“We thought it through,” he announced, somewhat reassuringly, after the game.
“Every player has certain skills and qualities and they don’t always coincide. We felt Tim [Krul] would be the most appropriate ‘keeper to save penalties. You would have seen that Tim dived to the right corner twice. We’re a tiny bit proud this trick has helped us through.”
These were the words of Louis Van Gaal, Netherlands manager and all-around cool guy, speaking about how he switched his goalkeepers before his team’s penalty shootout with Costa Rica in the quarterfinals.
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Given the scale of the circumstances—with a semifinal berth at stake—and the degree of trust it required in a goalkeeper who sat on the bench for the entire tournament up until that point, it was maybe the most audacious decision at this World Cup so far. And it came off, with Krul saving two penalties brilliantly. The Dutch manager was completely correct to be proud, because he’d nailed it, yet again, and got his team through to the next round.
It continued a trend. Van Gaal’s tournament up until now has been a series of great decisions. I’m sure he hasn’t got every single thing right, but he’s at least got every single thing that’s mattered right—hence his team is in the semifinals of the World Cup.
If you’ll remember, he started out the World Cup with a different kind of big switch. He went fully sacrilegious when he altered his team’s formation from the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 just weeks before kickoff in Brazil, going instead with a flexible but defensive 5-3-2. Here, he not only risked defeat—more conservative managers would surely suggest that such a late change could only ever equal disaster—but also his reputation.
Dutch legend Johann Cruyff wasn’t happy with the formation or with the corroborative admissions from Arjen Robben that the Netherlands would mainly play on the counter. If Van Gaal had lost like this, then, he’d have been called a coward as well as a loser, making these major stakes by anyone’s standards. But he didn’t lose. His team produced the outstanding performance of this World Cup in its first game, casting aside all the doubts about it by transferring them onto Spain with a devastating 5-1 win. And it’s won every game since.
In sustaining that run, there have been more incremental, though often equally difficult, decisions taken. Against Chile, Van Gaal moved Dirk Kuyt to wing back for the first time in his career. A goal down against Mexico in the Round of 16, he took off his most reliable goalscorer and captain, Robin van Persie, and brought on Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Each time, the intended result has come through. Kuyt has stayed in that position ever since and Huntelaar transformed the game in five minutes against Mexico, eventually scoring the winning penalty.
There is of course an argument that the reason these decisions stacked with such significance keep appearing is because Van Gaal’s initial selections are falling short. But it’s an ill-judged angle. International management rarely offers enough space and time to make Plan A as neat as a club side’s Plan A might be, and the problem is naturally magnified in high pressure tournaments. There isn’t room always to be convincing in how you win—as all three of the other semifinalists have demonstrated. So a “whatever works” approach seems more than fair enough, really. It seems a necessity, actually.
Progress, in these conditions, has to be all that counts. And as we enter the semifinal stage, that mantra could well ring truer and truer. The Netherlands under Van Gaal isn’t a perfect team, but the man behind it has proven continuously over the past few weeks that he is brilliant at working in imperfect circumstances. He’s spent this entire tournament “fixing” his team—re-jigging his personnel, rebalancing his formations—and that approach might well be enough to win out in the end.
Here’s my theory. As we go into the final stages of Brazil 2014, none of the teams left over are anything approaching perfect. Argentina is a side of talented individuals somehow reduced to a one man operation by mutual incompetence; Brazil has lost its best player and talisman; Germany requires Phillip Lahm in about four different positions, but can only have him in one. All the teams need fixing in some way, so the team with the best “fixer” behind it might be reasonable the favourites at this point. Based on his extreme run of form, that’s the Netherlands with Van Gaal.
Any team left can win it, but if the games are close, you’d only be sensible to back the guy who has got all the big decisions right so far. At this tournament, the games haven’t gone Van Gaal’s way initially every time, but they always have eventually.
Ethan Dean-Richards is a London-based writer. Follow him on Twitter.