The 2014 FIFA World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Argentina bored most of the soccer world to sleep Wednesday, but who is to blame?
Netherlands head coach Louis van Gaal? Argentina head coach Alejandro Sabella? Argentina superstar Lionel Messi? Tuesday’s Brazil-Germany game for setting an impossibly high bar as far as shock value is concerned? None deserve all of the blame.
The Netherlands and Argentina played 120 goalless minutes in their 2014 World Cup semifinal. It was the first time a World Cup semifinal ended without a goal. Argentina then won the subsequent penalty-kick shootout by a score of 4-2, and Messi and Co. will play Germany in the 2014 World Cup final on Sunday.
Now let’s revisit the original question.
Netherlands-Argentina reflected the approach the teams have taken in the knockout rounds of the 2014 World Cup. The teams scored a total of four goals in six knockout games, which suggests their respective styles of play are unspectacular (low-scoring) but effective (they hadn’t been eliminated). When they faced off in Sao Paulo, both sides remained cautiously intelligent from start to finish.
Argentina had the majority of possession, a territorial advantage and created a few scoring chances in the first 90 minutes, but it can’t declare that it “deserved” to win without facing some legitimate dispute.
The Netherlands, on the other hand, didn’t register a shot on target until the 98th minute.
While van Gaal must take responsibility for his team’s paltry output, fans must accept the fact that the Dutch tactician had little choice but to play it safe. Argentina is the most balanced team in the 2014 World Cup. Its squad is headlined by an array of attacking superstars, but its defense has shown remarkable consistency — it only had conceded three goals in its five previous 2014 World Cup games.
If van Gaal ordered the Netherlands to go on the offensive, the Dutch would have met that sturdy Argentinian wall and exposed itself to the counter-attack and a potential drubbing of Brazil-Germany proportions. Netherlands captain and star striker Robin van Persie was ill in the days leading up to the game, which limited his influence and blunted the Dutch attack before kickoff. So van Gaal told his team to defend and counter-attack at the right moment with lethal speed, as it did in that unforgettable victory over Spain a few weeks ago.
Sabella knew the Dutch would sit back with five or more defenders, so he looked to unbalance the Dutch by dropping two of his three attackers into the midfield. Sabella’s strategy failed because the Dutch maintained their tactical discipline and performed nearly perfectly in their duels with Argentina’s attackers. Crucially, Argentina didn’t attack with great numbers, probably out of fear of the Netherlands’ counter-attack. The South Americans went forward with four or fewer players for most of the contest.
There’s the dreaded catch-22. Both coaches and teams had too much to lose, so they decided not to lose at all. Can you blame them? Maybe.
Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero was the hero in the penalty-kick shootout. It could have gone the other way had the Netherlands substituted Tim Krul or van Gaal not “taught Romero how to stop penalties,” as he claimed after the game, according to the Associated Press.
The contest was tense, competitive, played in the right spirit but ultimately failed as a spectacle. It’s nobody’s fault. It’s just one of those things that happens from time to time — even in the World Cup semifinal.