|Stadium||Arena Fonte Nova|
José María Basanta
Ángel di María
Lionel Messi *(Captain)*
Daniel Van Buyten
Kevin De Bruyne
Belgium are a collection of individuals that do not function properly as team, while Argentina are an unspectacular team based entirely around one individual. Inevitably, that individual dominated the tactical battle.
In Argentina's previous game, a 1-0 extra-time victory over Switzerland in the second round, Lionel Messi found himself double-marked by Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami, an aggressive midfield duo who spent the game covering for each other diligently – if one didn't get Messi, the other would. The situation in this quarter-final was completely different, with Belgium's midfield format allowing Argentina's No10 plenty of space.
On paper, Axel Witsel is Belgium's primary holding player, Marouane Fellaini moves forward from deep, while Kevin de Bruyne plays at the top of the triangle. But in reality, Fellaini often moves up the pitch to become a second striker and challenge for long goal-kicks, De Bruyne half-heartedly drops back, and Witsel becomes isolated against Messi's runs. The entire midfield zone was very open, and Messi had plenty of opportunities to shine.
His first major contribution was in the buildup to Argentina's first goal, an instinctive finish from Gonzalo Higuaín. Messi helped dispossess Vincent Kompany to win possession, then his next movement was interesting – he allowed De Bruyne to get back, make an unsuccessful tackle, and move goalside of him. Fellaini did the same. Messi then played a pass out to Ángel Di María, and via a fortunate deflection, Higuaín converted brilliantly. It wasn't anything special, but it sums up Messi's patience for Argentina.
Messi's best moment came when creating a glorious chance for Di María. The move summed up the tactical situation neatly, as Messi found space because all three Belgium midfielders pushed ahead of him as their side built a passing move down the right. When it broke down, Argentina immediately looked for Messi.
Again, there was patience. Rather than dribbling directly towards goal on the break, he slowed play and allowed De Bruyne and Witsel to regain a good defensive position, before despatching a brilliant, low, curled pass in behind the opposition defence for Di María, who cut inside and found Kompany blocking his shot.
So frantic at club level, Messi is more of a classic old-school Argentinian playmaker in this side, happy slowing the play and waiting to assess his options, delaying his final ball. The Argentinians call that moment la pausa: it has near-mythical status, perhaps best personified in recent years by Juan Román Riquelme, the Boca Juniors playmaker. In this system, Messi is not a forward, not a false 9, not a winger drifting inside, but a standard No10 in an otherwise flat 4-4-1-1 system.
That Di María chance was a crucial moment for another reason, because the Real Madrid winger managed to strain a thigh muscle in the act of shooting, and was substituted soon afterwards. The identity of his replacement, Enzo Pérez, tells you everything you need to know about Alejandro Sabella's approach – this is a man who once said he was happy to win “half-nil”. With Argentina ahead, he replaced Di María with a combative defensive midfielder. In fairness, Sabella felt the need to defend against Jan Vertonghen, who enjoyed a good tournament in his unfavoured position of left-back, and who had made a couple of dangerous off-the-ball runs down the touchline in front of Sabella.
Vertonghen, somewhat damningly, was one of Belgium's best attacking threats from left-back, and for all their talented, tricky playmakers, they seem best when simply knocking the ball wide and throwing a stream of crosses into the penalty area. While Fellaini's forward runs left his fellow midfielders exposed, he at least offered a goal threat in the opposition area – he met a dangerous Vertonghen cross midway through the second half and his late flick-on created a half chance for De Bruyne that was deflected just wide.
De Bruyne, incidentally, was more of a threat when moved to the right in the second half, sending in some good deliveries that caused Sergio Romero problems. Throughout this tournament, they appeared better the more direct they've played – usually in the final 15 minutes, having made substitutions.
Argentina, meanwhile, are becoming more functional and more Messi-dependent as the tournament continues. If neither Di María nor Sergio Agüero recover in time for the semi-final on Wednesday, the responsibility upon Messi to link play and create chances will be huge. With James Rodríguez and Neymar out of the World Cup, if the semi-finals are to live up to the standard we have witnessed so far, we will need some more Messi magic.