Van Gaal’s ‘secret weapon’ in masterminding latest Dutch comeback

The Rio Report

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Louis van Gaal has almost seemed capable of turning water into wine during this World Cup, but it was a simple drinks break that was the key as his Holland side moved into the quarter-finals.

The 'cooling breaks' can be called by the referee once temperatures go over 89.6F (32°C) in the stadium. These breaks can only take place after the 30th minute and 75th minute mark in a match respectively.

Trailing Mexico 1-0 with just 15 minutes remaining, the searing heat in Fortaleza came to Holland's rescue rather than proving their undoing, as so many thought it might.

His side were almost out of ideas, being frustrated as they were by another astonishing performance from Guillermo Ochoa in the Mexican goal.

So as his players took on fluids and prepared themselves for one last assault, Van Gaal made the bold decisions he has never shirked from during his impressive career. Decisions the cooling break allowed him to lay down clearly and articulately, rather than shouting desperately across the arid pitch.

Chief among them was his call to replace his captain Robin Van Persie, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

Van Persie had not played well but few expected Van Gaal, who will of course take over at Manchester United at the conclusion of the World Cup, to make such a move.

Whereas the clearest memory of Van Persie's tournament to date had been that high-five with his manager after that stunning header against Spain, here it seemed it might be the sight of him on the bench as time ticked away.

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Yet Van Gaal had judged it to perfection. Having already changed the shape of his team to 4-3-3 to bring on Memphis Depay, he instructed his men to play long diagonal balls to Huntelaar and Dirk Kuyt, who he had moved from full-back to centre-forward.

It worked an absolute treat; the substitute provided the assist for Wesley Sneijder's equaliser and scored the winner himself from the penalty spot.

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In so doing Van Gaal became the first coach in history to come from behind to win three matches without extra-time in the same World Cup, and it is the perfect illustration of the pragmatism he has shown in taking the Dutch to an eminently winnable quarter-final against Costa Rica.

Others have clearly played their part – and we will get to Arjen Robben and the controversial penalty in due course – but Van Gaal has been the star.


“Did you see what I did?” he asked reporters after the game.

“It's a big compliment that my players picked up on it immediately. We have a modest group of players but they have outstanding team spirit and this is ultimately what led to the victory.

"I first changed to a 4-3-3 and then we created a lot of opportunities with a shot on the post and a fantastic save.

"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.

"They had faith and believed till the very end. The humidity was not in our favour. We were fresher and fitter than the Mexicans.

"Not only did my players have belief that they could perform today, they also were fit for this match.

"Yes, it was an escape but in the second half we showed that we could create more opportunities and we played three different systems.”

It most certainly was an escape, but what Van Gaal had to his advantage was that once again two of his three superstars performed when it counted.

Arjen Robben has been a constant throughout this tournament, but it was Welsey Sneijder who produced when it mattered most.

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He had one chance but he took it, firing home a fantastic low drive after Huntelaar had headed the ball down to him. After a quiet tournament he now has five goals in his last five World Cup knockout games, perhaps proving he is one of the ultimate big-game players.

In contrast, Van Persie has five goals in eight World Cup group games, but none in his last five knockout matches.

Still, if Van Persie wasn't firing then Robben was although debate over the decisive penalty, awarded when he went down after a tackle by Rafael Marquez, will continue to rage. Some decisions are black-and-white, but this had many shades of grey. It is best summed up as follows.

Was it a penalty? Yes.

Did he exaggerate the contact? Absolutely.

Was it a foul? Yes.

Could he still have been booked for diving? Yes.


In short, it is hard not to have some sympathy for referee Pedro Proenca, who had earlier denied Robben a certain penalty and then failed to book him for a clear dive that the player later apologised for.

Awarding a penalty and giving the player who has been fouled a yellow card seems counter-intuitive, but perhaps it would have been correct on this occasion.

It is also likely that Van Persie would have taken the spot-kick if he had been on the field. Thankfully for Holland, Huntelaar was more than up to the challenge.

In a tournament where the stars have shone, Van Gaal's has been as bright as anyone.

They will be rather pleased with themselves in the red half of Manchester, and with good reason.

Another day done, and Manchester United are a step closer to having a World Cup winning coach and captain in place for the start of next season.

It is a mouthwatering prospect.

Julian Bennetts will be covering Holland's campaign in Brazil for us this summer - Follow him on Twitter @julian_bennetts

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