World Cup 2014 talking points: is Van Gaal lucky or is it a steel nerve?

If Louis van Gaal’s decision to bring Tim Krul on only for the penalty shootout had backfired, then he would’ve looked ridiculous, but his absence of a fear of failure helped put Holland through
Did Tim Krul's mind games go too far?
The top 10 goalkeepers in Brazil

Lucky Louis? Not this time

“Maybe Louis does have a golden willy,” said Arjen Robben after Louis van Gaal’s substitutions and tactical changes won Holland’s second round game against Mexico, of course referring to Van Gaal’s reputation as a lucky manager. Much of management is about good fortune, but the old adage about lucky generals doesn’t necessarily apply here.

Because of course, it isn’t about luck at all – not with Van Gaal. He has been right too often in this tournament for it to be down to random chance, to the whims of the gods and to be about anything but cold logic, a huge ego and a steely, steely nerve.

Indeed, it’s not only nerve, but an inclination to take risks and a seeming complete lack of the fear of failure. After all, if Tim Krul had made a terrific mess of the penalty shootout against Costa Rica after Van Gaal had brought him on specifically for the purpose, then the Dutch manager would have looked utterly ridiculous. As Rio Ferdinand pointed out in the post-match analysis, usually goalkeepers are under no pressure in shoot-outs, but in this case as a specialist penalty-saver Krul not only had the expectation of his team and country, but the pressure of justifying his manager’s decision. It’s a tactic not used very often, as this (admittedly vintage) edition of the Knowledge displays, and with good reason.

The fear of looking ridiculous is one of the primary reasons that bold decisions like this are not taken, because when you start weighing up the myriad ways a particular course of action could go wrong, then you become riddled with self-doubt, second-guess yourself and become paralysed with fear and indecision. Van Gaal may not have a golden willy, but other parts of his nearby anatomy are seemingly made from the most solid metal in the land. NM

There’s only so much a manager can do

There was more than an element of bus-parking to Costa Rica’s approach against Holland, which was not exactly a galloping shock given the circumstances. Indeed, it was anticipated by Van Gaal, who in the absence of Nigel de Jong elected simply not to try replacing his erstwhile midfield leg-biter, and picked an attacking team to try and nip the problems caused by a defensive opposition in the bud early on.

The theory was sound enough, but it did rather rely on his star men to put the plan into action, which for most of the game they did not. Wesley Sneijder didn’t offer a great deal before the 75-minute mark, after which he created a couple of chances and smacked a free-kick off the post, but the midfielder was eclipsed in the disappointment stakes by Robin van Persie. The Manchester United man offered almost nothing, missing a couple of entirely presentable chances, the worst being an air-shot after Sneijder basically laid the thing on a nice, big, far-post plate for him, and was needlessly caught offside a good few times as well.

It was perhaps a little surprising that Van Persie stayed on the pitch for the duration, given that Van Gaal clearly isn’t afraid to remove his centre-forward for tactical reasons, just as he did against Mexico. Faith placed firmly in him, Van Persie did not repay his current country and future club manager, putting in a performance so bad that you weren’t even confident of him scoring in the eventual shootout, a position from which Van Persie is usually imperious. There is, after all, only so much that a manager can do, and if the players – particularly his best players – don’t do what is expected of them, then the boss cannot be blamed too much. NM

Must we side with negative underdogs?

So what to make of the Costa Ricans’ defensive approach? On the surface of course one can hardly blame them, given the difference in resources on either side – imagine, if you will, how much Arjen Robben or Van Persie would’ve enjoyed themselves had they played an open and adventurous system with designs on putting the Dutch to the sword.

However, this is not Greece 2004, a team who played in that manner because Otto Rehhagel had little choice but to. Costa Rica have some dangerous and exciting attacking talent, from Joel Campbell to Bryan Ruiz to Christian Bolaños, so playing five in defence and four in a second defence not far in front of them is, if nothing else, not an especially good use of the players at Jorge Luis Pinto’s disposal.

And particularly when one remembers how they played in the group stage in games they were also serious underdogs, beating Italy and Uruguay with some fine attacking play rather than putting 10 men behind the ball and hoping for the best/penalties. There is an instinct to side with the underdogs in scenarios like this, but do we have to curb those instincts when the underdogs go about things in such a needlessly negative way? NM

Diego Maradona’s gloomy predictions may return to haunt him

Argentina are never going to be the thrilling, expansive side some back home, principal among them Diego Maradona, would like to see, particularly with Ángel di María’s tournament in effect now over courtesy of a thigh injury. But they could yet depart Brazil next week with a third World Cup winners’ star to adorn their shirts.

Alejandro Sabella rejigged his lineup against the Belgians in Brasília and, in picking Lucas Biglia ahead of Fernando Gago from the start, appeared to have struck on a formula worth pursuing in Wednesday’s semi-final against the Netherlands in São Paulo. Biglia is unambitious with his passing but he retains the team’s shape, anchoring alongside Javier Mascherano, and moves the ball efficiently enough. Or, at least, he did on Saturday. Lionel Messi seemed to benefit in pockets of space, collecting possession and attracting markers on to him, thereby liberating team-mates at his side. Messi’s brilliance means he can cope with such attention. Argentina, as a collective, simply appeared more comfortable with this set-up.

Even Martín Demichelis’s inclusion for Federico Fernández paid off, with the Manchester City player maintaining some of the upbeat form that marked the end of the Premier League season. He and Ezequiel Garay threw themselves at everything offered by the Belgians. Sabella has been criticised back home, with Maradona particularly outspoken. This may prove to have been the occasion when things fell into place. DF

Sympathy for the Red Devil

You have to feel a bit sorry for Marouane Fellaini, really. More or less everyone says his best position is ahead of the midfield, obviously not as the traditional tricksy No10 but as a hairy chaos machine, someone who can hold the ball up half the time with the help of that famously massive chest of his, and the other half just causing a bit of havoc.

Interestingly however, the man himself disagrees. “I think I am a defensive midfielder,” Fellaini said in 2012, when he was causing said havoc in an attacking role for Everton. “But the manager thinks I can play No10, No8, No6, so I play wherever he wants and I give my maximum.

“I prefer defensive midfielder because I know my job when I play there. More things are in front of you. It is difficult to play with your back to goal. It is not my position but the manager likes me there and I am happy to do it.”

Still, like the kid who demands to play up front every week for his school, the player in question is not always the best judge of his own position. Fellaini, playing in his apparently favoured defensive midfield role was charged with the responsibility of looking after Lionel Messi in Argentina’s 1-0 win over Belgium, and was not pretty, for those of a Belgian persuasion anyway. Of course Messi is, to use a spectacular understatement, not the easiest man to mark, but in the first half certainly Fellaini managed to elicit that emotion rarely felt towards an international footballer: sympathy.

There was a moment in that first period where Messi had the ball on the edge of the penalty area and Fellaini was desperately trying to relieve him of the thing, but was going about it in such a clumsy manner that you half-expected circus music to start playing over the top of his slapstick efforts. Fellaini took three swings at his dancing rival, connected (with Messi’s legs) with all of them, which felled Messi and presented Argentina with a dangerous free-kick. On the up side, with Messi prone it did at least present Fellaini with a chance to actually get the ball, which he did in the now-traditional clumsy manner, although it was a slightly moot point since the referee had already blown his whistle for the foul. Of course Fellaini was not the only man charged with marking Messi, and Axel Witsel didn’t exactly cover himself in defensive glory either, but Fellaini’s attempts at stopping the Barcelona man just looked much more hapless. Poor guy. NM

Hazard simply did not turn up

Given the prevailing energy-sapping conditions in Brazil, waiting around for as long possible before trying to make an impact on a game in order to save oneself in the heat, especially for a creative midfield type, might actually be a fairly sensible strategy. Of course, this does rather rely on being able to simply turn it on when required, which is a risky plan and relies on a pretty cast-iron belief in one’s own abilities, but that’s what Eden Hazard certainly seemed to have been doing during this World Cup.

This was most stark in their second group game against Russia, Hazard seemingly only waking up in the last ten minutes when Belgium needed some sort of inspiration, and on that occasion it worked as he inspired them to digging out a victory, even if it was Divock Origi that actually scored the goal. Of course the problem with that approach is that when the inspiration doesn’t appear, your team is essentially left with a passenger; José Mourinho’s comments about Hazard not exactly being the greatest team player certainly spring to mind here.

Even as Belgium graduated from World Cup dark horses to plain old World Cup horses, it was pretty clear that they only had a few genuine world class talents in their ranks – Hazard, Thibaut Courtois and probably Vincent Kompany, which itself is not necessarily a criticism, because what team (particularly at this World Cup) has more than three players of that quality? Those plus a collection of able support staff is enough to make a World Cup contender, but it does of course also rely on either excellent organisation, those talents playing as they should, or preferably both. In that respect, it’s hardly a surprise that Belgium, despite having reached the quarter-final, are going home having been rather disappointing, because their main man simply hasn’t been good enough.

Hazard sloped off the pitch with 20 minutes remaining of their defeat to Argentina, with Marc Wilmots apparently of the opinion that Nacer Chadli had a better chance of troubling the opposition defence than Hazard, which in itself should probably sting rather. Managers are, as a general rule, conservative creatures who will leave their star on the pitch even if he is under-performing, on the basis that they might do something special – it is an understandable gamble, the logic being that talent will generally win out in the end, but on this occasion Wilmots just lost patience, faith or both. Wilmots partly removed Hazard in order to push Fellaini further forwards, but that in itself is damning of the Chelsea man, in that he could quite easily have moved to the flank in order to accommodate the tactical alteration, but such was his anonymity that the Belgian boss took him off completely.

A playmaker does not have to be dominant and control games all of the time, but if not he does at least have to produce a decisive moment or two - see Messi against Iran, Neymar against Croatia or Cameroon, etc and so on. When his team needed inspiration and creativity the most, Hazard went missing, and while that was not the sole reason for their defeat to Argentina, it was a huge factor. NM

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