Ultimately, it was bringing on penalty-killing goalkeeper Tim Krul that changed the foundations of the Netherlands’ quarter-final effort against Costa Rica. But before this crucial substitution, Oranje had already shown that their boss Louis van Gaal had been spot on with all of his decisions.
The first problem Van Gaal had to solve, before the match had even started, was the gap left by the injured Nigel de Jong. Who to replace the holding midfielder, who had been crucial to the Netherlands’ ability to gain possession and break down the opposition’s attacking moves during the group stage?
Daley Blind, who usually plays as a defensive midfielder for his club Ajax, would have been a logical option. But putting Blind in midfield would mean dragging him away from the left-back position, where he had been a big influence as a wing-back, for example during the Netherlands’ group-stage match against Spain, when he provided the assist for Robin van Persie’s headed wonder goal.
Other possibilities included Feyenoord’s Jordy Clasie and Swansea’s Jonathan de Guzman. But while both of these players are good footballers in their own right, they’re in no way similar to De Jong, who could not only tackle very well but who also brought a bit of spice and venom to the Netherlands’ relatively young midfield setup.
Undoubtedly aware of this, Van Gaal decided to go the other direction and not replace De Jong at all. Rather than asking a different player to play in De Jong’s style, the boss decided to use a different trump card, in a whole other section of the pitch. That trump card was called Memphis Depay.
Depay, who played as a left-winger, was asked to provide Oranje with extra firepower up front, offering Oranje more options against a very defensive Costa Rica. Having scored the winning goal against Australia, during the group stage, and having bagged another against Chile, Depay had already shown he was capable of that.
During the match, Van Gaal successfully responded to the developments on the pitch. During the second half, when it was apparent that the Costa Rican defence was tiring, Van Gaal took off Depay for Jeremain Lens. In many ways, this was a like-for-like substitution: Both players are left-wingers.
But Lens’ best attribute is his pace. As Costa Rica was advancing a little bit more than they had done during the first half, Van Gaal went for a player who could try to expose Costa Rica’s higher back line more easily.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who had scored the winning goal against Mexico in the round of 16, was brought in during the second half of extra time. Arguably, he should have been put forward sooner.
But Van Gaal was biding his time here. More than anything, he wanted to save one of his substitutions, in case it came to penalties.
What if one of his players became injured? Such a scenario could have ruined the manager’s master plan. In the end, Van Gaal managed to make exactly the right calls. From his decision not to replace De Jong to the substitution of Jasper Cillessen for Krul, the manager’s decision-making was decisive.
In football, it’s the players actually on the pitch who win you matches. But a manager is there to create the right circumstances for his players to thrive. Against Costa Rica, Van Gaal once again proved he is a master at doing exactly that.