The World Cup slowly edges towards its last throes, and the four quarter-final matches brought together, for the first time ever, a semi-final lineup featuring the powerhouse trio of Brazil, Argentina and Germany. Three nations with 10 World Cups between them, and Netherlands being the fourth and last entrant. Brazil came through a spirited James Rodriguez-inspired Colombia while Germany returned triumphant against a lackluster France in a surprisingly lop-sided contest. While Argentina almost breezed past Belgium with little trouble, Netherlands required a penalty-shootout and a hint of luck to overcome minnows Costa Rica.
Quite a few interesting tactics were vivid in the quarters, as we touch down on them one by one.
1. Early goals and set-pieces
One distinct feature of the quarter-finals was the early goals. All three matches that had goals had an early goal. Brazil took an early 7th minute lead against Colombia, Germany went in front early doors in the 13th minute against France and Argentina, too, set the marker quite early (8th minute goal) against Belgium. This spate of early goals meant that teams were able to sit back and dictate the tempo of the game while taking no more than calculated risks.
Brazil started off in their usual high-intensity, and relaxed after the goal. Their control over the match was often up for a toss with the incredible amount of play stoppages due to fouls, but the fact that they went two goals up lessened the pressure even more. Brazil’s early goal helped, and immediately threw Colombia’s gameplan out of the window.
Germany too were helped by that early set-piece goal against France. It was a goal almost by chance, but gave the Germans more room to effect their favoured counter-attacking ploy. Germany were in control throughout, and barely let France a sighter on goal.
Argentina, too, led early against Belgium and it stayed like that with the South Americans barely troubled throughout the 90 minutes. Argentina were happy to let Belgium have the ball and pass it in front of their midfield (with two pivots in Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia) and used Lionel Messi’s artistry to keep Belgium from getting too ambitious. Messi’s presence meant that Argentina were basically playing counter-attack throughout, and put more than a few doubts on the Belgians’ minds.
2. Louis van Gaal’s frustration-borne changes
Netherlands’ manager Louis van Gaal kept incredible composure to substitute his number one goalkeeper in extra-time stoppage time after being frustrated by a defensively compact Costa Rica throughout the 120 minutes. The Dutch had themselves to blame for the lack of goalmouth poise as well as a lack of intelligent movement. They relied mostly on moments of individual brilliance from their stars to break the deadlock, but failed miserably. Costa Rica were tight as well as cynical, but played intelligently enough to hold off the Dutch for 120 minutes.
Van Gaal had made quite a few tactical changes that swung games in Netherlands’ favour this World Cup, and he transformed into an odd-looking 4-2-4 in the second period of extra-time when he replaced center-back Bruno Martins-Indi with striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Netherlands effectively had four forwards laying siege on the Costa Rican goal, a wise move considering that Costa Rica were expectedly blunt going forward. But the move nearly backfired as the Americans had their most productive spell in the second half of extra-time.
3. Individual brilliance
The quarter-finals have been more about the individual brilliance of the players, as has been the theme for large parts of this World Cup. James Rodriguez and his Colombia were defeated but not disgraced. Rodriguez put in a mature shift, lifting his team amidst all the tackles flying around, and was justly rewarded with a consolation late goal that puts him in pole position for the tournament Golden Boot.
While Leo Messi wasn’t at his absolute best (missing a one-on-one against Courtois), he still managed to pull strings as Argentina counter-attacked the open Belgian defence with incision. If his control and swivel in the midfield right before the goal was sheer class, then his eye-of-the-needle pass to Angel di Maria in the first half that cut open the Belgian defence was genius. Argentina have much to thank Messi for their farthest progression since 1990, and he will be the most vital asset for Argentina, one that the other teams lack.
Arjen Robben is to Netherlands as Messi is to Argentina. The experienced speedster has had his best World Cup, and looks particularly dangerous in one-on-one take-ons. Robben got four of Costa Rica’s back five booked, and could be quite a handful to the untested Argentine defence.