World Cup Tactical Preview: Netherlands v Argentina


The Netherlands will be without Nigel de Jong with a torn groin muscle, leaving a major hole at the back of their midfield. Against Costa Rica in the last round, Louis van Gaal, the coach, made a minor tweak to the Dutch shape, switching from 5-3-2 to 3-4-3, using Wesley Sneijder deeper alongside Georginio Wijnaldum in the centre of midfield, and the result was a rather less fluid performance, although one that at least retained defensive solidity in the absence of their best holding player. Striker Robin van Persie is a doubt with a stomach bug, as is central defender Ron Vlaar with a knee injury. Argentina's problems are more at the other end of the pitch. It seems that Marcos Rojo should return at left-back to replace Jose Maria Basanta, but Angel Di Maria and Sergio Aguero are definitely out, significantly reducing Alejandro Sabella's attacking options. Ezequiel Lavezzi is likely to start on the left, with either Enzo Perez or Maxi Rodriguez on the right.



Towards the end of qualifying, Argentina seemed to have settled on a 4-3-3 in which Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero created space for Lionel Messi coming from a little deeper, with Di Maria linking midfield and attack. Sabella seemed to distrust that from the off, using a 5-3-2 against Bosnia, perhaps because of the injury to Higuain, before switching back to 4-3-3 as he brought Higuain off the bench in the second half. That plan fell apart firstly with Aguero's injury, which prompted a shift to 4-4-2 and then with Di Maria's. Although the evidence of the quarter-final victory over Belgium was that Higuain is returning to form, Argentina now have a major problem linking midfield to attack. Sabella could opt for Maxi on the right of a 4-4-2, but the more likely option is a 4-3-3 with Perez on the right and Lavezzi in a left-sided attacking role shuttling back. That creates an intriguing dilemma: Sabella would presumably prefer a more defensive player on the left of his midfield three to help protect Rojo against Robben, but at the same time, it may be that Lavezzi can exploit the space behind the Netherlands' right-wing-back, who will probably again be Dirk Kuyt. 



Arjen Robben's lightning pace on the break has been the key weapon for the Dutch so far in this tournament, with Van Gaal self-consciously targeting the slowest player in the opposing defence. With this Argentina back four he is spoilt for choice, only Pablo Zabaleta having anything resembling a turn of pace (were Argentina to go on to win the tournament, they would surely have the slowest defence of any post-War world champion). The likelihood is, then, that Robben will start on the right, as he did against Costa Rica, targeting Rojo, with Memphis Depay or Robin van Persie used on the left, where he will have to guard against the forward surges of Zabaleta.



Ultimately every question about Argentina becomes a question about Messi. There's little doubt that Van Gaal would have loved to have De Jong at the back of midfield to harness him and it's hard to see how creative players like Wijnaldum and Sneijder could hope to stop him, however disciplined they are. That might mean the defender Daryl Janmaat being given a role alongside Wijnaldum with a specific brief to try to check Messi, with Sneijder restored to the front line and Depay dropping to the bench.



The Dutch have played on the counter-attack since their first game, with Van Gaal scornfully dismissing any notion that such an approach might be un-Dutch. Given Argentina's lack of pace at the back and the risk of Robben, the likelihood is that they too will look to sit deep and play on the counter. That could mean a stalemate with neither team wanting to take the initiative.



Unless one side scores early, the probability is that this will be a tight game with neither side overcommitting. There's little value in under 2.5 goals, so the way to go may be a correct score bet. It's easy to imagine the game being settled by Messi capitalising on one brief Dutch loss of concentration, so 1-0 to Argentina with Messi as the scorer may be the way to go.

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