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World Cup Quarter-Finals Tactical Preview: Netherlands and Argentina’s first line battle, why England should use a back-five & more

The World Cup is back tomorrow as the quarter-finals get underway, so in today’s edition of our Doha Diaries column, we will be looking ahead to them.

Our focus will be on the tactical battles that could decide those games, so let us get stuck into them.

Friday: Croatia vs Brazil (18:00 AST)

The first match pits tournament favourites Brazil against Croatia, who made it to the final last time out.

Both sides are teams that like to control possession, but only one can do so on the night, so it will be interesting to see who gets the upper hand there.

On paper, Brazil certainly have the better starting XI in terms of player quality, so they could be backed to be successful in executing their game plan on that basis.

It will be pretty interesting to see how such a game would look. Brazil have used a fairly rigid 3-2-5 structure in possession in their build-ups, as the average positions of their first-choice XI in this tournament indicate.

The wingers tend to start wide while Neymar operates in the left half-space and Lucas Paquetá does so on the right, but things change in the final third as Alex Sandro overlaps, whereas Danilo often inverts into midfield.

This creates a strong rest defence structure behind the front line for Brazil to defend against counterattacks, although that has not been tested to its limits yet.

Croatia are the strongest side to face Brazil at the World Cup so far, and they do have some top-quality players to counterattack through.

They tend to defend in a 4-5-1 mid-block which means the wingers come fairly deep, so they could start counterattacks through their ball-carrying or make off-ball runs to get on the end of passes. Such through balls will likely come from the midfielders, most notably Luka Modrić.

Friday: Netherlands vs Argentina (22:00 AST)

The most intriguing quarter-final from a tactical point of view is likely going to be Netherlands vs Argentina.

This is because of the defensive set-up Louis van Gaal has used, which was at its extremes against the United States as the two strikers split very wide and cover-shadowed the full-backs rather than applying pressure on the ball. Behind them, there was full player marking going on in midfield.

In a press conference, Van Gaal suggested that he would continue to use this defensive structure, obviously with the required alterations from opposition to opposition.

Argentina should be expected to pose a very tough test to this system, and that is because of the nature of their build-ups.

They have started all of their matches at the World Cup so far with a back-four, but in at least the last two and a half games, they have created a back-three in possession in the build-up with the deepest midfielder dropping between the centre-backs.

This means they would have a numerical advantage in the first line against the Netherlands, which is a pretty big advantage that their players should be able to leverage.

If Van Gaal responds by asking his number 10 to follow the deepest Argentine midfielder and consequently create a front-three, the Netherlands would end up defending in a 5-2-3 formation.

As you might imagine, this would leave a lot of open space in midfield, which is not an ideal situation against a certain Lionel Messi.

Undoubtedly, there will be a lot of in-game tactical tweaks from both managers, and we could see a curveball thrown right at the start. This should be an absolute cracker (for the nerds).

Saturday: Morocco vs Portugal (18:00 AST)

Morocco will play their first-ever World Cup quarter-final after knocking Spain out on penalties, and their next opponents come from the Iberian peninsula too.

Portugal’s playing style is fairly different to that of Spain, but first, let us take a closer look at how Morocco set out in their last match.

They kept less than a quarter of possession in the 120+ minutes but were happy to do so and defend in their own half instead. They did so in a very compact 4-1-4-1 block, squeezing the spaces between their lines.

They spent just 1% of the match in a high block but were in a mid-block (39%) for longer than they were in a low block (31%). Their low block was, unsurprisingly, quite low, but just look at how high their defensive line was when in a mid-block.

This is what Spain could have exploited, but their lack of runners in behind proved to be an issue for them. Like their neighbours did against Morocco, Portugal’s approach against Switzerland also relied heavily on midfield rotations in possession, but that will likely not work so well in this game.

A change in personnel might be the way forward for Portugal. Instead of João Félix alongside Gonçalo Ramos, Fernando Santos might want to consider playing Rafael Leão on the left of the front two as he poses a greater threat with his runs in behind.

Saturday: England vs France (22:00 AST)

The last quarter-final is the biggest in terms of the stature of the two participating teams, as England face France.

Both teams have been scoring a lot of goals at the tournament — England are joint top-scorers with 12 goals, while France are joint-third with nine.

However, this match should be expected to be a reasonably cagey affair and could be decided by a solitary goal.

Gareth Southgate’s pragmatic approach to tournaments has certainly divided opinion in England, but the results of it have been quite good.

Therefore, he should not be expected to set his side up in a particularly attack-minded way and could switch to a back-five.

This appears to be the right way to combat France’s possession play, as they operate in a 3-2-5 structure with left-back Theo Hernández pushing forward while the right-back stays deeper. This is evident in the average positions of their players so far at the World Cup.

With France’s danger man Kylian Mbappé often moving into the left half-space to accommodate the left-back’s advances, England might want to use Kyle Walker as the right centre-back to match up against him.

That could be the decisive individual duel for this match, so the game could be decided by either of those two players.

Stats courtesy Vizz App, Opta via FotMob and FIFA.

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