Argentina clinched a FIFA World Cup 2014 semi-final spot on Saturday afternoon by beating Belgium 1-0.
Gonzalo Higuain scored early in the game to settle matters, with the Red Devils failing to test goalkeeper Sergio Romero often enough and lacking chemistry up front.
Formations and XIs
Argentina retained the 4-4-2 formation that scraped past Switzerland but brought in Martin Demichelis, Jose Basanta and Lucas Biglia to freshen things up.
Belgium played their most 4-2-3-1-esque formation of the tournament yet, with Divock Origi up front again, Kevin de Bruyne as a No. 10 and Kevin Mirallas on the wing.
Alejandro Sabella's 4-4-2 was fielded with one obvious intent: finding width to test Belgium's "full-backs."
Angel di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi lined up at left midfield and right midfield, respectively, and although inverted, they stretched the pitch horizontally and spread Belgium's midfield line laterally.
The plan was to fall into a low block defensively with seven behind the ball, win it back and ask Lionel Messi to feed the wide areas quickly.
He'd either spring a pass immediately or dribble right at Axel Witsel, twisting him and tilting him, waiting for him to open a lane on either side to run into.
Messi's 13-of-13 passing performance in the first half of the game was positive, looking to find a runner hitting space and pushing Argentina up the pitch. His mercurial range sparked several attacks, with Lavezzi and Di Maria both receiving excellent chances to enter the box and shoot.
Witsel, for the most part, wasn't too bad despite his obvious struggles containing Messi. Marouane Fellaini, on the other hand, had an absolute nightmare trying to keep up with him.
The most effective Belgian on Messi was actually Kevin de Bruyne tracking back from the No. 10 position, which speaks for their issues containing him. No defensive midfielder can deal with Messi in space, but this was something else altogether.
They also had problems on the ball, first seeing Eden Hazard marked out of the game by Pablo Zabaleta and forcing him and Kevin Mirallas to swap flanks, then later due to their slow passing and overly patient buildup play.
The Albicelestes were well aware of their opponent's tendency to slow a game right down (to a detriment), sit with numbers behind the ball and refuse to be pulled out of position.
Fellaini failed to link play between Witsel and Origi up front, the ball wouldn't stick in the final third as the Lille man battled two markers and De Bruyne struggled to move into areas in which he could pick up the ball.
Sabella lost di Maria to injury in the first half but replaced him with Enzo Perez. It's not a like-for-like substitute (Perez plays as a central midfielder), but he was at least able to replicate the drive, vertical running and pitch-stretching ability his compatriot showed.
The match became very open and stretched in the wide ares between the Argentine full-backs and their Belgian counterparts, as the Red Devils pushed men on, but the Albicelestes' wingers refused to track back.
Lavezzi offered no defensive ethic and no protection for Basanta and was substituted, but his replacement, Rodrigo Palacio, did absolutely no better.
Daniel van Buyten played up front for the final 15 minutes as Belgium sought a goal, but the referee erred on the side of caution and negated their physical advantage over Argentina.
Belgium's slow, laborious passing defeated them again. Argentina didn't even have to be that organised to feel comfortable batting away most attacks sent their way.
The Red Devils also wholly failed to utilise their man advantage in midfield—a three-on-two borne from their 4-2-3-1 clashing with Argentina's 4-4-2—and should have used quick pass combinations and interchanging of positions to create angles and space.
Interestingly, Belgium coach Marc Wilmots also admitted the 2-1 win over the US had "taken a lot out" of his players— Ben Smith (@BenSmithBBC) July 5, 2014
Marc Wilmots' side disappointed in comparison to expectation, but these performances weren't too far from the showings they put in during qualifying. A stacked squad on paper leads to assumptions.
Argentina were marginally better again but have new fitness concerns to deal with and a date with a defensively stubborn semi-final opponent. Higuain on the score sheet, though, is vital to forward progression.