Apparently it was all part of the plan. Sitting smugly in front of an adoring press, Louis Van Gaal recounted how the apparent masterstroke of substituting first choice goalkeeper with supposed penalty expert Tim Krul as extra time in their World Cup quarter final against Costa Rica drew to a close was a premeditated move. ‘We thought it through’ he said. ‘Every player has certain skills and qualities and they don’t always coincide. We felt that Tim would be the most appropriate keeper to save penalties’.
However despite the fact that Krul has the longer reach of the two goalkeepers, and despite his borderline unacceptable tactics of intimidation which almost certainly contributed to the two Costa Rican penalty misses that contributed to their shootout defeat, there is absolutely nothing in his previous penalty saving record for either Newcastle or the Netherlands that suggests he is a penalty expert. Van Gaal obviously knew this, despite his comments, which leaves only the explanation that the last minute keeper switcheroo was an elaborate bluff. The Costa Ricans could not possibly have known about Krul’s penalty record, which would mean that the only possible explanation for the switch was that he was, in fact, a penalty specialist, a move which sufficiently unnerved the Costa Rican penalty takers, flawless in their 5-4 shootout win against Greece in the last 16, to lead to the two misses which led to their defeat. Krul’s antics, his devious leftward and rightward steps that lured his opponents to put their penalties exactly where he wanted them, were the actions of a man galvanised by his manager’s complete faith in him. This substitution was not simply, as Van Gaal would have us believe, the substitution of one skillset with another. It was a psychological ploy, a bluff that became a truth and that is what took it from being an innovative and radical tactical manoeuvre to a true masterstroke and, perhaps, the greatest substitution the World Cup has ever seen.
However, in the rush to applaud Van Gaal’s tactical genius and to recast previous astute manoeuvres such as that to bring on Huntelaar for Van Persie whilst his team were trailing against Mexico in the last 16 as flashes of inspiration of a similar calibre a key fact has been forgotten. Louis Van Gaal is, at this World Cup, a man with nothing to lose. During the Netherland’s impressive rush to the semi-finals it has been easy to forget that the team arrived in Brazil under almost no expectation. With a squad made up of ageing stars and largely unknown players from the Dutch league, and having been placed in a group with double European and World champions Spain, as well as a highly impressive Chile side there was little expectation on the Oranje, with many pundits expecting them to fail to get out of the group. Add this on to the fact that Louis Van Gaal has a job at Manchester United once this tournament is over and you have a man capable of making the kinds of decisions that he has. It would be easy to imagine the media bloodbath that would ensue if, like Van Gaal, Roy Hodgson had announced that he was changing his tactics just 2 weeks before the start of the finals and one can only imagine what the lengths the more sensational parts of the British press would go to if he had tried a similar goalkeeper switch and it had not come off. Van Gaal has no such worries.
In spite of the Netherlands impressive overachievement in reaching the semi finals the question must be asked; how far has Van Gaal’s tactical innovation actually contributed to them getting this far? It was clear from the emphatic 5-1 win against Spain that the counter attacking 5-3-2 system he chose to employ can be brutally effective against opponents who are looking to take the game from the Dutch but subsequent dubious performances against Australia and Mexico, and their failure to break Costa Rica down calls into question its effectiveness against defensive sides. Even where it is effective it is not exactly original. Martin O’Neil, a bright ray of intelligence amongst the rest of ITV’s gormless punditry team, pointed out in his analysis of their victory against Mexico that Van Gaal was employing a system almost identical to one he himself had used at Leicester in the 90s and which Brian Clough had conceived whilst leading Nottingham Forest to 2 European Cups in the early 1980s. Indeed the Netherlands’ detractors have pointed to the fact that, at least during normal time, their key strategy has seemed to be to just give it to Robben in the hope that he might make something happen in a way reminiscent of Argentina and Messi at this world cup, something which their coach Alejandro Sabella has taken criticism for.
What Van Gaal has had that Sabella has lacked have been these last minute fudges, the Huntelaars and Kruls, with which he has been able to pull his team out of the mire. This is something that is sure to have pleased every Manchester United fan watching this World Cup. Whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was never one for elaborate tactical experimentation, often sticking the with tried and true 4-4-2 and 4-5-1 formations what made him the most successful manager the game has ever seen was his unparalleled ability to read and change a game. Fans of clubs other than Manchester Untied talk about ‘Fergie time’ as a kind of unfair ‘get out of jail free’ card employed by intimidated referees to get United off the hook. Whilst it is true that United, and indeed all big clubs, do tend to get the rub of the green whilst losing at home in terms of added time, it was Ferguson’s superb late game tactical management that meant his teams took advantage more than most. Van Gaal’s ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at this World Cup has seemed Ferguson-esque in its execution.
What will perhaps be most encouraging however is the similarity in the situation of the Netherlands team whom he has taken far further than expected and the Manchester United squad he will inherit after the tournament. Both are ageing sides with a couple of genuinely world class players capable at times of carrying their teams unaided and a supporting cast of various and sometimes dubious quality. But where Van Gaal has perhaps excelled the most this World Cup is in man management, blending the likes of Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar and the limited Bruno Martins Indi into a functioning and effective defence and giving the likes of the untested Daley Blind and the ageing and one dimensional Dirk Kuyt the confidence and platform to perform beyond themselves. Whilst it would be astounding to see the Netherlands win the World Cup after Germany’s evisceration of Brazil and last night and perhaps even a shock to see them progress from tonight’s semi final against Argentina the fact that they have got this far should be a great source of pride to Van Gaal and the Dutch nation. Whilst those claiming that this World Cup has proved that Van Gaal is an unparalleled tactician are conveniently glossing over the many things him and his team have done wrong this World Cup there is no doubt that Manchester United have secured themselves a manager who, in terms of tactical and man management ability, has all the hallmarks of a worthy replacement to the great Sir Alex Ferguson.