Louis van Gaal is as arrogant as they come. In this World Cup—as has been the case throughout most of van Gaal's career—the results have followed suit.
Any skepticism that remains about this Dutch team should be tempered; even the luckiest teams don't just roll off five straight victories in a row at major competitions. No one claims this iteration of the Oranje is in any shape or fashion the most talented squad the Netherlands have fielded in international play. In fact, I think one could fairly argue that the over-performance by the Dutch has been down to outthinking the competition rather than outplaying them. A big gamble against Spain paid off, as did choking out the Chileans. Lobbying for and then using a water break as a tactical reset proved decisive in overcoming Mexico. Even the non-conformist, Hail Mary goalkeeper substitution of Tim Krul (a player who has only stopped two of the 20 penalties he's faced while with his club side Newcastle United) was vindicated. An extra man in midfield here, the removal of a star player there, the playing of strikers as wing backs and wing backs as central defenders, and so on and so forth—no team at this World Cup has been better at gaining advantage in the margins than the Dutch.
In Argentina, the Dutch face an opponent who've played in almost the exact opposite manner. Riding the back of five consecutive one-goal victories, Argentina has been one of the most underwhelming sides at the tournament. Given the incredible shock of yesterday's thumping, it'll be hard for a potential Argentinian exit to carry the weight of disappointment now felt in Brazil. But make no mistake: if Argentina are eliminated now, they'll have underachieved. Instead of running up scores, Argentina have struggled to create chances, relying almost exclusively on the play of Lionel Messi to carry them through. Their coach, Alejandro Sabella, has yet to demonstrate the slightest tactical nous, conceding that the 5-3-2 he wanted to employ was ill-suited for his side and, worse, made his star player unhappy and ineffective.
Yet, for all the Dutch have achieved, Argentina still has enough talent on hand to overcome being out-thought. Give away a silly free-kick or play a bad pass out of the back and Argentina will punish you. In fact, they'd probably prefer it that way. Their lone goal against Belgium came not from any number of brilliant balls played by Messi but from a deflected pass and snapped, one-touch volley from the top of the box. Argentina can be, if nothing else, lethal.
The return of left back Marcos Rojo and center back Federico Fernández from yellow card suspension should further stabilize an Argentina team that has conceded in only two of their five matches. Fernández should be preferred to Martín Demichelis who, for all the good he did against the Belgians, lacks the mobility to deal with pacy attackers (see: Robben, Arjen). A good performance by Javier Mascherano could go a long way to stifling the fluid Dutch midfield.
In attack, the absence of Ángel Di María—Lionel Messi's primary offensive foil—could prove costly for Argentina. Di María's likely replacement, Enzo Perez, was excellent against Belgium but won't have the advantage of entering today's game with his side leading.
For the Dutch the potential pitfalls are obvious. Louis van Gaal might be the best candidate to figure out a way to shut down Lionel Messi but the challenge is still enormous. A combination of physical harassment, positional discipline and denying Messi space and time are what is required. As good as Ron Vlaar has been this tournament, the matchup of Lionel Messi versus Ron Vlaar remains an ugly one.
I've given up on betting against the Dutch but don't care for the alternative here either. Betting against Lionel Messi is also a fool's errand.
The last meeting between Netherlands and Argentina in a World Cup came in the knock-out stages of France 1998. That game produced one of the greatest goals in tournament history—Dennis Bergkamp's three touch masterpiece. Let's hope for something along those lines today.
Photo Credit: Getty