Belgium and Argentina were both among the favorites to win the World Cup before the tournament started, and both have underwhelmed through their four games thus far despite both winning all their games. Argentina, with a serious case of Messi-dependencia, have looked unbalanced and shaky defensively while Belgium have struggled to finish flowing moves and with their offensive Plan A.
Argentina will likely be the favorites for this game, mainly due to conditions and crowd support, but there is no doubt that Belgium have sufficient quality and strength to surprise.
How Belgium will look to score
Belgium have shown they can score goals in multiple ways this tournament, from the counterattacking football on display against the United States to the Route 1 football employed against Algeria, there is no dearth of alternative plans. The problem has been with how they begin games.
The Europeans haven’t scored a goal in the first half all tournament, and usually leave it beyond 70 minutes when their substitutes have had time to alter the side’s formation and tactics. The explanations for this are numerous, Eden Hazard the main creative force has failed to shine, only creating 12 chances so far in the tournament (Kevin De Bruyne created 10 alone against the United States), and the centre-forward options are an out of form Romelu Lukaku or 19 year old Divock Origi fresh from an underwhelming season with Lille in Ligue 1. At their best both forwards love to drive forward and relish physical battles with centre-halves, encouraging fast play and multiple balls into the opposition box. But without them at their best Belgium have been slow in their play, often only looking threatening from their opponent’s mistakes.
Against the United States it could be argued that both Belgium goals would not have happened if the opposition wasn’t throwing so many men forward. While Lukaku’s strength helped him get away from his marker on the halfway line for the opener, he didn’t encounter much resistance afterwards. Wilmots’ substitutions should be credited for helping Belgium play at a higher tempo, but taking advantage of tired legs and kamikaze offensive play by the other side isn’t the mark of a champion offense.
Luckily there are positives for Belgium, Lukaku’s goal likely helped him regain confidence and he was a menace against the United States. Kevin De Bruyne and Dries Mertens are creating chances, in fact Belgium have no problem finding shots, and part of their low goal return could be due to being up against goalkeepers like Tim Howard in the form of their lives.
Most importantly, Argentina will play like the US in the sense that they will commit seven players forward on each attack. Messi, Higuaín, and either Agüero or Lavezzi as the attacking players but also both midfielders aside from Mascherano and both fullbacks. As Marc Wilmots has already noted, this leaves Argentina unbalanced and susceptible to a quick Belgian break. They just have to play at a quick enough tempo to take advantage of their opportunities.
How Argentina will look to score
If Belgium are playing on the break then Argentina will be the team with the majority of possession. Generally, if you give Lionel Messi the ball for 60-70% of the match he will find a way to score, his genius has bailed Argentina out numerous times in the tournament already most notably against Iran and Nigeria. More of the same can be expected from the best player in the world but Switzerland showed that his moments of magic can be limited through essentially marking him with two players, because nobody else from Argentina is willing to come up and play between the lines with Messi to take advantage of the space.
Whether that is because they don’t want to get in the way or because Sabella hasn’t realised it, it renders quite a lot of Argentina possession sterile. Messi is hardly ever allowed enough time to run a telling distance with the ball or pick out a penetrative pass so attacks just get reset to Rojo or Zabaleta out wide, perhaps with an aimless ball into the box the end result.
Fernando Gago and Angel Di María both have the talent to overload the opposition between the lines but prefer to be static in their chosen positions. The Real Madrid player has been especially poor this tournament with his use of the ball. In fact it was probably only because he got so many opportunities through dominance of possession against Switzerland in 120 minutes that he was able to finally do something useful. In Spain he is used to playing a more reactive style, Madrid are almost as deadly from opposition corners as they are from their own, and perhaps having most of the ball is unusual for him.
Higuaín has also been missing chances that he would usually bury so Messi just hasn’t been getting support although at least his compatriots are trying gamely. It seems that the game is going to hinge on whether enough possession and probing will pay off for Argentina or whether Belgium can take advantage of one of the counterattacks they’ll be given.