Louis Van Gaal is making a habit of cutting it fine at this World Cup. After the gamble of taking off Robin Van Persie when losing to Mexico paid off, Van Gaal pulled if off again last night when his substitute keeper Tim Krul saved penalties from Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana to win the shootout and tee up a semi-final with Argentina.
Van Gaal had become more stressed as the game went on, and the comparisons with his doppelganger Donald Trump were becoming more apt by the minute. But Van Gaal cannot be accused of shirking big decisions in high-pressure situations.
He is no stranger to bold substitutions. Patrick Kluivert, who now sits alongside Van Gaal on the Holland bench, was the teenager who won the European Cup for Ajax when he was introduced as a controversial 70th-minute replacement for Jari Litmanen. Kluivert scored the winning goal five minutes from time.
Van Gaal claimed his starting keeper Jasper Cillessen had been kept in the dark over the plan to introduce Krul against Costa Rica. “We said nothing to Jasper because we didn’t want him to know before the game,” Van Gaal said. “But every keeper has specific qualities.
“Tim has a longer reach and a better track record with penalties than Cillessen. We had discussed it with Tim. He knew about their penalties because he needed to be prepared.
“It worked out. If it hadn’t, it would have been my mistake.”
Examples of keepers being brought on just for shootouts are rare. In the 1996 First Division play-off final at Wembley, Leicester manager Martin O’Neill sent on Zeljko Kalac in place of Kevin Poole in the last minute of extra time. But with virtually the last kick of the game, Steve Claridge shinned a shot from 20 yards to win the match 2-1 and avoid the need for a penalty shootout. Some Crystal Palace players claimed they had been distracted by the substitution but O’Neill said he simply thought the 6ft7in Kalac would be better at saving penalties.
Van Gaal’s introduction of Krul was carefully planned. The Newcastle keeper does not have a particularly great record in the Premier League (two saves from 20 penalties) but he was able to work with Holland’s goalkeeping coach Frans Hoek on the study of Costa Rica’s penalty habits, leaving Cillessen to concentrate on the game.
Van Gaal left his substitutions very late in the game. Jeremie Lens replaced Memphis with 15 minutes remaining of normal time. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was introduced for the second period of extra time.
Van Gaal will be praised for having nerves of steel. But the reality is that he had very few options open to him. He lost two key midfielders, Kevin Strootman and Rafael Van der Vaart, to injury in the weeks running up to the tournament. During the finals, he has become reliant on the trio of Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.
Van Persie was brilliant in the group games against Spain and Australia before being suspended for the final game against Chile and was poor against Costa Rica, missing a golden chance in the final minute of normal time. Sneijder has contributed little, except from set-pieces. Only Robben has stepped up to the mark in all of Holland’s games so far, and even he has faced criticism for his tendency to over-react when tackled.
So credit is due to Van Gaal for stretching Holland’s tactical flexibility to its limits. Not that Van Gaal will be backward in coming forward to claim credit. But he now faces his sternest test yet, against Argentina in Sao Paulo on Wenesday.