Argentina survive after Louis van Gaal’s tweaks spoil Lionel Scaloni’s gameplan

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After Argentina's 36-game unbeaten run came to the most abrupt of endings against Saudi Arabia, the response of Lionel Scaloni was to tamper with his team. Some saw the five line-up changes as surprising, and more surprise ensued when the Argentina coach made further alterations despite victory over Mexico. The changes that came in the aftermath of the win against Poland were met with less scepticism, but that reaction reared its head once more when it was revealed that Argentina would line up against Netherlands with a back three, something they had not done in their four previous games in Qatar or in any of their qualifiers for this World Cup.

There is a tendency for one's gaze to glue to the other end of the pitch when Argentina play, and that adhesion has only intensified amid the feeling that Lionel Messi's pursuit of the World Cup trophy would end at this tournament – one way or another.

But Scaloni's decision to mirror Louis van Gaal's backline in this quarter-final warranted more than a fleeting glance at Argentina's defensive formation and personnel.

Scaloni, 44, has denied the suggestion that his various adjustments throughout this World Cup have been panic induced, arguing instead that his modus operandi has always been to consider the specific challenges posed by the opponents in question on any gameday.

So, with Netherlands and Van Gaal's trusty trio of defenders in mind, the former Argentina wing back opted to create some wing backs of his own, with Marcos Acuna lining up on the left and Nahuel Molina on the opposite flank. Acuna would take on the task of nullifying his opposite number Denzel Dumfries, whose prowess for Netherlands was on display at Euro 2020 and has been again in Qatar, as well as Memphis Depay in the Dutch attack. Meanwhile, Molina would have to deal with Daley Blind – Netherlands' left wing back – and Steven Bergwijn, who partnered Depay up front. Inside of Acuna was Lisandro Martinez; ahead of him was Alexis Mac Allister. Inside of Molina was Cristian Romero; ahead of him was Rodrigo De Paul.

In truth, the Argentine wing backs' first contributions were almost entirely attacking, proving at least one of the benefits of Scaloni's decision to play three at the back. Certain moments highlighted a symbiosis between the wing backs, a fluid extension of the Argentina defence's usual uniformity in playing with a high line.

Acuna did look the more comfortable of the two when it came to getting forward, with Molina often content to hang back behind De Paul when Argentina attacked, yet it was the right wing back who opened the scoring for his nation in a moment that further vindicated the call to play a back three.

After carrying the ball up the right byline and slipping it inside, Molina committed to continuing his run, which saw him arch past Daley Blind and Nathan Ake and into the Dutch box. If Molina could have selected any teammate to pick him out, Messi would have been the chosen one. And the chosen one delivered, sliding a mesmeric, no-look pass into the defender.

Molina greeted the ball with a comforting touch of his left boot, before stabbing it home with his right while holding off Virgil van Dijk, who could not challenge the Argentine for fear of a foul.

Nahuel Molina (left) celebrates his goal with Lionel Messi, who provided the assist

(Getty Images)

As the ecstasy evaporated and Argentina set about reaching half time with their lead intact, Netherlands sought to expose gaps between Acuna, Molina and their respective centre-back supporters – gaps left when the wing backs attacked. But Lisandro and Romero had adapted to the system well enough to cover for their teammates, cutting out Depay and Bergwijn's direct runs.

And when Netherlands turned to crosses as an alternative means of offence, the two Argentina centre backs, and Nicolas Otamendi between them, dealt with the aerial balls comfortably.

By half time, Van Gaal had deemed Bergwijn ineffective enough to replace the forward, bringing on Steven Berghuis in his place. In central midfield, Marten de Roon made way for Teun Koopmeiners. Neither change brought the immediate improvement that Van Gaal intended; that would come much later. If anything, Argentina seemed to hold on to the ball with greater ease after the break, working it from flank to flank as their wing backs stretched and at times pinned back the Netherlands.

Ironically, Van Gaal then resorted to a back four, taking off Daley Blind and introducing Luuk de Jong, who became the central point of the Dutch attack, with Depay behind him and Gakpo and Berghuis either side.

Again it was in vain in the short term, though we’ll get to the long-term effect later, and soon enough an Argentina wing back provided another crucial contribution. This time it was Acuna, his drag-back on the edge of Netherlands' box confounding Dumfries, who tripped the Argentine to give away a penalty. Messi converted to double Argentina's lead and seemingly put the game out of sight of the Dutch.

And yet...

Wout Weghorst’s second goal sparks wild Dutch celebrations

(AFP via Getty Images)

Argentina retreated too far as Netherlands desperately grasped at a lifeline, and the Dutch pulled one back through Wout Weghorst, who had replaced Depay and headed a cross under Emiliano Martinez, the assist coming from fellow substitute Berghuis. The final 10 minutes of regular time passed. Both teams collided in a heated exchange on the sideline. Ten minutes of added time passed.

And it was in the embers of this fiery affair that Weghorst grabbed his – and Netherlands’ – second goal.

The strike came from a clever free kick by another substitute in Koopmeiners, who took it short to the 6ft4in striker, who held off his man, turned and rolled the ball home. This was not ‘total football’, but it was totally effective.

Extra time ensued. Otamendi was the sole survivor of Scaloni’s back five as the coach opted for a four. They stayed resolute, as did the crossbar and post of Andries Noppert’s goal, and penalties were to be the decider.

It was Argentina who emerged victorious, but either way, Van Gaal had done his bit; so had Scaloni.

They both got it right, in different ways and at different times.

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