There was no Tim Krul to save the day this time. Argentina were uninspired going forward today, and not many would say they’ve breezed through the tournament. But Lionel Messi and his teammates are into the final, having beaten Netherlands on penalties after a scoreless draw. Javier Mascherano was the man of the match for Argentina in his role in front of the defense, holding Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie at bay. Maxi Rodriguez will steal some of the headlines for his winner in penalty kicks, but the story should be about the impressive defensive efforts on both sides. Once again though, I hate to see penalties decide a match though, as Ron Vlaar’s brilliant game should not have ended in heartbreak for missing a crucial spot-kick.
This was hardly an entertaining match, and the reason for that lies in the lack of true midfielders on the pitch for both teams. In direct contrast to how Germany has lined up, each team played with a system with only a single player in the middle of the park at times. Both teams started two holding midfielders who were more defenders than anything else, and while all were excellent in that role, none of them offered any support going forward. The lack of creative thought in midfield was never more evident than when ESPN showed the stat late in the second half that neither team had more than three touches in the opposing box. With nobody to provide service for all the attacking talent, neither team had any chances in regulation.
Playing two forwards, a back five and two holding midfielders, the Dutch were left with only Wesley Sneijder in the middle in the attacking half, and he wasn’t all that interested in dropping deep to receive the ball. As a result, they were forced to play a lot of lofted balls in to Robben and van Persie, who clearly were lacking the fitness to get onto them. As such, the Dutch hardly had any way forward. When Argentina dropped their line deeper, Netherlands didn’t have any creative options for breaking down the defense. Had Robben not played 120 minutes a few days ago, he very well might have been able to find space in behind the defense. But today, he needed more of the ball at his feet to be effective.
Argentina was much the same way, as their tactics didn’t help provide much service for Messi and Gonzalo Higuain up top. Lucas Biglia and Mascherano were once again outstanding defensively, keeping Robben and Sneijder at bay, but neither ventured forward too often with much vigor. People often say Messi is good enough to make his own chances, but when he has to drop into his defensive half to receive the ball because of a simple lack of bodies in midfield, he isn’t able to have the same impact in the final third. Ezequiel Lavezzi was disappointing on the wing, and it was clear that Angel di Maria’s pace was deeply missed. Not until Sergio Agüero and Rodrigo Palacio came on were Argentina able to create any real chances in open play. But even then, Messi was still playing more of the midfielder role than he would have wanted.
Pablo Zabaleta has not had a great tournament in my eyes. The right back came into Brazil being seen as one of Argentina’s biggest threats going forward, having run rampant in recent years down the flank in England. However yet again, he hardly touched the ball in the attacking third. Defensively, he was exceptional next to Ezequiel Garay and Martin Demichelis, always in the right position when the Dutch looked to counter. And in that way, his lack of offensive motor certainly helped Argentina maintain the clean sheet. But were his team to score today, he needed to be a presence up the field. He’ll need to be much more of a threat against Germany.
Jogi Löw’s German side should be able to grab the match by the neck on Sunday given their abundance of talent in midfield. If nobody is there to press Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos high up the pitch, they will always pick the right passes. We saw yesterday that given time and space on the ball, Germany is lethal. If Argentina is going to have a chance on Sunday, there will need to be a change in tactics to put more men in the middle of the field.
On a completely different note, I have come to really enjoy Jon Champion and Stewart Robson as a commentating duo on ESPN. Their approach of being insightful but reserved comes off quite nicely after having to listen to so many games with the abrasive Ian Darke/Steve McManaman duo. I love that team of announcers, but they have become rather annoying recently, injecting their own biases into the matches far too often. While Darke thrusts himself into the match, Champion lets the play on the field do the talking most of the time. It’s refreshing to hear an announcer do such a nice job as a neutral.
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