Argentina advanced to the FIFA World Cup 2014 final courtesy of a penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands in Sao Paulo on Wednesday evening.
An uneventful match dragged to a 0-0 conclusion after 120 minutes of playing time, and it was Sergio Romero who played the role of hero, saving penalties from Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder on the way to victory.
Formations and XIs
The Netherlands fielded the 3-5-2 that has become so familiar under Louis van Gaal. Dirk Kuyt started at right wing-back, Sneijder as a No. 10 and and Nigel de Jong recovered to play in defensive midfield.
Argentina opted for a loose 4-3-1-2 shape with Lionel Messi in a free role, Lucas Biglia and Enzo Perez in central midfield and Marcos Rojo restored to left-back.
Drawing Them Out
Argentina began probing slowly and moving the ball out in a timid fashion, testing to see if the Netherlands would engage higher up the pitch.
The goal, of course, was to draw the Dutch out, creating space for themselves to play and open lanes for Messi and Co. to dribble through.
The problem was that the Netherlands refused to press high, sat off the ball and defended deep. Even when they did pick up the ball, they committed a maximum of four men to attacks, with Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Sneijder and one rotating fourth body attempting to scythe through the Argentine defence.
It was very, very careful from Van Gaal, who either sought to bide his time or protect the fitness of his embattled players.
Attacking the Right
Perez got himself on the ball early and twisted Daley Blind inside out, affirming his ability to dribble at players and—to an extent—replace Angel Di Maria's presence in the side.
Playing right central-midfield, he then began teaming up with Messi, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Pablo Zabaleta, catching Blind high up and isolating Bruno Martins Indi in the channel.
They did so by getting De Jong to bite on Messi's runs drifting from front to back, removing the protective layer ahead of BMI.
The Feyenoord central defender struggles to turn and struggles in space, so pinpointing him was a smart move by Alejandro Sabella. He picked up a yellow card, conceded swathes of space and surrendered control of that flank.
His unease caused Blind to sit in and not attack, paralysed by the fear of leaving him alone, and he was eventually substituted at half-time.
When Van Gaal brought Daryl Janmaat on up front for the Dutch at half-time, hopes of a switch to the 4-3-3 abounded, but the 3-5-2 resumed with Kuyt at left wing-back and Blind slotting in at left centre-back.
The sub, a straight swap formation-wise, did nothing to help solve the Netherlands' crippling build-up issues: disconnect between the back line and the forward line was staggering.
The distance between them, at times, stretched 30 metres, and with Sneijder unable to shake his markers and get free, De Jong wholly incapable of shuttling forward and Georginio Wijnaldum doing...something, the Oranje barely constructed any offensive moves in the first 60 minutes.
It's the same disconnect we saw against Australia, but Van Gaal fixed it by moving to a more attacking system. Here, he didn't want to risk it. At the very least the defensive issues were fixed.
During the second half and throughout the extra time period, the pace of the game slowed to a remarkable rate. At one stage, during the 13th minute of extra time, every player on the pitch actually stood still as Robben "advanced" with the ball down the left.
Argentina ran out of energy after 70 minutes and completely surrendered the midfield—refusing to dribble forward, not committing to darts into channels and failing to press the Dutch in possession.
It allowed the Oranje to take control of proceedings, but they did little with the time and space they were awarded: Robben had a single shot on goal, Van Persie barely got a touch and Kuyt, now from LWB, struggled to win his one-on-one with Zabaleta and advance up the touchline.
The Dutch exit the competition, technically, on a four-hour clean sheet streak, having won their final two games on penalties without conceding.
Vlaar had the game of his life, Stefan de Vrij excelled, Javier Mascherano bullied and Ezequiel Garay conquered; in a game where attacking players failed to hit top gear, the defences dominated.
A slow tempo suited both teams, and in the end they both appeared happy to "accept" penalties as the deciding factor. Out of substitutions, Van Gaal was unable to bring on quarter-final saviour Tim Krul.
Looking forward to the final, Germany will be delighted.
Yes, they face Messi, but they also face an Argentina side who've endured an energy-sapping, emotional 120 minutes, whereas they only really played 45 against Brazil.
La Albiceleste are tired and without momentum; they need to fix themselves up quickly if they're to topple Germany on Sunday.