World Cup preview — Argentina vs. Holland [UPDATED — Argentina wins]

Before taking a look at tomorrow’s World Cup semifinal between Argentina and Brazil, let’s take a quick glance back at today’s remarkable 7-1 victory by Germany over Brazil.

It’s clear that Felipe Scolari made a huge mistake by not using three central midfielders. As I suggested before the match, doing so might have enabled Brazil to protect its back four, which was missing its best player (Thiago Silva); to limit Germany’s passing game; and to prevent Khedira and Schweinsteigger from running the show.

It’s also clear that Brazil erred by abandoning the rugged, and at times borderline dirty, approach it used to stifle Colombia. With so much on the line and with its two superstars missing, this was not the time for Brazil to try to play “the beautiful game.” It’s not clear, however, whether this Brazilian team playing this formation could have gotten close enough to the dynamic German midfielders to slow them down by fouling.

It’s clear, furthermore, that Brazil went into panic mode after conceding the first goal and total panic mode after conceding the second. David Luiz, the stand-in captain, was the biggest culprit, abandoning his defensive role in search of an immediate equalizing goal. But he wasn’t the only one.

Brazil missed its regular captain Thiago Silva not just for his talent, but also for his leadership.

Finally, I think it’s clear that, strategy and tactics aside, Germany fielded a stronger team today than Brazil did. The lopsided score was an anomaly, but the result wasn’t.

Looking ahead to tomorrow, we see some of the same kind of uncertainty I thought I perceived before the Brazil-Germany match. We don’t know who will play in key positions and we don’t know what formations will be employed.

From what I understand, Argentina will be without Di Maria, its second best attacking player. It may also be without Aguero, another big star, though one who has underperformed in Brazil.

Will Argentina replace Di Maria with another attacker (presumably Lavezzi), or will it opt for three central midfielders? And if it must replace Aguero as well as DiMaria, who will his replacement in attack be?

Holland is expected to be without de Jong, its star defensive midfielder and the man who, if available, probably would be assigned to cope with the great Lionel Messi. But I’ve seen speculation that de Jong might play.

The oddsmakers have installed Argentina as the favorite. Nate Silver put the probability of an Argentina win at 57 percent, but adjusted that number down to 53 percent based on Di Maria’s absence. Silver found the possible replacement players for Di Maria less than impressive. He did not, to my knowledge, estimate the probabilities in scenarios where Aguero and/or de Jong don’t play

For me, the case for Argentina rests on the lack of experience in the Dutch team. Coach Louis Van Gaal rebuilt the squad following its disastrous Euro 2012 campaign under his predecessor. Thus, depending on his lineup, he typically uses five or six starters who are relative newcomers to international soccer.

The defense is particularly inexperienced and has looked shaky at times. Van Gaal has done a masterful job of game-planning to minimize his weaknesses, including by using three center backs, But even an injury-plagued Argentinian attack is likely to ask questions that none of Holland’s opponents — not even Spain — has posed. (And let’s remember that Spain would have been ahead of Holland 2-0 early but for a shocking miss by David Silva).

Against Costa Rica, Holland used only two central midfielders, and one of them, Sneijder, normally plays just behind the forwards. This proved to be a good call for that particular match. But the same pairing would leave Holland hollow in the middle — like Brazil today. Thus, I imagine that Van Gaal will add another defensive-minded midfielder and move Sneijder into a slightly more advanced position.

In other words, I expectHolland to use a 3-4-1-2 formation instead of the 3-4-3 it deployed against Costa Rica. But Van Gaal has been at least a step ahead of me throughout the tournament.

Whatever its alignment, Holland will likely rely on counterattacks. In particular, it will rely on counterattacks through Robben, who has arguably been the best player in the tournament.

Robben will probably line up on the right side. In this tournament, Argentina has used center backs at the left back position, and Robben figures to give either one of them fits.

One of the actual center backs, probably Garay, will have to provide cover for the left back, which may open things up for Van Persie. Normally a lethal goal scorer, he has struggled at this tournament. There has been some talk that he’s carrying an injury and may be replaced by Huntelaar (pronounced like Hungadunga). Huntalaar is a good goal scorer, but plays more statically than Van Persie.

If Argentina goes with three central midfielders, this will probably be a cagey match. If it starts with two, plus four attackers (as it has throughout the tournament), we could see an open and entertaining affair. In this scenario, the Argentina wide attackers will have to track back on defense, something they utterly failed to do when Germany crushed them in the 2010 World Cup.

With Robben, Holland is capable of beating any team in this tournament, including Germany, and the odds against it doing so aren’t long. Indeed, as noted, Silver puts the odds of Holland beating Argentina at only slightly less than 50 percent.

But even without Di Maria, Argentina seems to have a bit more quality, and certainly more experience, than the Dutch, particularly in the back. And I think Holland will miss de Jong a lot if, as expected, he can’t play tomorrow.

UPDATE: De Jong will play; Aguero won’t; nor, of course, will Di Maria. Half of Argentina’s big four in attack will thus be missing. Messi, the key man, will be there but will have to cope with de Jong without two of his normal sidekicks.

De Jong joins Wijanaldum in defensive midfield, with Sneijder presumably pushing up to support Robben and Van Persie. Van Gaal sticks with three center backs.

Argentina has opted for three defensive-oriented midfielders — Masscherano, Biglia, and Perez (playing wide in what looks like a 4-4-1-1). In place of the big four, we’ll have a pretty big three — Messi, Lavezzi (playing wide), and Higuain. No beautiful game from Argentina today.

WE HAVE A WINNER: Argentina prevails on penalty kicks after 120 minutes of goalless soccer. “Cagey” understands the approach of both teams; the match couldn’t have been more “tactical.”

Both teams delivered a master class in defending, and I thought that through 90 minutes this was an extremely well-played game. But well-played doesn’t necessarily mean exciting, and this game was largely starved of goal-mouth incident.

Vlaar played center back today better than anyone I’ve seen at this tournament. Ditto for Mascherano in defensive midfield.

Robben didn’t seem to have quite the acceleration he showed in previous matches, and the Argentina wingers (in a 4-4-2) did a great job of tracking back to help defend him.

But at least Robben saw the ball. Messi, by contrast, was starved for touches.

Give some credit to de Jong and Clasie (who replaced him after an hour). But, in addition, Messi didn’t seem to run much to get open. Perhaps that’s because he too tracked back in defense and simply didn’t have the energy to work hard in attack for 90, never mind 120, minutes.

It’s been a long season and a rugged tournament for Messi and Robben. But it’s been a long season for most of the German players too.


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