The Netherlands defeated Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals on penalties thanks to another tactical masterstroke from coach Louis van Gaal, an emerging pattern in this tournament that has the Dutch set up for a shot at the trophy.
Van Gaal's decision-making has characterized the Netherlands' World Cup run, even more so than Arjen Robben's darting runs, Robin van Persie's hot-and-cold performances and left-back Daley Blind's dangerous crosses.
Van Gaal's side, for all its attacking verve, couldn't score in 120 minutes against Los Ticos. Squawka Football notes that it wasn't for a lack of trying:
The Dutch boss made a rare goalkeeping switch, taking out starter Jasper Cillessen for the larger Tim Krul. This was ostensibly due to Krul's penalty-saving record, but it helped that the keeper's size discouraged the Costa Rica penalty takers from aiming high. Indeed, they sent all of their shots low, and Krul saved two of them to secure victory for the Oranje.
Dutch writer Elko Born relayed Van Persie's post-match comments regarding the switch:
BBC Sport's Howard Nurse reported that Van Gaal had some help making his penalty decisions:
The coach's brilliance has been the story from the start of this tournament. Van Gaal eschewed the tradition of Dutch "Total Football" and the 4-3-3 formation for a counterattacking style based in a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2, depending on your views regarding the nominal wing-backs.
His tactical shifts have created a true World Cup monster out of Robben. The Dutch master plays as an inverted winger with Bayern Munich, but Van Gaal has him paired up top with Van Persie in more of a striker role.
He still clearly has the freedom to drift out to the wing and collect the ball to make his trademark move onto his left foot and get off powerful shots. Robben didn't account for a goal against Costa Rica, but he was particularly effective regardless, racking up eight successful dribbles, five shots and drawing eight fouls.
Michael Cox in The Guardian noted how Van Gaal's switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation with Robben on the right against Mexico in the round of 16 opened up the Dutch attack:
The Mexico wing-backs, who had concentrated on tracking their opposite numbers, were now forced back against out-and-out wingers, and formed a five-man defence. This opened up space for the Holland full-backs to bring the ball forward and, while Kuyt and Bruno Martins Indi are hardly the most dangerous full-back pairing, they helped increase the pressure on the Mexico backline.
Robben has done well, but Memphis Depay might be the greatest beneficiary of Van Gaal's willingness to tinker with tactics and formations.
He's come on as a substitute in three matches, popping up for two goals and an assist in the tournament. Depay's late efforts allowed him to work his way into Van Gaal's starting XI against Los Ticos; he provides much-needed width and pace to the Dutch attack.
He was instrumental to the Netherlands' group-stage victory over Chile. Van Gaal noted that Chile's high-pressure style made them vulnerable to a late push.
"We knew the Chilean intensity would drop in the last 15 minutes of the match, and when you bring on extra power and creativity, you can expect to see something," said Van Gaal, via a post-match report from the Metro.
Sure enough, Leroy Fer and Depay scored in the 77th and 92nd minutes respectively to win the game for the Netherlands.
The Dutch will need to be razor sharp to defeat Argentina in the semifinals. Coach Alejandro Sabella plays a 4-2-3-1 and commits midfielders Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia to protecting the back line while letting Lionel Messi and Co. sort out the attack.
The Netherlands might be somewhat discouraged as they couldn't get the better of Costa Rica's well-rehearsed offside trap in 120 minutes of football. They could face similar difficulties against the brave play of Ezequiel Garay and Martin Demichelis.
Should Netherlands slip past Messi and his band of courageous Argentinians, they will be yet again one match away from the tiny nation's first World Cup title.
All stats courtesy of WhoScored.com, unless otherwise noted.
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