One World Cup semifinal is set. Germany will play Brazil in a matchup of two teams with eight world championships between them. I rate the odds about 2-in-3 that the World Cup champion will be either Germany or Brazil. The teams playing today will most likely be underdogs in the final even if they can manage the two wins to make it there.
Which players could guide their teams to that final? My first player to watch is someone I identified before the World Cup began as a key to his team. Argentina’s Angel Di Maria was the creative engine of European champions Real Madrid. So far in this World Cup, despite his game-winning goal against Switzerland, Di Maria has not been able to take control of a match as he did so often for Real.
I think the key issue here is tactics. Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella has set up his attack to run down the flanks, despite the excellent inside creativity of Di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi and of course, Lionel Messi. Why a team built around Messi would set up its attack to focus on crosses into the box, I have no idea. Why a team that should be built around linking play between Di Maria and Messi would shunt Di Maria far out wide to play crosses that Messi almost certainly will not reach, again, I have no idea.
Di Maria has played nine more crosses than any other player in this tournament. His rate of 7.6 crosses attempted per 90 minutes is also the highest in the tournament. Argentina’s 22.4 crosses attempted per 90 minutes is second-most in the tournament, behind only Ghana.
Di Maria alone accounts for about a third of that sky-blue bar. If Argentina can get Di Maria into positions to link up with Messi inside, rather that pinging speculative crosses in from outside, they should be favored against Belgium. But if Sabella does not alter his tactics, Belgium may well deserve to be favored today.
For the Belgians, I do not know if there is a key player so much as a key tactic. Manager Marc Wilmots has deployed his substitutes brilliantly, taking advantage of the massive substitute effect in soccer. Strikers Divock Origi and Romelu Lukaku have scored once each, both times after coming on as a substitute. The player to watch for Belgium, based on the data of the tournament so far, is whoever comes off Wilmots’ bench around the 60 minute mark. He is likely to be the key man for the Red Devils’ attack.
Origi and Lukaku have been about four times more effective at getting good shots when they have come on as substitutes, compared to their production as starters. Argentina will need to be prepared for a possible late onslaught from the Belgians.
While Belgium against Argentina projects as a close contest, the other semi-final looks like a foregone conclusion. Underdogs Costa Rica have been lucky to make it this far, drawing Greece and then seeing Greece bungle huge chances to win that match. The Netherlands, with manager Louis van Gaal consistently pulling the right strings, look like a terrible matchup for Costa Rica. The high defensive line of the Ticos flummoxed Italy and Uruguay, but it should be easy pickings for Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.
But if the Ticos have one more miracle left, the man to watch is left-winger Christian Bolaños. He has been the creative center of Costa Rica’s attack. No player in the tournament has assisted a higher percentage of his team’s danger zone shots. Among the remaining teams, Bolaños’ importance to his team’s attack well surpasses that of any other creative player.
More than 50 percent of Costa Rica’s danger zone shots have come as a result of a Bolaños pass. The Dutch will be playing wide forward Memphis Depay at right wing-back today. He is likely to play very high up the pitch as practically a third forward. This could force Bolaños back into a more defensive role, but it will probably open up counterattacking opportunities down the wing as well. If the Ticos can find a way to hold Robben and van Persie in check, look for Bolaños as the man who might steal a goal with a nifty pass on the counter.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.
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