Netherlands – Argentina: Messi’s A-game Beats Dutch Plan B (2-2, 3-4 after pens)
Lionel Messi brought his absolute best and a well-organized Argentina looked all but qualified for the semi-finals on a two-goal lead. Until the ultimate all-in rendition of a plan B hit them in the form of two Wout Weghorst goals, and the match went to extra-time. Despite Argentina’s upper hand, penalties were needed to see them through.
Tactical analysis and match report by Sander IJtsma.
Every once in a while, a football match is played and its effects resonate long after the final whistle is blown. Argentina and Holland lined up for what would be the swang song of one of them and a dream kept alive of the other. Either Lionel Messi would never win a World Cup trophy, or the final Louis van Gaal Dutch team would fall short against Argentina, again, deepening the wound of the 2014 World Cup semi-final.
As it turned out, the momentum swung heavily from one side to the other, as did fouls and yellow cards, to end up with penalty kicks leading to Argentine celebrations and the Dutch failing to find immediate comfort in knowing they did all they could.
Argentina has spent the last fifteen years morphing itself in various forms to provide the optimal facilitation of the individual star player, so far without an ultimate reward. The Diego Maradona led 2010 World Cup proved to be a tactical enigma to the levels of the man himself, where patterns were hard to come by. Four years later, after defeating Van Gaal’s Oranje on penalties in the semi-final, Alejandro Sabella’s broken team fell just short, with Mario Götze living his moment in injury time. And four years ago, later champions France beat Sampaoli’s version of Argentina, where the support cast had trouble connecting with their star player and chaos dominated the Argentine performance. This time around, Lionel Scaloni built a side with proper balance and a good supply line to Messi in a free role from the striker position and the hunt for the ultimate trophy is still on.
The Dutch, on the other hand, temporarily sacrificed everything, even their football culture, in an ultimate orchestration of the collective. In a reversal of recency bias, Oranje is often still taken as a free-flowing positive ball-playing side. In reality, however, the most recent World Cups have seen highly pragmatic defense-first renditions, with the team in the Orange shirts trying to pick off their opponent’s primarily on the counter.
Bert van Marwijk was heavily accused of anti-football and Nigel de Jong’s karate kick in the 2010 final went on to symbolize exactly what half of the divided football-nation held against this approach. Van Gaal himself, in 2014, took the lengthy pre-tournament preparation time to set up a counterattacking 5-3-2 formation, this time with Robin van Persie’s header in the 5-1 opening game triumph over Spain as an iconic moment in national sports history. After missing the 2018 World Cup, we were now in with Van Gaal again, and yet another highly reactive approach. An approach that did however mean that the 2014 semi-final defeat on penalties is still the only World Cup defeat suffered by Van Gaal.
Lineups and pre-game plans
The Netherlands lined up with just a single change compared to the most recent game against the USA. Marten de Roon continued as the number six, which meant more freedom for Frenkie de Jong. Davy Klaassen started from the bench this time, to allow a starting spot for the much disputed Steven Bergwijn, moving Cody Gakpo to the ten spot. In that sense, a hint at a more proactive approach, and the introduction of a player offering depth behind the defensive line, with Gakpo and Memphis both more ball-to-feet striker. Taking a full-on passive-aggressive stance as against the USA would probably be too bold a move, in the face of Argentina’s excellent ball progression system so far.
Argentina’s lineup saw Ángel di María benched in favor of Lisandro Martínez, which meant a switch to a 5-3-2 formation, mirroring the Dutch. This meant an immediate countermove to prevent the provocative central pressing trap that highly frustrated the USA.
Football played with the brain
The opening stages of the game saw many tactical questions getting answered. The Dutch line was definitely higher than before, preventing Argentine territorial dominance and Messi doing Messi-things in the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. This meant more pressing was needed up front with number ten Gakpo man-marking single pivot Enzo Fernandez and strikers Memphis and Bergwijn spending energy to chase Argentina’s three central defenders.
Argentina had a well-thought out buildup plan once more, though, and was mostly able to work through the Dutch lines. Right central defender Cristian Romero moved very wide, with wingback Molina pushed up very high. Right-sided central midfielder Rodrigo de Paul rotated in to collect the ball as well, and all of this right-sided overload When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. led to Dutch man-marking systems failing to properly press high enough.
A common pattern early in the first half, with Romero very wide as the right-sided central defender, wingback Molina up high and the Memphis-Bergwijn duo outnumbered. This left various passing lanes open to progress the ball, almost exclusively over Argentina’s right flank.
Meanwhile, Messi was mostly dealt with by Frenkie de Jong, who played an admirable double-role by always keeping an eye on the main man, and also not dialing down on his responsibilities on the ball. On occasions where Messi moved away, he was usually picked up by either Van Dijk or Timber, who weren’t afraid to step up high from their defensive line and follow Messi into midfield. A clear advantage of playing with three central defenders.
As a result, Argentina heavily dominated the first half shot count 5-1, albeit with low probability efforts, mostly from range. The first half was dominated by intricate tactical plans, and an avoidance of risks by committing too many players forward. A very intense game of football, played with the brain rather than the heart.
It took thirty-five minutes, and then Messi provided an assist for Nahuel Molina, in a way that only Messi could have done. In a way that probably wasn’t even considered possible, in a way that even Messi probably hadn’t assisted a goal before. Heavily marked by three Dutch players, he took his classic light-touches-lots-of-balance-shifts dribble inside from the right, before cutting an impossible eye-of-the-needle pass back across to the right. It made short work of Blind, caught on the outside of his man, and was neatly converted by Molina with the onrushing Noppert coming just late.
Show this still to someone who hasn’t seen the goal and ask them where the passing lane is. pic.twitter.com/FPDEYFjxZ3— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) December 9, 2022
The remainder of the first half saw this tactical battle turn into a ferocious one, indicative of the stakes involved. No less than four cards in ten minutes set the tone for what ended up as the game in World Cup history with the most fouls and yellow cards, to no small degree something to attribute to the nature of refereeing by one Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz.
With Van Gaal unhappy with the balance of play, and the Dutch up against a 0-1 score line, changes were coming. Out went Marten de Roon and Steven Bergwijn, in came Teun Koopmeiners and Steven Berghuis, moving Cody Gakpo to a striker role. In formational terms, it stayed the same – for then – but the idea was different.
Koopmeiners could have offered more progressive passing and risk taking from midfield, but also ended up ahead of the ball way more than De Roon had done. In effect, he turned into a walking turnover machine in the early stages of the second half with extremely poor execution of generally reasonable ideas. Steven Berghuis provided a positive spark to the Dutch ball progression, as much more of a natural number ten than Gakpo, showing for the ball a lot more and putting in the work before balls would end up in the final third.
All in all, the Dutch didn’t really improve and the scoreline allowed Argentina to focus a bit more on counterattacks. A prime example came in the 59th minute, as Messi received at feet deep in his own midfield third. His presence was shadowed by Aké, but three quick touches and a brilliant cutting through-ball initiated a three-on-two counterattack. Mere mortal MacAllister ended up squandering the opportunity with an overhit final pass to De Paul.
It wouldn’t take long though, for Argentina to double their lead. Denzel Dumfries clipped Acuña on the edge of the penalty box, and the penalty was expertly converted by the best player on the pitch, celebrating by extending both arms wide as if presenting his gift to the hungry nation. Two goals up, both with crucial roles for the wingbacks, underlining the importance of Scaloni’s pregame formation switch
Leading by two goals and having conceded just a single long range effort so far, Argentina must have felt qualification for the semi-finals was a matter of time. This was however, as it turned out, thought beyond Louis van Gaal’s plan B. A seriously different approach, and one that begs the serious question why not more managers take on plans B as radical as this.
Prior to the second Argentina goal, Luuk de Jong had already come on for Daley Blind, switching the team to a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Aké playing left back and Gakpo and Berghuis flanking the tall man up front. Laying out all of his cards, Van Gaal now introduced Wout Weghorst for Memphis and had his team play with two big men up front, in what most resembled a 4-2-4 formation.
This ultimate ploy of pragmatism turned the game into a sluggish and inefficient crossfest with loads of offensive fouls, easy clearances and fluffed opportunities for Argentine counterattacks. Until, in the 83rd minute, half of the miracle happened and Weghorst connected a relatively long range header past Emiliano Martínez. 1-2, game on.
Lots of subs, even more flying tackles and several injuries meant no less than ten minutes of injury time. In the 109th minute, Frenkie de Jong crossed it in once more, and Weghorst managed to win a free kick in an edge of the box scramble. A freekick opportunity that usually goes in the range of a five percent scoring chance followed, highly comparable to the one where Berghuis hit the wall some fifteen minutes earlier.
This time, though, the Dutch coaching staff pulled a final trick card. Teun Koopmeiners took everyone by surprise by passing it into the feet of Weghorst, who strongly held off his marker, controlled it on the turn, and slotted it past Martínez for the best possible rendition of a dying seconds equalizer. The collective effort put itself next to the brilliant individual in the literal last moment.
What an angle this is of the equaliserpic.twitter.com/K1X3KHfPgO— Mozza | Derek 🏴 (@MozzaPlays) December 9, 2022
Extra time and penalties
In extra time, Holland was presented with the interesting dilemma of whether to continue pushing all-in along the justified lines leading to the equalizer, or to back off and consolidate. As it turned out, the latter approach was preferred, leading to an awkward 4-2-3-1 formation with two-goal man Weghorst playing in the ten spot.
The closer the game came to penalties, the more Argentina started dominating and pushing for a winning goal. Outshooting the Dutch 7-1 in extra time, the best chance of scoring probably came from the lowest probability shot. Star boy Enzo Fernández hit the outside of the post on a long drive, bringing back flashes of memory of Rob Rensenbrink in 1978.
Penalties it was, and with the first two Dutch penalties ably saved by Emiliano Martínez, Enzo Fernández had the chance to win it. His attempt went wide, but that only meant delay, as Lautaro Martínez coolly converted the game-winning penalty. Argentina in the semi-finals, up against Croatia.
This was an insane football match. It may just have contained one of the best assists ever seen, the most audacious indirect freekick routine ever pulled off given the stakes and timing involved, and all of that amidst an extremely intense atmosphere. In the end, the best team won.
Scaloni continues to show that he makes the right tactical moves, and the introduction of wingbacks and a three-plus-one buildup played out really well. Both wingbacks were heavily involved in the scoring to underline that fact as well. With Argentina now up against Croatia in the semi-finals, the ultimate crown to Messi’s football career could still end up right on his head.
Louis van Gaal’s impressive coaching career has come to an end. A painful end, at least for the moment, with a repetition of 2014, an Argentina penalty series knockout. There is little more the team could have done, waving the pragmatism flag all tournament, heavily adjusting to the limits of the squad at hand – the lack of a proper holding midfielder, Memphis’ fitness worries and landing on a goalkeeper who made his international debut this very World Cup to name just a few. The adjustments all made sense, and maximized the chances of winning. Little more the manager could’ve done.
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