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Brazil's dubious distinction

Five Aside Jul 12, 2014
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 Posted by Raphael Honigstein
Jul 6, 2014

Van Gaal's calculated approach

ESPN FC's Craig Burley and Shaka Hislop discuss the Netherlands' run to the World Cup semifinals.

The fine line between genius and madness is well documented -- there's even a scientific study from Hungary that claimed in 2009 that extremely creative people were more likely to suffer from "severe mental disorder" -- and in football, the margins are finer still, because you're judged on results that often come with a huge slice of good or bad luck. One goal here or there, a scuffed shot or a refereeing mistake can see you tumble from one category to the next in a heartbeat.

NetherlandsNetherlands
Costa RicaCosta Rica
(4) 0
(3) 0
ESPN3, ESPN FT-Pens
Match 59
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Mike Buskens knows that all too well. The 46-year-old former Schalke and Fortuna Dusseldorf coach will have allowed himself a wry smile after watching Netherlands advance to the semifinal on Saturday. He, too, had contested a semifinal two years ago as a manager, in the DfB Pokal with second division Greuther Furth.

The hard-fought match at home to Borussia Dortmund was goalless in extra time and heading for spot kicks as Buskens swapped his regular keeper, Max Grun, for Jasmin Fejzic in the 118th minute. Fejzic, a man of imposing stature, had a reputation as a "penalty killer." But Bosnia's No. 2 at this World Cup never got the chance to live up to his nickname against Jurgen Klopp's team. A long-distance shot from Ilkay Gundogan eluded the Furth defenders, hit the post and rebounded off Fejzic's back into the net. With that incredibly fortuitous 1-0 win, Dortmund were through to the final in Berlin, where they would hammer Bayern Munich 5-2.

Buskens, meanwhile, had to go for a swim in a cold sea of schadenfreude. He had tried to be far too clever, so the unanimous verdict in the media went. His insolence had been punished by the football gods. (He is currently out of a job, by the way).

Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal, by contrast, became "Louis van Geniaal" -- a genius, in the eyes of much of the football world, when he introduced Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen one minute before the end of extra time with his team locked in a goalless draw with Costa Rica in Salvador.

The Newcastle United keeper saved penalties from Bryan Ruiz and Michael Umana in the shootout to get the Oranje to a semifinal against Lionel Messi's Argentina in Sao Paulo on Wednesday.

It was a bold move, as a handful of managers had experimented with the same idea over the last 20 years or so, with mixed success. At the last World Cup, Ghana coach Milovan Rajevac had sent Stephen Ahorlu to warm up late in extra time in order to bring him on for Richard Kingson ahead of the shootout vs. Uruguay in the quarterfinal. The substitution never came to pass, however, and Ghana were knocked out.

Van Gaal did not hesitate to pull the plug on an unsuspecting, and at first inconsolable, Cillessen -- "We said nothing to Jasper because we didn't want him to know before the game," the 62-year-old explained after Krul had become the first part-time goalkeeping hero in the history of World Cup shootouts.

The 26-year-old had planned for his moment in the spotlight with Van Gaal beforehand, but couldn't be sure that the coach wouldn't use up all of his three substitutions beforehand. "Suddenly, you're getting on, it was like a boyhood dream coming true," Krul said after his remarkable debut at an international tournament.

The decision wasn't bravado or an attempt to unsettle the opposition with a gimmick but the result of a rational thought process, Van Gaal explained later.

He and his goalkeeping coach, Frans Hoek, had deemed that Krul had "longer reach" and was better suited to the task at hand, even if his personal record (two saves from 20 penalties in the Premier League) is unremarkable. What looked like a maverick move was simply a case of cold, hard logic, as far as the Dutch manager was concerned.

An obsessive attention to detail has long been a key part of Van Gaal's work. At Bayern, they couldn't believe it when his scouts prepared a detailed dossier on SpVgg Neckarelz, the sixth division team of part-timers that they faced in the first round of the Cup in 2009.

Louis van Gaal congratulates Tim Krul after the penalty shootout.

On Saturday, one camera inside the stadium caught a glimpse of his list of penalty takers, a neatly printed sheet of paper. Krul would have been given some information about the Costa Rican penalty takers as well. The Dutch, Europe's second-worst team in penalty shootouts -- they had won only one in five previously, better than only England's one in seven -- had been preparing for this moment even before the arrival of Van Gaal. They had gone into the 2010 World Cup final against Spain in Johannesburg armed with a dossier on the opposition by London-based consultancy group Soccernomics.

Van Gaal's meticulous forward planning has influenced a generation of younger coaches like Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. They all know that luck plays a disproportionately large role in football, which in turn only increases the need to control as many variables as possible. They will seek out the smallest advantage, to the point where somebody would have told the Dutch boss where Costa Rica defender Umana had despatched his successful penalty for AD Municipal Liberia vs. RCD Espana San Pedro Sula in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2009 (I sadly don't know, in case you're wondering).

Inserting Krul was not madness, irrespective of the result. But neither was it an unfathomably brilliant move that vindicated another unconvincing performance. The drama from 12 yards shouldn't obscure the fact that the Dutch had been blunt, uninspired and totally devoid of collective attacking patterns throughout much of the 120 minutes against a vastly inferior Costa Rica side who were playing at the upper limit of their capabilities. Real chances -- a couple of Wesley Sneijder free kicks apart -- only came very late on. All semblance of order had long left the pitch at that stage.

Overall, the game marked a regression. The Dutch have gone from relying on their Golden Triangle (Robin van Persie, Sneijder, Arjen Robben) to relying on the two-man-band of "Robben van Persie" to relying solely on Robben in Brazil. The 30-year-old was tremendous. But he was mostly on his own -- Van Persie was poor, Sneijder nonexistent in open play. Van Gaal, all his experience and know-how notwithstanding, is coming up against the very limits of this squad. If he somehow pulls two more wins out of his hat with this side, the "genius" tag will be fully warranted.

Hold off until then, though. On Saturday night, he and his men only did what they were supposed to, albeit in much more shaky, enthralling fashion than anticipated.

Raphael Honigstein

Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian, among other outlets, and is the author of "Englischer Fussball."

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