In the Dutch preparations for Friday night, many of the tactical plans have naturally focused on Lionel Messi, but that has taken on a slightly absurd air. He is one that is unique in this World Cup. If Louis van Gaal and his players were to step out onto the pitch and crane their necks, they could see that his eye-catching figure is going through the same preparation.
The Argentine squad trains just 200 meters from the Netherlands, on the same well-kept pitches, at the same base as the University of Qatar.
It’s a situation you wouldn’t see at another World Cup, due to the distinctive geography, but it’s far from the first time the tournament has brought them together. Friday’s quarterfinal in Lusail will actually be the sixth time Argentina and the Netherlands have met in the competition, making it the third most played World Cup match in history. Only Brazil-Sweden and Argentina-Germany have faced each other more, seven each.
Given that both teams are heavyweights, with two outright wins and eight final appearances between them, those meetings have naturally involved a lot of football history as well.
There was Johan Cruyff’s Total Soccer that made South American soccer irrelevant with a 4-0 thrashing in 1974. There was Mario Kempes controversially winning Argentina’s first World Cup in the middle of the 1978 ribbon, and then the three touches of genius by Dennis Bergkamp in 1998.
Dutch defender Jurrien Timber was the first to be asked about the latter this week and simply said “we all remember it”.
That’s not exactly the case with the two most recent games, but they may be much more relevant, and for reasons beyond the numbers involved. Far less gracefully, the 2014 semi-final ended in a penalty shootout that also closed Van Gaal’s first major redemption, and saw Javier Mascherano notoriously “rip his anus out.” The midfielder was more than willing to tell the media in the mixed zone afterwards.
The 2006 group stage match was also a 0–0 draw, but with little at stake as only top spot in the group was decided. However, it was still a historic milestone, given that it was Messi’s first start in a World Cup.
If the last was to be another game against the Netherlands, it would still be another milestone with considerable symmetry and symbolism.
That’s why a sense of history weighs down on this game, just as the story of the encounter itself enriches it.
Messi is a very different player than the one the Netherlands faced in 2006, and even in 2014. He has lost much of that sonic energy, but the execution of his talent has been sharpened considerably. He is perhaps the biggest left foot to ever kick a ball, guided by a soccer superintelligence who now has 18 years of experience to draw on.
This is what Van Gaal has been telling his players, especially Frenkie de Jong, who will be appointed to follow him. Messi can still undo an entire game plan in an instant.
“It’s his understanding of the game and how he picks and chooses his moments to come alive,” Australian defender Jackson Irvine said of Messi after losing to him in the round of 16. “It’s hard to stop…it’s that little moment. , that half meter you give in the box.
It means Messi is one of the few disruptors in a match that might otherwise be the most tactical of the tournament.
After all, Lionel Scaloni and his staff have a good idea of how the Dutch will play. He may be more counter- and delayed than previous Van Gaal sides, but he will still rely on dogmatic use of possession within prescribed moves. The criticism is often that this is “sterile,” but the veteran coach’s constant insistence is that it is devastating, and beautiful to watch, when the players have enough understanding to execute it at speed. Van Gaal and the Dutch team feel that they are coming.
You could hear that in the coach’s gushing about Memphis Depay’s goal against the USA, when he jokingly chided reporters for not talking about it the way they did about Brazil.
“In fact, they play the same football as the Dutch team,” Van Gaal began. “They play from a compact defense and change very quickly.
“The strange thing is that later I read in the media, from my friends! – that it was sparkling football, while we also did that. We also mark that way. The goal was much nicer: that was a team goal. That rises above everything.
“That’s the best moment of this World Cup: 10 times overtaken at high speed, it was really a super goal.”
This is Van Gaal’s vision of football: clean and clinical. He has made the Dutch players believe that if they can keep recreating that, they will be unbeatable.
“They have good players, it’s true,” Timber said. “But tactics are also important.”
Argentina also likes to have the ball but their tactics are not that advanced. They do not have the same tactical structure. That shows in the improvised way they attack, without the same planned movements. It could also be heard in Alexis Mac Allister’s surprisingly candid statement when asked about playing with Messi.
“For me it is a pride to be at his side, trying to give him the ball, to pass the ball to him because, if he succeeds, everything is much easier”.
This is generally Argentina’s tactical solution to the problems. It’s totally predictable, but then Messi brings chaos. Even when you predict what he will do, as Australia did, there is sometimes little you can do about it.
It is not the only element of chaos. There is also the “great atmosphere generated by the Argentine fans”, highlighted by Nathan Ake, which makes each game feel like a home game. Energize your game, add intensity. That amplifies a stubborn drive that has built through this World Cup, just like in 2014.
It might even be suitable for Argentina to play against the best teams, where they can jump in and make a game a battle, rather than those where they are expected to take the lead.
However, the Netherlands believe that they are well prepared to win this game and can claim it in individual battles that add up to victory. They feel that Cody Gakpo and Memphis can do big damage to Nicolás Otamendi and Cristian Romero unless Argentina quickly goes into a deep block.
This is partly why Scaloni is still deciding his starting XI. A decision weighs more. That is if to begin with Ángel Di María. He is in shape, but Scaloni knows that he is a big risk. Ángel Correa has proven himself there in training. Lautaro Martínez can still return. The Internazionale striker has had a bad tournament, clearly out of shape and lacking in confidence, just like Gonzalo Higuaín in 2014. However, it was at this stage of that tournament that Higuaín scored his only goal: the goal of the victory against Belgium. Scaloni believes that kind of trust can go a long way.
Di Maria, in another little piece of symmetry, was similarly injured for that semi-final in 2014. Van Gaal made his own reference to that match this week.
“Argentina is, of course, the country that eliminated us last time on penalties. We still have a score to settle.”
It is well configured. On Saturday morning, one of the Qatar University pitches will be empty.
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