Argentina 0-0 Netherlands: Argentina through on penalties
Sergio Romero was the hero after an extremely uneventful 120 minutes.
Alejandro Sabella brought back Marcos Rojo after suspension, while Enzo Perez deputised for the injured Angel di Maria.
Louis van Gaal was able to bring back Nigel de Jong after injury, meaning Daley Blind moved across to wing-back in place of Memphis Depay.
There was obviously great tension here, but not much happened – of the 62 games at this World Cup so far, this game featured the lowest shot rate, and the lowest percentage of touches in the opposition third.
Few goalscoring chances
It’s amazing that 120 minutes can feature so few attempts on target, and the final here was a rather pitiful five – one for the Dutch, four for Argentina.
The Netherlands’ only shot on target was Arjen Robben’s speculative long-range drive from his classic inside-right position, from well outside the box.
Argentina’s four efforts weren’t particularly threatening, either – a Leo Messi free-kick straight at Jasper Cillessen, Rojo’s long-range drive fielded comfortably by the goalkeeper, and then two rather unconvincing efforts in extra-time from substitutes, Rodrigo Palacio’s weak header and Maxi Rodriguez’s mishit, sidefooted volley.
There were other chances, of course, but this seemed destined for penalties at a very early stage.
Louis van Gaal has been very reactive with his formation in this World Cup, and having played a 3-4-3 against Costa Rica, who use a similar system, here he returned to a 3-4-1-2. The reason was simple – so he had an equal number of central midfielders as Argentina, which is vital considering he has instructed his midfielders to effectively man-mark their opponents throughout this competition. Holland always made tackles just inside their own half, whereas Argentina’s were much more spread.
The man-marking was simple: De Jong was on Messi, then Georginio Wijnaldum or Wesley Sneidjer tracked Lucas Biglia. The midfielder who received most space was Javier Mascherano, who dropped deep between his centre-backs, and he was surprisingly the best source of creativity in this game. He sprayed some great passes out to the flanks, helping Argentina break into the channels, and hit a lovely second half straight ball for Messi, who was flagged offside.
Messi and Robben
Messi and Robben dominated the build-up to this game, but both were very quiet. Messi found De Jong tracking him tightly, and even after De Jong’s departure on the hour mark, struggled to find space in a very congested midfield zone. He had more joy out wide on the right.
Robben was denied space because Argentina’s full-backs both stayed in position – there was only one noticeable overlapping run from Pablo Zabaleta and Marcos Rojo apiece in the first 90 minutes, and while Argentina clearly missed them stretching the play, it meant Robben didn’t have space in the channels.
Argentina into right-hand channel
The main area of interest was in Holland’s left-back zone – although, of course, they weren’t actually playing a left-back. The left-sided centre-back, Bruno Martins Indi, has spent the entire competition getting far, far too tight to his direct opponents. There is man-marking, and then there is simply getting too close and making silly fouls, and Martins Indi has been prone to the latter.
Argentina had a clear strategy to pull him up the pitch, often with Gonzalo Higuain drifting towards that side, moving towards the ball, and then the right-sided midfielder spinning in behind. Messi also moved towards this side to overload the Dutch, and at times it felt like Daley Blind needed to drop back 15 yards, protecting his defence and leaving Zabaleta free.
The peculiar thing, though, was that Argentina spent most of the game with Perez on that side, but when Ezequiel Lavezzi had a few spells on the right, switching with Perez, he was far more dangerous. That is obvious: Lavezzi is a forward playing on the wing, Perez is a central midfielder playing on the wing. Lavezzi was always going to be more threatening in the final third, and while they were essentially playing in the same position, these two makeshift wide midfielders played in completely different ways.
Argentina’s best spell came shortly before half-time when Lavezzi had some promising moments on the right – a good dribble when he found space, a dangerous cross into the middle. He can be highly frustrating with his end product, of course, but he always offers a spark.
Second half changes
For the second half, Van Gaal removed Martins Indi, who was on a booking, and brought on Daryl Janmaat, with Dirk Kuyt switching to the left, and Blind dropping into defence. More surprisingly, Sabella told Lavezzi and Perez to switch back, although Lavezzi nevertheless drifted over to the right and sent in an excellent cross for Higuain, which forced Janmaat into a good covering aerial challenge. A little later, Perez curled a great ball into Higuain, but he poked into the sidenetting. Lavezzi was certainly the more dangerous player on the right, but regardless of who was there, it was Argentina’s best chance of creating chances.
Sabella made two positive changes on 81 minutes, with Rodrigo Palacio replacing Perez, and Sergio Aguero on for Higuain. Now, Argentina had three quick runners: Lavezzi, Palacio and Aguero, plus Messi as the number ten – they were determined to find space and attack quickly. There were some decent moments: Palacio sent in a dangerous cross, and later broke in behind for his headed chance, the only decent moments in a terribly cautious extra-time period.
Van Gaal had to replace Martins Indi (on a yellow), De Jong (injured and only able to last an hour) and Van Persie (ill during the week, and unable to last 120 minutes), which meant he wasn’t able to summon Tim Krul from the bench, as he’d done successfully against Costa Rica.
But the game only reached extra-time thanks to Mascherano’s superb block tackle on Robben as the clock ticked into stoppage time – the first occasion he’d evaded the centre-backs. It was remarkable that Mascherano, playing in front of the centre-backs, had the intelligence to sprint back and cover behind them too, and it was the perfect way to round off arguably the best central midfield performance of the competition. Forget extra-time: Mascherano’s tackle was a fitting way to end the game.
A disappointing game, with both teams concentrating on nullifying the opposition – and in particular, their main threat – rather than playing to their own strengths.
The main story was the Dutch man-marking, both at the back and in midfield, which meant Argentina tried to find space towards the right of the pitch, with clever movement and direct running. The game’s best moments came in that position.
The Netherlands have been fascinating throughout this tournament, with Van Gaal insisting upon an unusual, strict man-marking system, changing his formation each game to match the opposition midfield, and asking his wing-backs to drop back and ensure there is always a spare man in defence. The 2-0 win over Chile was the best example, but the Dutch haven’t sparkled since then.
It’s tough to lose a semi-final on penalties, but ultimately Holland went two consecutive 120-minute games without finding the net.
Argentina have reached the final with five one-goal victories, then a victory on penalties. It’s hardly been vintage stuff, but here they showed tactical intelligence than in the previous matches, with a clear strategy to expose the Dutch in their zone of weakness. They showed more attacking intent in the first 90 minutes, and had two decent chances in stoppage time, far ore than the opposition offered. Three clean sheets in a row is highly impressive in the knockout stage, especially considering the pre-tournament doubts about the backline.
Argentina 0-0 Netherlands: Argentina through on penalties