Jul 8, 2014, 11:52 PM EST
As a head coach, Carlos Queiroz’s reputation is mixed, albeit one that’s been bolstered at this World Cup. Though his team, Iran, failed to advance out of its group, the defensive performance it put in against Lionel Messi brought back memories of 2008. Then, as an assistant with Manchester United, the former Real Madrid boss helped implement a plan that kept the Barcelona star scoreless over two games in UEFA Champions League’s semifinal. Were it not for a long range, 91st minute goal in this summer, Queiroz would have solved Messi once more.
The key, it’s since come out, is space. Contest his first touch, and if you can’t win the ball, make sure he ends up moving away from goal. Don’t let him turn with the ball, pick up speed going at the defense, and have a chance to read his teammates’ runs. Don’t give Messi the space to be Messi.
For most teams that would be easier said than done – a tactic that would risk throwing the defense into turmoil as it tried to keep track of La Pulga (the Flea). Not so with the Netherlands. Instead, this is where Louis van Gaal’s team benefit from being grouped with Spain.
Against a team that plays so much like Messi’s Barcelona, van Gaal went with three central defenders, giving him a huge numerical advantage at the back. Yet instead of staying in place to mind Spanish striker Diego Costa, the likes of Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij, and even veteran Ron Vlaar took turns tracking attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta into midfield.
They did the same with David Silva. When those two playmakers got the ball, often they were forced into playing negative pass, touching back to deep midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. When Iniesta and Silva were denied possession, Costa had to drop back from the defense to provide an outlet. Spain’s attack sputtered.
Argentina and Spain are different teams, but as Alejandro Sabella’s become the latest coach to try to replicate Messi’s club form, the Albiceleste have continued to evolve toward Barcelona. As it concerns tomorrow’s game, that would mean Messi as the focal point, in a free role, planted behind one forward (Gonzalo Higuaín). Instead of the Dutch defense having to worry about two men (Iniesta and Silva), they may have the luxury of focusing on one.
The slow fade of Messi’s final critics
But oh, what a one. After two World Cups that gave detractors license to pick apart performances, Lionel Messi’s 2014 brilliance is undeniable. Never mind that he was only 19 at his first World Cup (Germany 2006) and actually very good, if short on goals, at his second (South Africa 2010). A naive criticism had taken root, portraying a player who has 68 career UEFA Champions League goals as troubled by the World Cup’s occasion.
Four goals and one assist later, and Messi’s crafted a World Cup to make his doubters into fools. The idea that Messi, so great at Barcelona, somehow became an inferior player for his country never made sense. The want to look beyond a strong 2010 only confirmed that bias. Messi was always working against critics that were only interested in bottom lines, ignoring the fact that Argentina had often used him in different, sub-optimal roles. Now, between his raw production and his team’s semifinal run, he’s ruined his critics’ summer.
Whether he can ruin the Netherlands’, too, may end up in his teammates’ hands. If the Dutch use Queiroz’s approach and focus on Messi, it will be up to Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, Argentina’s two deep midfielders in the quarterfinals, to find others who can make a difference going forward. On one side, that will likely be Ezequiel Lavezzi, a player who can make Dutch markers pay with his ability to beat them one-on-one. On the other, it would be Enzo Pérez, Maxi Rodríguez, or Rodrigo Palacio. Regardless, Sabella will need a Plan B – some other way to find forward Gonzalo Higuaín, should Messi draw too much attention.
Send your hopes directly to Arjen
The one thing Mascherano and Biglia won’t be able to do, however, is leave their defense unprotected. Even though Robin van Persie, one of the Netherlands’ two main threats up top, looks doubtful for Wednesday’s game, the Dutch still have a weapon that’s been as dangerous as Messi. Thanks to three goals, one assist, and the constant threat he’s posed the Netherlands’ opposition, Arjen Robben‘s put himself in contention for the Golden Ball.
With their new propensity to play long and direct — potentially drawing in an Argentine team that’s keeping 61 pct. possession — the Netherlands have gotten the most out of Robben, who also drew a game-winning penalty in the Round of 16 against Mexico. One of the fastest players in the world, the 30-year-old can win this game on his own Dutch if he’s allowed to challenge José Basanta, Ezequiel Garay, and Martín Demichelis. A worry coming into the tournament, Argentina’s defense will become a nightmare if Mascherano and Biglia can’t provide support.
In that way, van Persie’s absence may not be decisive. Same with Messi’s command, though the Dutch will certainly try to account for it. Instead, it may come down to Ángel di María, the versatile Argentina midfielder who tore his thigh in the Albiceleste’s quarterfinal. It may come down to Sergio Agüero, whose return to Sabella’s team will likely come at the expense of somebody who can help protect the defense. It may come down to tall the ways Argentina can augment Messi without compromising their ability to stop Robben.
If they can strike that balance, the Albiceleste will likely play for their third title. Else, the Dutch get a chance to claim their first, at the expense of the Germans.
Inside Look: Not much separating Red Bulls, Revolution ahead of Eastern Conference Championship, leg 1
Nov 21, 2014, 11:45 PM EST
You could try to use the Red Bulls’ 2014 season to make inferences about what will happen Sunday against the Revs, but it’d be a huge waste of your time.
Nov 21, 2014, 10:30 PM EST
Go ahead and try to be as good as Robbie Keane. Give it your best shot. Good luck, you’re going to need it.
Nov 21, 2014, 9:20 PM EST
Zinedine Zidane can return to coaching after his nonsensical coaching suspension was lifted on Friday. Perhaps “qualified” needs redefining.
VIDEO: Louis van Gaal calls Wayne Rooney “not a typical striker,” praises versatility ahead of Arsenal showdown
Nov 21, 2014, 9:00 PM EST
Louis van Gaal has called Wayne Rooney “not a typical striker,” but a “fantastic player” nonetheless before Arsenal showdown.
Nov 21, 2014, 8:30 PM EST
Where and how to watch every single PL game in Week 12.
Nov 21, 2014, 8:15 PM EST
It’s tempting to look ahead and crown the LA Galaxy MLS Cup champions already. A word of warning: Don’t do it at the Sounders’ expense.
MLS Cup Playoffs Preview: Red Bulls vs. Revolution, Galaxy vs. Sounders in Conference Championship first legs
Nov 21, 2014, 6:15 PM EST
The 2014 season is nearly finished, as the MLS Cup Playoffs resume this weekend. A few facts and stats to excite ahead of Sunday’s action.
Nov 21, 2014, 4:45 PM EST
Dear haters: Jermaine hears you, is not bothered by you and still loves you. Look out, Red Bulls.
Nov 21, 2014, 3:10 PM EST
The English-born coach has had big success in Orlando since the club began play in 2011, winning the regular season title in three of four seasons.
Nov 21, 2014, 2:20 PM EST
Whitecaps FC 2 will compete in metro Vancouver at Thunderbird Stadium inside of the University of British Columbia.
Nov 21, 2014, 1:35 PM EST
The quota request comes after the BBC conducted a “State of the Game” survey that dug into the international representation in the Premier League.
Nov 21, 2014, 12:50 PM EST
Can the Baggies improve on last year’s point at Stamford Bridge?
Nov 21, 2014, 12:00 PM EST
I’m a fan of Batman, but seems to me “The Dark Knight” should consider rocking Valencia’s bat rather than his own. Looks slick.
Nov 21, 2014, 11:45 AM EST
Here’s how PST’s lead writer and editor sees things panning out this weekend.
Nov 21, 2014, 11:05 AM EST
So to the MLS players, coaches and “media members who regularly covered the league”, sit back and enjoy your biggest screw-ups.
Nov 21, 2014, 10:14 AM EST
Welbeck is used to being on the side of the favorites in this matchup, as Manchester United has dominated the series in recent years.
Nov 21, 2014, 9:25 AM EST
Danny Welbeck’s first Premier League game against his former team is just one subplot as the Gunners host the Red Devils.
Nov 21, 2014, 8:41 AM EST
All Americans plying their trade in the Premier League have a decent look at points, while two in the Championship will opening things up with Friday matches.
Nov 21, 2014, 7:49 AM EST
Paris Saint-Germain has claimed the last two Trophées with wins over Bordeaux and Guingamp, but this year’s table is clustered.
Nov 21, 2014, 12:17 AM EST
Swansea manager Garry Monk is hoping for the best as the Swans journey to play Manchester City at the Etihad this weekend.
- Inside Look: Not much separating Red Bulls, Revolution ahead of Eastern Conference Championship, leg 1 0
- WATCH: Premier League TV schedule – Week 12 0
- Inside Look: LA Galaxy, Seattle Sounders to square off in Western Conference Championship, leg 1 0
- Prince-Wright’s Premier League picks: Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City 0
- These deserving nominees are the biggest snubs of MLS Award season 4
- Former Man Utd teammates Welbeck, Rooney prepares for “weird” match as Arsenal hosts Red Devils 0