A “pompous ass,” but not asinine

Few would disagree that Louis van Gaal has been the outstanding tactician at World Cup 2014, despite the feeling that the Dutch let themselves down in the semifinals. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

Louis van Gaal is not everyone’s idea of a warm, avuncular manager. There’s the seeming self-importance, the brusqueness in press conferences, the desire to refer to himself in the third person now and then, and that case of dropping his trousers in the Bayern Munich dressing room. Luca Toni felt he treated players like objects; Zlatan Ibrahimovic called him a “pompous ass”.

Few would disagree, though, that van Gaal has been the outstanding tactician at this World Cup, despite the feeling that the Dutch let themselves down in the semifinals. In the round of 16, with half an hour left and Mexico a goal up, van Gaal switched from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3, bringing on Memphis Depay for the right-back Paul Verhaegh. At once Holland had more width and Arjen Robben’s influence on the game increased manifold. Still in search of a goal, he made another change in the World Cup’s first official cooling break, withdrawing Robin van Persie, one of only two truly world-class players in the squad, for Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Dirk Kuyt was thrown forward from right-back as Holland moved to a 4-4-2. What followed was extraordinary. A corner arrived two minutes from time, via the exertions of the wide players, that Huntelaar flicked on and Wesley Sneijder buried. Robben then won a penalty in stoppage time that Huntelaar converted.

Van Gaal later marvelled at his own genius. “Did you see what I did?” he asked reporters. “I first changed to a 4-3-3 and then we created a lot of opportunities. Then I moved to Plan B and yes, I did that in the cooling break. That is a clever way of benefiting from these breaks.”

It would not be the last of van Gaal’s apparent masterstrokes at the World Cup. In the dying second of extra time in the quarterfinal against Costa Rica, he replaced the on-field goalkeeper, Jasper Cillessen, with Tim Krul. The latter saved twice from the spot to hand Holland only its second shootout win in major tournaments.

“We said nothing to Jasper because we didn't want him to know before the game,” van Gaal said later. “But every keeper has specific qualities. Tim has a longer reach and a better track record with penalties than Cillessen.”

Krul was sold to the world as some sort of penalty specialist although in truth he had hitherto saved only two penalties out of 20 in his professional career (still better than Cillessen’s duck). Whether one accepts the explanation or not, it has to be acknowledged that the substitution was audacious and it sent Holland through. “It worked out,” van Gaal said. “If it hadn’t, it would have been my mistake.”

This has been the World Cup of the substitute. Of the 167 goals scored up to the end of the semifinals, 31 have been netted by players coming off the bench. The previous record was 23 (out of 147), from 2006. South Africa saw only 15 (out of 145). The heat and humidity in Brazil’s north could be one reason; the willingness of coaches to make changes sooner could be another.

“It’s simply impossible to go all out for 90 minutes in these conditions, and using all three substitutes is a good way to really hurt your opponent,” said the German coach Joachim Loew, who brought on Miroslav Klose to good effect against Ghana. “I’m glad I’ve got so many good players. It can be a big advantage here.”

But the goals have been about more than fresher players outrunning tired defenders. Tactical chalkboards have been redrawn, games won and lost.

Both of Holland’s strikes over Chile came from substitutes; the USA’s John Brooks came on at the interval and eventually scored the winner against Ghana; Colombia’s Juan Quintero was introduced eight minutes into the second half and struck the decisive second goal over the Ivory Coast.

Most impressive in the use of his bench has been Marc Wilmots. With Belgium trailing against Algeria, he threw on the gangling Maroune Fellaini, in theory a defensive midfielder, as a target man. Fellaini equalised with a header before Dries Mertens, another substitute, got the winner. In the next game with Russia, the unknown Divock Origi achieved similar success. In the round of 16 fixture with the USA, Wilmots handed the lively Origi a start in place of Romelu Lukaku. After 90 goalless minutes, the latter came on and bullied the American defence, setting up one goal and scoring the other. During his time at West Brom, the hulking Lukaku had made a habit of making such ‘Super Sub’ interventions.

“I tend to focus just as much on those that aren’t playing,” Wilmots said after the Russia result. “The substitutions paid off. I took risks to win the match and it worked. Once again we snatched a win.” It must be noted, though, that Belgium had such personnel to call on in the first place.

More managers have impressed with their tactics. Vahid Halilhodzic nearly guided Algeria past Germany into the quarterfinals with his setup. The Bosnian made five changes from the side that beat Russia in the previous game and more than kept Germany at bay in normal time. Islam Slimani bothered the defence no end and with more refined service could have scored. For a team with Algeria’s resources, it was a remarkable accomplishment.

And it is impossible to ignore Ottmar Hitzfeld, who in his last outing as a professional coach delivered another reminder of his tactical acumen. In the round of 16 clash with Argentina, Switzerland had the ideal game-plan, muzzling Lionel Messi and hitting the opponent on the counter-attack. With better finishing from Josip Drmic, the result could have been so different.

But the execution of ideas, unfortunately, is not in the coach’s hands. “Players lose you games, not tactics,” the legendary Nottingham Forest manager Brian Clough observed. “There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.”