The success of the Netherlands so far in the World Cup has much to do with the tactics of Manager Louis van Gaal. In the opening match, his direct 3-5-2 blew open the Spanish back line and found the weaknesses in the defending champions’ setup. Against Chile, he frustrated the previously rampant South Americans with a careful, defensive style. Van Gaal’s showiest managerial move came in the penalty shootout win over Costa Rica, when he used his final substitution to bring in goalkeeper Tim Krul for the shootout. Krul saved a pair of penalties and the Netherlands was through.
The tactical problem that he must try to solve today is Lionel Messi. The traditional way to defend Messi is to get another man in midfield so that you can always have someone free to mark Messi. It doesn’t work that well, because he’s Lionel Messi. But we saw in the first half-hour against Belgium was what happens when a team plays only one deep-lying midfielder against Messi. Axel Witsel, a very capable holding player, was beaten again and again, and the Argentine breakthrough came early.
The problem for Netherlands is that Van Gaal’s tactics have been set up to bypass midfield. He has reinforced his back line with a third center back and tried to avoid getting bogged down in slow build-up play. Defensively, the Dutch have conceded possession in midfield and sought to stop opposition on the edge of the 18-yard-box where the three center backs can come into play. Then, when the opposition is stretched, the Dutch can counterattack with long passing between the wingbacks and the forwards. No team in the World Cup has played more long passes than the Dutch.
With Nigel de Jong injured, van Gaal has been playing Georginio Wijnaldum and Wesley Sneijder, both attacking midfielders, in the center of the pitch. He will need at least one stronger, ball-winning midfielder to help out against Messi. But can the Dutch contain Messi without losing their directness in attack? This is the problem that van Gaal must solve.
On the other side, Argentina must cope with the loss of Angel Di Maria. The Real Madrid winger served as the primary connection between Argentina’s defensive back six and its three forward players. Manager Alejandro Sabella has set up most of his team extremely defensively. There are two holding midfielders in Javier Mascherano and Fernando Gago who rarely come forward. Despite having an excellent attacking fullback in Pablo Zabaleta, Sabella’s back four generally take very conservative positions. Of the top teams playing traditional fullbacks, Argentina’s have spent less time in the attacking third than anyone’s except Germany’s. And Germany’s fullbacks have been converted center backs for most of the tournament.
If Sabella does not free his fullbacks to attack, there is a very real risk that Messi will be left isolated without service from the back. This had been Di Maria’s job, now it is not clear how Argentina’s attack will function.
The two tactical questions, then, are usefully parallel. The Netherlands must adjust its midfield defense to contain Lionel Messi. Argentina must adjust for the loss of Angel Di Maria in attacking midfield to prevent Messi from being more easily contained.
Based on the results so far, the Netherlands should be favored in this match. Argentina has been sneaking by its opponents, while the Dutch have been creating big chances and winning by more solid margins. The Netherlands has created 14 big chances so far, Argentina only eight. You can see the difference in attacking quality in their expected goals charts for the tournament.
Of course, we saw a matchup Tuesday of two teams with roughly similar expected goals charts. It is not likely that either of these teams will score seven—in fact, given their tactics so far, a 0-0 game through 90 minutes is very possible. But in a short tournament, uncertainty rules. That is the fun of tournament soccer and also its frustration. I just hope we get a tightly played match today instead of a capitulation.
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.