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Jul 10, 2014

Two-way containment; Kroos control

Containing Messi and Robben was the approach of Netherlands and Argentina respectively.

ARGENTINA 0-0 NETHERLANDS

Louis van Gaal succeeded in stopping Lionel Messi. Alejandro Sabella managed to disturb the Dutch tactics. While much of the focus has been on the Netherlands manager's ever-changing approach, his Argentina counterpart altered the game with a switch of his own. He began with Enzo Perez on the right and Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left, the positions they occupied against Belgium.

They soon switched, however, allowing Argentina to use Lavezzi's pace and attacking instincts to drag Netherlands out of shape. He looked to find space behind Dutch left wing-back Daley Blind. In turn, that meant Bruno Martins Indi, the left of the three centre-backs, spent much of his time coming across to cover.

Lionel Messi had no touches in the Netherlands penalty area.
Lionel Messi had no touches in the Netherlands penalty area.

At those moments, Netherlands' shape looked like a back four. At others, a back three in effect became a back six as the wing-backs and holding midfielder Nigel de Jong dropped in. De Jong's role largely entailed marking Messi. Van Gaal's policy involved ensuring Argentina's captain always had at least two men around him, with De Jong invariably one of them. Messi responded by venturing further from goal, as his touch map shows, to the area immediately either side of the halfway line, to pick up possession. The red blobs there are one indication of the success of Netherlands' containing tactics. Another is the fact he had no touches in the Dutch box. By and large, he was kept out of harm's way as Van Gaal tried to keep three centre-backs and two central midfielders between Messi and his goal.

At times, Lavezzi joined Gonzalo Higuain in attack so Argentina's 4-4-1-1 could become 4-3-1-2. His influence on the right, however, forced Netherlands into a rethink: the booked Martins Indi came off, Blind moved into the back three and Dirk Kuyt became the left wing-back. As Lavezzi's scatter chart shows, he wasn't the most involved, and later went back to Argentina's left, but the positions he took up disrupted the Dutch game plan.

Ezequiel Lavezzi helped disrupt the Dutch game plan.
Ezequiel Lavezzi helped disrupt the Dutch game plan.

In more than one respect, Kuyt was his opposite. The indefatigable Dutchman didn't force Argentina to adapt their tactics but was on the ball more than anyone else. He was always available as the outlet, with his energy allowing him to get up and down both flanks. One reason, perhaps, may be that Argentina were content to let him have the ball whereas they helped restrict Arjen Robben to just six touches in the first half. Another is that Netherlands lack a passing midfielder in front of the back three so their natural instinct was to look wide.

BRAZIL 1-7 GERMANY

Sami Khedira has played in five games in this World Cup. He has had three touches in goal-scoring positions in the opposition box and all were against Brazil. Two, indeed, were goals, one for him and another, when he squared the ball, for Toni Kroos.

Sami Khedira has looked back to his best during this World Cup,
Sami Khedira has looked back to his best during this World Cup,

It is a sign the Real Madrid midfielder is getting his power back after a long layoff. Khedira was out for six months with a knee injury before May. It also indicated the division of responsibilities in the German midfield trio. Since Philipp Lahm was moved to right-back, Bastian Schweinsteiger has operated as the deepest of the three and the closest to an anchorman or a defensive midfielder. He gives Khedira and Kroos more licence to go forward.

Both were in the box when Khedira set up Kroos for Germany's fourth goal. It was a moment where a high pressing game worked: Kroos closed down Fernandinho and dispossessed him. It was one of the ways in which Germany's midfield dominated.

Firstly, they outnumbered Brazil, three to two, until Oscar, the No.10, began to drop in. They used the spare man intelligently, helping to get Kroos or Khedira in the box, and used the ball better. Fernandinho, who was taken off at halftime, had a pass completion rate of just 72 percent. Brazil have given the ball away too easily throughout the World Cup.

Lahm's return to right-back has proved significant. Germany began the tournament with four centre-backs across the back four. A more natural attacking full-back has given them extra attacking impetus and, in a team without wingers, has brought width. Thomas Muller comes infield from the right, allowing Lahm room to overlap. Both combined superbly against Brazil, often with Muller around 10 yards infield from the German captain.

It was a second area in which Germany often had a numerical advantage, aided by Bernard's failure to support left-back Marcelo. Tellingly, Lahm had two assists, for the third and sixth goals, and prospered by staying wide as Muller dragged Marcelo in with him.

Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos has been Germany's pass master.
Bayern Munich midfielder Toni Kroos has been Germany's pass master.

His performance was made possible by Kroos, who ensured Lahm wasn't missed as a playmaker. The 22-year-old's pass map showed how often he stretched the game by picking out players on the touchlines, particularly the right, where Lahm lingered. The Bayern Munich man completed 93 percent of his 71 passes, again suggesting he may be the best central midfielder in this World Cup.

Finally, it is probably best Fred's touch map isn't shown. Even though he was substituted before Andre Schurrle completed Germany's scoring, it features a rather large red blob in the centre circle from the repeated kickoffs he took.