Jul 8, 2014, 11:52 PM EDT
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.
Sep 2, 2015, 6:56 PM EDT
Tim Howard looked good for Everton last weekend, but the U.S. coach says it’s too close to the Mexico game to make a change.
Sep 2, 2015, 5:42 PM EDT
The former Chelsea defender is no longer listed on the team’s website and was left out of both the club’s domestic and European squads.
Sep 2, 2015, 4:29 PM EDT
The paperwork was late, and FIFA rejected the deal, but the two sides still wish for it to be completed.
Sep 2, 2015, 3:40 PM EDT
The San Siro wanted Zlatan back, but he is happy in France.
Sep 2, 2015, 2:46 PM EDT
Villa had a very quiet Deadline Day, but they tried to make a splash.
Sep 2, 2015, 2:07 PM EDT
After the match, Noble said it was a tackle that happens “10 times a game” and that he felt it didn’t even deserve a yellow card.
Sep 2, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT
After finishing second in its group thanks to a 3-1 win over the Netherlands, Herzog’s Yanks toppled England’s U-20 team this summer. Now: the U-21s.
Spain’s Del Bosque says De Gea’s Euro spot in trouble without playing time; Speaks on Chelsea’s Costa
Sep 2, 2015, 12:31 PM EDT
“He needs to be professional and move on from this episode,” Del Bosque said of the Manchester United keeper.
Sep 2, 2015, 11:29 AM EDT
Unified Germany hasn’t medaled since 1964 in Tokyo (Bronze). East Germany won gold in 1976.
Sep 2, 2015, 11:12 AM EDT
“The Financial Fair Play today is too complicated to be efficient,” said the Premier League’s longest-tenured manager. “There’s a need to simplify the process.”
Sep 2, 2015, 9:24 AM EDT
Bournemouth took a big hit on transfer deadine day, but it had nothing to do with sales or purchases.
Sep 2, 2015, 8:47 AM EDT
Let’s dig into the figures, at least in terms of the 20 Premier League clubs, including the controversial amount of players on loan from Chelsea.
Sep 2, 2015, 8:16 AM EDT
We’re just a few weeks away from further information on the strength of the cases against Sepp Blatter’s FIFA.
Sep 1, 2015, 10:08 PM EDT
If both sides really wanted to make this transfer happen, they could have. Is it possible neither team wanted the deal to get done?
Sep 1, 2015, 9:37 PM EDT
Based on the Citizens’ form to start the season, it looks like money well spent.
Sep 1, 2015, 9:08 PM EDT
After spending just $20 million this summer on a goalkeeper and a teenager, Arsenal fans want to know what’s going on in the boardroom.
Sep 1, 2015, 8:19 PM EDT
Considering Premier League teams spent more than $1.3 billion on transfers this summer, it’s quite the list.
Sep 1, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT
We all thought they would happen, but with the transfer window now closed, we’re left scratching our heads.
Sep 1, 2015, 5:34 PM EDT
Clear your schedule at 7 p.m. ET for two hours of coverage detailing a wild and crazy Deadline Day in the Premier League. Watch live on NBCSN or online, right here.
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