“Did you see what I did?”
After masterminding a late come-from-behind victory over Mexico in the last 16 of this consistently enthralling World Cup, that was the question Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal felt compelled to put to the world’s media. He wanted to be sure everyone understood his genius.
On Saturday, following another last-gasp win over Costa Rica, there was no need for such a question. This time everyone had seen exactly what Van Gaal had done, even if the genius of it will long be disputed.
From the moment Tim Krul replaced starting goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen in the final seconds of extra time, the agenda for Van Gaal’s post-match press conference was set, regardless of the final result.
Krul, who had been put through a rigorous warm-up routine on the sidelines in the minutes beforehand, had clearly been brought on solely for the impending penalty shootout. Such a substitution is not unheard of in football, but it is extremely rare. It is also considered extremely high risk, especially for the manager who makes the call.
If he helped the Dutch through, Van Gaal would be lauded as a genius. But if Krul failed to save a Costa Rica penalty and the Oranje went out, Van Gaal would struggle to ever live the decision down.
The Newcastle United No. 1 claimed after the game that his personal tactic of approaching the Costa Rica penalty-takers had worked, as FIFA.com reported.
Krul is quoted as saying:
I watched them (Costa Rica) against Greece and studied them and I told the players that I knew where they were going to shoot to make them a bit nervous.
Maybe it worked. It happened before when I played against Frank Lampard: I told him that I knew and I saved it. I just tried that again. I’m so happy it worked today.
Managers rarely substitute their goalkeepers for anything other than injury, for myriad reasons. Many international managers dislike doing it in friendlies, let alone in the knockout stage of the game’s biggest tournament.
"That is not normal," Krul told Dutch television (per Eurosport) after the match. "You sit the whole match on the bench—and then you have to go in and save the penalties. I don't know what I can say."
Van Gaal, however, has spent this whole tournament carrying himself with the air of someone with little regard for what is considered “normal” or “conventional." All he is interested in is what might win him games.
Van Gaal decided to change his base formation on the eve of the competition—usually a big no-no—and then seemed to put odd-shaped pegs in those freshly filed round holes. Since when has Dirk Kuyt been a full-back? Well, since this summer, as it turns out.
Whatever Van Gaal did seemed to work. His side, and their newly installed full-back system, demolished Spain 5-1 in the opener, and then went on to top their group with a late win over Chile that went almost precisely as he said it would (his side exposing the tiring South Americans on the counter-attack).
Against Mexico, Van Gaal then used a FIFA-mandated drinks break as an opportune time to change his team’s shape and strategy, as they came from 1-0 down to win 2-1 at the end of a deathly hot day in Fortaleza. Afterwards, he was all too eager to spell out to the press the exact changes he had made.
Van Gaal, who will take over as Manchester United boss at the conclusion of the tournament, seemed to be a manager content to roll the dice, and invite the plaudits when he turned up sixes.
No coach in the history of the World Cup had previously brought on a goalkeeper purely for the sake of the penalty shootout. But, if you were to predict the first to take that gamble, Van Gaal would be near the top of the list.
After all, there is nothing in the rules against making such a substitution. In the end, it is just a tactical move like any other, and that is exactly how Van Gaal treated it.
“We thought it through,” the man himself said afterwards (per The Guardian). “We felt Tim would be the most appropriate keeper to save penalties. Every keeper has specific qualities. Tim has a longer reach and a better track record with penalties than Cillessen.
“We’re a tiny bit proud this trick has helped us through.”
Krul actually had not saved a spot-kick for Newcastle United since 2011, and he only saved two of 20 in his entire time at the club, but by all accounts he had been the standout shot-stopper when the team practiced penalties in training.
From that kernel of information, it made a certain amount of sense for Van Gaal to put a plan into place. While Cillessen focused on general preparations for the game, his understudy could devote more time in the week beforehand to studying the Costa Rican takers (all five of whom scored in their previous shootout against Greece) for hints about their preferences.
In its way, it was sensible specialisation, with one player able to devote his preparations toward a shootout in which every other participant would enter already mentally and physically exhausted.
“We had discussed it with Tim,” Van Gaal added. “He knew about their penalties because he needed to be prepared.
“It worked out. If it hadn’t, it would have been my mistake.”
That would imply that its success was also his vindication.
Perhaps, however, it is necessary to acknowledge that it will be impossible to ever definitely say that Krul's introduction was the difference between victory and defeat. Might Cillessen, or even third keeper Michel Vorm, have saved two penalties as well? Was the effect of the substitution as much a mental one as a technical one?
Penalties are as much a mental challenge as a physical one—and the substitution sent out bold messages to both sets of players.
For Costa Rica, not only is Krul a bigger, more imposing presence than the sinewy Cillessen, but his introduction immediately will have had them dwelling on the fact that Krul must be some sort of penalty maestro.
The Dutch players—who now must believe in Van Gaal’s genius more than anyone else—will have been buoyed by what they will have assumed was another masterstroke from their leader.
They too will have felt the pressure lift off them—suddenly it was Krul (and, by extension, Van Gaal) that would carry the can for the result, whichever way it turned out.
In the end, it could scarcely have gone better for either man. Krul—who took to the responsibility he was given like a man possessed, harassing and intimidating his opponents before their respective kicks—guessed the right direction on every Costa Rica penalty, saving two as his team-mates more than held up their end of the bargain.
When he dived to his left to palm away Michael Umana’s tentative effort, the 4-3 penalty triumph was confirmed.
"You sit on the edge and think it might go to extra time and penalties and you then have to take the team from the quarter-finals to the semis," Krul said in this postgame television interview. "It's a dream, it's unbelievable."
Jorge Luis Pinto, Costa Rica’s coach, was inevitably more prosaic, summing up many people's enduring perception of the penalty shootout as a method for deciding games.
“Maybe Krul might not have saved any,” Pinto said (per The Guardian). “It’s a question of luck.”
For the winning coach, however, it was another chapter added to his growing legend. But, while Van Gaal may have extensively pondered the decision in the days leading up to the game, it appears he did not let at least one of his goalkeepers in on the plan.
Cillessen reacted with visible anger to his substitution, apparently verbally abusing the goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek as he trudged to the bench. It is hard to blame the 25-year-old; being withdrawn at the game’s most important moment is something of an emasculating gesture, let alone one that robs him of the chance to be the hero that all goalkeepers live for.
Cillessen played 120 minutes on Saturday, yet it is Krul who will be all over Sunday’s newspapers.
“We said nothing to Jasper because we didn’t want him to know before the game,” Van Gaal said, although he was perhaps aware of the negative psychological impact his move might have made as he went to lengths to highlight Cillessen’s one key moment, a late save from Marcos Urena:
“They had their only chance in the 117th minute. We had all the chances but, if Cillessen doesn’t save that, we’re out.”
By the time Krul turned away Umana’s attempt to confirm the Dutch victory, Cillessen had seemingly recovered and was the first player off the bench to rush to celebrate with his fellow goalkeeper. In the sweet euphoria of victory, everything was forgiven and forgotten.
It will be interesting to see if there is any fallout, however, if Cillessen continues to harbour any resentment or loss of confidence. Whether accurate or not, it would be hard for any individual not to take the substitution as a show of a lack of faith ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final against Argentina.
This World Cup has been characterised by some great goalkeeping. For Cillessen to make a mental error in the semi-final might suddenly cast the Krul gamble in a different light.
For now, however, everything Van Gaal touches seems to turn to gold.
Just two wins from ultimate glory, fans will be wondering what other masterstrokes this modern-day Midas may have up his sleeves.