messi, Lavezzi (Rodriguez 101′ ); Higuain ( Aguero 82′ ).
Penalties: Vlaar ( × ), Robben, Sneijder ( × ), Kuyt; Messi, Garay, Aguero, Rodriguez.
The Dutch once again stuck to the back 3 of the central defenders with wing-backs taking up the wide duties. There were murmurs that De Jong was back in training despite having been ruled out previously and the combative midfielder did make a comeback. Wijnaldum featured alongside and Sneijder played in a slightly more advanced role to the duo. Up-front the onus was once again on the experienced pair of Robben and Van Persie.
For Argentina, Demichelis kept his place in front of Fernandez and Rojo came back from his suspension. Mascherano has been central to Argentina and he’s had a different partner in crime throughout the campaign. Biglia slotted in there and Perez was somewhat of a surprise choice on the right. Higuain, Messi and Lavezzi rounded off the attack.
There is an air of a well drilled side in the Dutch and this was once again on show in their discipline off the ball. As soon as they lost the ball, each player was quick to occupy his assigned position or man depending on his role. There was roughly a one-to-one correspondence in terms of the outfield players. The defenders especially were clearly instructed to pick up their men. The attacking unit however were tasked with slightly different roles.
As seen above it was Sneijder who is the most advanced central player. He’s seemingly been allocated the task of shadowing Mascherano who regularly dropped in between his 2 centre-backs to dictate play from deeper positions. Sneijder however at no point got close to Mascherano, instead choosing to cut off the passing channels. Robben and Van Persie too had similarly passive roles. They split to their respective channels just off centre on either wing. Wijnaldum is responsible for getting close to the other central midfielder Biglia cutting off an easy passing option and De Jong is sticking close to Messi as he did throughout the game until the former was substituted.
It is to be noted that Sneijder and Wijnaldum’s role was interchangeable i.e. at time Wijnaldum was the furthest forward and Sneijder in a deeper role. These four formed the first barrier of defence for the Dutch.
The absence of Di Maria meant that Sabella was deprived of his main attacking threats. However this absence allowed Sabella to shore up midfield and he did just that by playing Enzo Perez on the right hand side. When Argentina didn’t have the ball, Perez occupied more central positions and formed a trio in midfield with the immense Mascherano and Biglia. This narrow midfield cut off the flow to the central areas and the by-product was that the Dutch were forced to look to the wide areas to provide the attacking thrust.
Sabella trusted Zabaleta and Rojo to deal with the Dutch wing-backs. The Dutch failed to create clear-cut opportunities for the majority of the game, Robben’s late chance notwithstanding. A major reason behind this is the narrow midfield of Argentina which did a great job of protecting the back 4. In fact as shown by the graphic below, most of the final third entries from the Dutch were from the wide areas something that Argentina dealt with throughout the game.
With the attacking emphasis coming from the wings, the Dutch were incredibly wasteful when it came to crosses. Yes, crossing is considered an inefficient tactic by most but the service provided by the Dutch was simply woeful. With just 2 out of 20 crosses completed, it is no wonder that Argentina overloaded the central midfield and directed the Dutch play to the wide areas.
As already mentioned, the Argentinian side were constantly narrowing their play right from the defensive phase to the attacking third. They relied on their ability to shore up the central position, and prevent players like Sneijder having creative contribution, or an attacking one from the likes of Robin Van Persie.
The Dutch’s natural response to this was pushing their full-backs out wide as possible, to take advantage of the narrow Argentine set-up. Push wide they did, but apparently no one told the rest of their team.
Daley Blind and Dirk Kuyt were constantly seen playing into the gaps that were being allowed by Argentina’s set-up, as seen above. But the Dutch team rarely looked to get the ball to these wide players. There was barely any wide attacking play from Van Gaal’s side. Instead, Netherlands were looking to try and get the central players more into the game, which was playing right into Argentina’s hands.
Even when the ball did get wide to either of those two, the Argentinians were effective in their play to transition their defensive work side-ways, meaning that there was no wide attacking penetration from these wing-backs. The ball was played back to the midfield, and the same process again. The Dutch were forced into pointless lateral passes, and the direct central ones resulted in concession of possession.
Considering that the game was essentially a draw, it would be unfair to pick only one of these two players. Both Ron Vlaar and Javier Mascherano put in performances to be proud of. Vlaar has been excellent throughout the World Cup and the Dutchman had his best game of the tournament. The big central defender was absolutely immense making a number of tackles, interceptions and more than his fair share of clearances as can be seen in the below graphic. Vlaar was also composed on the ball completing 67 out of 73 passes on the night.
Javier Mascherano was undoubtedly Argentina’s best player on the pitch. Whether he should have been on the pitch or not is a subject that deserves a lot of debate after his head injury in the first half. Regardless, Mascherano was supreme in his role. As we’ve examined briefly in the analysis section, the midfielder is responsible for dropping in between his centre-backs and starting attacks. Defensively he was great for Argentina especially towards the end of the game. His amazing last ditch block late against Robben late in the piece could well have kept Argentina in the reckoning for World Cup glory.
Exit on penalties is always a hard pill to swallow and the Dutch will be left with a case of what might have been. Considering the level of expectations before the tournament though, they should be proud of what they have achieved. Van Gaal may be on his way out but he’s built a strong base from which Hiddink can build from. With plenty of young talent to choose from, the only way is up for Holland. They have one last match under the present regime against Brazil before that. So many people were looking forward to a Brazil vs Argentina final and the latter have kept up their end of the bargain. Instead of their South American rivals stand their German conquerors. It will be an intense battle at the Maracana and one would not expect a defensive capitulation of Brazilian proportions. Let’s hope for the thrilling finale that this edition of the tournament deserves.