Last time the Dutch were involved in a penalty shootout, Louis van Gaal’s bold decision made him the hero of the hour. This time around, a series of smaller decisions backfired on him, and as a result the Netherlands are now out of the World Cup.
Such is the nature of the penalty shootout as a method of deciding games. It is not a lottery—as so many erroneously insist on branding it—but as a proposition that inherently begins as essentially a 50-50, it is a contest that can be decided by small margins and seemingly insignificant factors.
The Netherlands are out of this World Cup one step short of the final, after losing 4-2 on penalties to Argentina, following a 0-0 draw in a dour 120 minutes of football in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.
Little of those two hours is worth recounting in any detail. The previous semi-final between Brazil and Germany had eight goals; apparently, there were not any more to go around.
That ensured the Dutch side’s second penalty shootout of the tournament, after they came through a similar game with Costa Rica on Saturday. On that occasion Van Gaal decided to swap his starting goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for back-up Tim Krul, whom he considered better equipped to stop penalties.
It was a switch that is rarely seen in football but one that worked brilliantly—even if only as an elaborate mind game. The Dutch takers, buoyed by the specialist brought in to bail them out, scored all four of their penalties, while Krul duly saved twice to send Los Ticos home.
On Wednesday, however, Krul remained on the bench for the shootout, as Van Gaal had already used all three of his substitutions. The coach admitted afterward that he would have preferred to bring on Krul, but circumstances dictated otherwise.
"If I could have substituted Jasper I would have done, but I’d already used three substitutes so couldn’t do that," Van Gaal said, per Goal.com's Kris Voakes. "I subbed [Daryl] Janmaat for [Bruno Martins] Indi because he had a yellow card already and was often too late and wasn’t executing well.
"I didn’t want to take a risk on Nigel De Jong being injured, and he was the free man in midfield and [Jordy] Clasie can play going forward better than Nigel. I subbed [Robin] van Persie because he was exhausted."
That left him with Cillessen, a goalkeeper he had already unmasked as not being a penalty specialist in his side's previous game. It would get worse for Van Gaal.
As the settled five-man lineup of his opposite number Alejandro Sabella was caught by television cameras, Van Gaal saw two of his preferred penalty-takers decline the responsibility. That left defender Ron Vlaar to step up and take the first penalty.
“I asked two players to take the first penalty before I ended up with Vlaar,” Van Gaal added, per The Sydney Morning Herald (via Michael Lynch of The Age). “He was the best player on the pitch and he had a great deal of confidence.”
It was a decision, one seemingly based more on emotion than cold-hard fact, that backfired. Vlaar, who did not take a penalty against Costa Rica (and, as a defender, surely has a longer history of giving them away than taking them), saw his timid effort easily saved by Sergio Romero.
"I would never walk away from my responsibility,” Vlaar said, per Sky Sports, afterward, although he refused to blame anything for his miss. “I wasn't nervous, I was focused. But it had to go in and it didn't.
"It's tough, but that's what sport is about."
With that first penalty, the tone was set. Lionel Messi duly stepped up for his side’s first spot-kick and put it home with ease, handing Argentina the upper hand. They would never relinquish it.
The rest of the shootout only served to further vindicate Van Gaal’s late substitution against Costa Rica, even as his side were slipping out of the competition.
Cillessen, as hard as he tried, was clearly not as good as Krul at the nebulous art of penalty saving. He struggled to intimidate the opposition kick-takers in the way his No. 2 managed to do so successfully against the Central Americans, while his attempts to actually save the shots were similarly inept.
After Romero dived full stretch to his right to palm away Wesley Sneijder’s effort, the Dutch needed Cillessen to make at least two stops if they were to progress. But on this evidence it is no surprise to learn that Cillessen has yet to save a penalty in his entire professional career.
The winning penalty was one he should absolutely have saved; Maxi Rodriguez’s shot was low and hard but well within the keeper's range. But Cillessen could only palm the ball into the roof of the net, and his side were out.
It was not all the 25-year-old’s fault—far from it. Just as Krul had been given the time and opportunity to study Costa Rica’s penalty-takers (after they had been involved in a previous shootout against Greece), so Romero and his team could use that same trick against them.
In that light, perhaps it was a mistake from Sneijder to opt for the same part of the goal as he did in the previous shootout. Either way, Romero gambled correctly and put his team on the verge of the final.
"Of course I taught Romero how to stop penalties and of course that hurts,” Van Gaal noted, per Lynch, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
This is why it is often thought penalties are a lottery: A team can be clinical one time, then wasteful and error-strewn at the next time of asking.
As Krul got to be the hero of the hour on Saturday, now it was Romero’s turn. It was not luck, or a lottery, but the result of small decisions with big consequences.
"[Penalties] are a question of luck, that is the reality,” Romero told reporters, per Sky Sports, showing even players have taken the myth to heart. “I had confidence in myself and, fortunately, everything turned out well.”