He had changed his team’s formation to combat Spain. He had used Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as a super sub against Mexico. He had substituted his first-choice goalkeeper and brought on Tim Krul in the dying seconds of extra time against Costa Rica, fundamentally changing the context of the penalty shootout that followed.
But on Wednesday, during the Oranje’s semi-final effort against Argentina, Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal finally ran out of tricks.
How different this match was from the Netherlands’ opener against Spain just a few weeks ago. A liberated Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie ran riot on their opponents, scoring goals and taking the Spanish tiki-taka machine apart piece by piece.
Then there was the match against Australia. For a moment, the Dutch faltered and actually had to chase their opponents, who were 2-1 up at one point. But by bringing on Memphis Depay and switching to a 4-3-3, Van Gaal changed this match around with apparent ease.
In the round-of-16 match against Mexico, Van Gaal made a similar change, and this time again, it was exactly the right call. By providing an assist and converting a penalty, Huntelaar repaid the faith his boss had put in him and then some.
Finally, of course, there was the famous trick he pulled on Costa Rica, who couldn’t believe what their eyes were telling them when Van Gaal used his final substitution to switch goalkeepers.
Time and again, Van Gaal had directly influenced proceedings on the pitch. Time and again, he had changed things around through clever management.
But against Argentina, it felt like nothing could be done. Van Gaal tried it with Huntelaar, but no offensive substitution would have increased the Netherlands’ luck in front of their opponents’ goal.
Possibly, Van Gaal could have switched to a 4-3-3 again, bringing on Memphis Depay to play as a left-winger or pushing Dirk Kuyt, who played as a wing-back, further upfield. But the manager had already used two of his substitutions on Nigel de Jong, who wasn’t fully fit, and Bruno Martins Indi, who seemed close to receiving a second yellow card.
This state of affairs exemplified Van Gaal’s lack of power, his lack of ability to exert his influence. As if the bridles had slipped from his controlling hands, it seemed as if the match had started to live its own life.
Against his will and against his nature, the Netherlands boss had to wait and hope for the best. But the best didn’t come. When it came to penalties and Ron Vlaar missed the first spot-kick, it felt as if the Dutch had given up.
The Netherlands performed better than expected at the World Cup. They were able to do that because the players rose above themselves, but also because Van Gaal kept making exactly the right calls.
But against Argentina, in the semi-final, all options were depleted. Things took their course, and there wasn’t anything Van Gaal could do.
With a bit more luck, the Netherlands could have still won the match. But luck is not what Van Gaal is about. He is about control, about ruling out coincidence, about taking matters into his own hands.
Followers of Manchester United will undoubtedly look forward to Van Gaal’s influence next year. But for now, fans of the Netherlands will mourn.