After the historic events of yesterday, this game was always likely to disappoint, but it still had plenty to offer. If the Netherlands won, they would match up in the final against arch-rivals Germany, while an Argentina win kept alive hopes of a victory on their own rivals’ soil.
Alejandro Sabella brought back Marcos Rojo and Enzo Perez was given the nod after he replaced the injured Angel di Maria in the last game, while Memphis Depay made way for Nigel de Jong as Louis van Gaal changed back to a 3-4-1-2.
The match was essentially entirely about the Dutch defence stopping Argentina. When they didn’t have the ball, Argentina would sit deep, denying Arjen Robben the space behind them he needed, so the Netherlands were devoid of any attacking ideas now they couldn’t just hit it long on the counter. Argentina would limit the Dutch further by pressing up against their back three when the ball was played to Jasper Cillessen, forcing him to hit a long ball straight back to them.
The Dutch continued their theme of sticking extremely close to their opposite number, with each midfielder essentially man-marking their direct opponent. Nigel de Jong stuck close to Lionel Messi and Bruno Martins Indi and Daley Blind both helped him greatly as Messi drifted towards the right channel.
Nevertheless, Argentina generally looked bright. Javier Mascherano dropped between the centre-backs to get space to play the ball out, evading Georginio Wijnaldum until he started following him further forward in the second half, Enzo Perez buzzed around well and the players generally did a good job of being tracked so tightly, constantly moving to make it difficult for the Dutch to not leave massive gaps.
Argentina had their best moments come down the right. As mentioned above, Messi drifted out towards this side and Gonzalo Higuain joined him, but it took Perez and Ezequiel Lavezzi switching sides for them to really get the better of this area, as Lavezzi constantly zipping in behind meant Martins Indi and Blind were struggling to offer the same support to De Jong without getting caught out. The issue was that whenever Argentina did manage to get in behind in this area, there was little for them to aim at: the attack was working well, but they were hugely outnumbered with Higuain up against three centre-backs, so there was never really any situation where they weren’t adequately covered by a spare man.
This of course meant the Dutch never had any attacking footing in the game beyond Robben’s fruitless attempts to isolate Martin Demichelis – playing with a back six for all intents and purposes. Their only decent spells came towards the end of the game when players were starting to tire and Sabella had replaced the generally more defensive Perez with forward Rodrigo Palacio, yet Maxi Rodriguez was brought on for Lavezzi not long after to reverse this alteration. Mascherano may have had to save Argentina with a perfectly-timed tackle at the end of the 90 minutes he dominated, despite presumably playing with a mild concussion, yet Robben had largely been kept quiet throughout, with Pablo Zabaleta hanging back more to help out than Rojo on the opposite side.
It wasn’t a hugely entertaining game, but there’s plenty of matches just as bad at club level every week that no one would bat an eyelid at, let alone with this much at stake, and there was still a fair amount of good attacking, albeit with little end product. We should be thankful that the Dutch have bowed out though: although not as bad as the Brazilians, their stale long ball counter-attacking is an embarrassment to their history, and it would be bad for world football if they managed to get to a second World Cup final in succession on the back of such miserable displays. On the other hand, Messi has the chance of equalling Diego Maradona’s 1986 victory in the final against Germany, even if it is Mascherano that has stood out more on the way there.