A "lottery," some people call them, the penalty shootouts that must ultimately decide knockout-stage matches that end in a draw. A sequence of events nearly impossible to influence, no matter how much you train, practice or theorise.
Some teams clasp hands when they’re forced to take part in one, a million thoughts racing through their heads as the eyes of the world are fixed upon them. Others simply surrender, ready to accept whatever will come.
None of that with Louis van Gaal. Instead of going into the Netherlands’ penalty shootout with Costa Rica, the Holland boss decided to take a more proactive approach, substituting first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for reserve keeper Tim Krul during the dying minutes of extra time.
When it became apparent the substitution would take place, it wasn't immediately clear what the motivation behind it was. True, Cillessen was not known as a penalty-killer, but was Tim Krul truly that much better?
As it turned out: Yes, he certainly was. Stopping two of Costa Rica’s penalties, the Newcastle United man denied his opponents their path to victory like an unbeatable gatekeeper. Bringing on Krul had been a masterstroke by the manager.
Van Gaal voiced his satisfaction with his decision after the game, as BBC Sport reported, saying, "We all thought Tim was the best keeper to stop penalties. He is taller and has a longer reach. It worked out. That was beautiful. I'm a bit proud of that."
It even looked like Krul had managed to win the shootout before Costa Rica took their first penalty. Pacing frantically, verbally shouting at his opponents to intimidate them, the goalkeeper almost looked frightening. If Costa Rica weren’t nervous already, now they certainly were.
The mere fact that the bold move had happened must have affected the Costa Ricans as well. Had any of them ever seen something like that before? What was it about, and how would it affect the upcoming shootout—or "lottery"?
Many teams go into penalty shootouts with a certain defeatist attitude. By taking off Cillessen for Krul, Van Gaal did something radically different. Always looking to influence the matches his teams are playing, the Dutch boss was willing to use every weapon available to him.
In many ways, it takes a cold, analytical view on the game to make such a move. Of course, it was harsh on Cillessen, the goalkeeper who had served Oranje well during the group stage. But this was about winning a quarter-final. Van Gaal saw the opportunity to influence the match, and so he did.
It was like going all-in in a poker match. Had it gone the other way, if Krul had failed, the Netherlands, and their boss with them, would have been embarrassed. But the experienced and seasoned veteran, Van Gaal was willing to face that.
According to Hannah Duncan of Metro, Van Gaal was hailed as a genius for his tactical switch:
Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas had been the hero throughout the 120 minutes, keeping Robin van Persie and co. at bay, but Cillessen pulled off a fine stop with his legs just minutes from the end of extra time to keep Holland in contention.
But newly appointed Manchester United boss Van Gaal’s decision to bring on Krul was proved correct as he saved from both Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana to book Holland’s place in the last four, where the Dutch join Germany, Brazil and Argentina.
Ultimately, of course, it was the players who did. It was Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt who converted their penalties. Van Gaal had simply helped to create favourable circumstances.
But arguably, in football, that’s exactly what managers are for. They can’t change everything, but from the dugout they do what they can to help their players flourish.
It worked out great for the Dutch, for whom everything seems to be going right this World Cup—even when they aren't.
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