The Telegraph
Tuesday , July 1 , 2014
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Gago holds key for Sabella

On the eve of the World Cup, Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella had wanted to follow a pragmatic and defence-minded style, but he had to discard the formula after Lionel Messi did not like the idea of starting with five defenders.

He reverted to the usual 4-3-3 formation and Argentina, no doubt, began to look impressive.

But on Tuesday night, against Switzerland, Sabella would have to be more careful with his defence. Though overwhelming favourites, I have a feeling that the back four of Argentina could be their Achilles heel.

While an otherwise solid central defender like Ezequiel Garay looked a bit shaky in the earlier matches, the performance of Federico Fernandez also did not exude too much confidence.

Under the circumstances, Fernando Gago is likely to play a crucial part in Sabella’s plan. I am a great admirer of Gago’s positional play and excellent sense of spreading the game without allowing the opponents much room. Tactically, Sabella could be involved in a battle of wits with Ottmar Hitzfeld. The German would surely try to upset the rivals through his two attackers Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri.

But then, there is one man, who could turn all these talks of tactics and strategies meaningless with one magical touch of his left foot. Messi is clearly the star and capable of making all the difference, though he would surely miss an injured Sergio Aguero on his side.

In 1986, Carlos Bilardo openly admitted how much he owed it to Diego Maradona. It would be no different for Sabella if Argentina win their third title.

It is not that all coaches are solely dependent on their star players. I am writing this column after watching four matches in the knock out rounds so far and I have no hesitation in saying that it was Louis van Gaal’s tactics that largely paved the way for the Netherlands’ 2-1 victory over a highly determined Mexico.

The Netherlands started with a 3-5-2 formation but it was not too effective as Dirk Kuyt looked mediocre as wing back and Wesley Sneijder was found struggling. Van Gaal made amends and switched to 4-3-3 style in the second half that allowed Sneijder to play in a flatter central midfield role. It did a world of good to the Netherlands.

From this point, the Netherlands could build up their attacks from the deep and used the width of the field to frequently reach the edge of Mexico’s box. True, Van Gaal had a team packed with experienced and highly talented players, but he knew how exactly to use them.

This is where Mexico lost the plot, though they put the blame on the referee and the “dubious” penalty award against them during the closing stages. Watching the match, I had a feeling the Mexico coach Miguel Herrera was somewhat short of plan B and could not stop Arjen Robben getting dangerous in the last 15 minutes.

Herrera was also unlucky not to have too many experienced footballers in the team.

In a World Cup where the attacking postures of the teams are giving the fans immense joy, Greece remained the sole exception.

I am delighted to see Costa Rica in the quarter-finals, especially after their historic performance in the group stage but simply cannot accept the approach of Greece coach Fernando Santos.