Van Gaal bows out with his reputation enhanced

The Rio Report

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You suspect Louis Van Gaal hates the notion that penalties are a lottery.

To Van Gaal, everything is controllable. Risks can always be minimised. The possibility of defeat can always be lessened.

He, you could say, had played his part. He had said he had a plan for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and it was one that had worked perfectly. The little maestro was anonymous, marked out of the game first by Nigel De Jong and then Jordy Clasie, a triumph for Van Gaal and his meticulous plans.

The problem was that Holland were unable to offer anything going forward, scarcely presenting a threat in a game that descended swiftly into stalemate.

Yet Van Gaal's tactics guaranteed a penalty shoot-out for his side, one which he would have been hugely confident of winning after his team's heroics against Costa Rica in the last eight.


But there were three problems that even Van Gaal couldn't overcome.

The first was that he couldn't switch goalkeepers and bring on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen as he did in the quarter-final. Cillessen had never saved a penalty before in his entire career. He still hasn't.

The second was that two of his guaranteed penalty takers, De Jong and Robin Van Persie, had both already been substituted due to fatigue.

And the third, the one that will really stick in the craw, is that two players refused to take the opening kick. It was telling that Van Gaal called them out afterwards, acknowledging his side had ceded all momentum once Sergio Romero had saved Ron Vlaar's opening penalty.


"I asked two players to take the first ball before ending up with Vlaar," said Van Gaal. "I thought he was the best player on the pitch so should have confidence."

When it came down to it, two players simply didn't believe in themselves enough to take on the responsibility in front of a 70,000-strong crowd and a TV audience of tens of millions.

In fact, when you think of that audience and that pressure, perhaps it would be harsh to blame them too much – although it is unlikely Van Gaal will see it that way.


Until that point, it seemed Van Gaal may have conjured up yet another way to win. Acknowledging the threat Messi posed he rushed De Jong back just nine days after his tournament was declared over due to a groin problem.

He was rewarded with the kind of bustling, dogmatic, destructive performance he would have craved from the AC Milan midfielder. De Jong followed Messi everywhere, and barely allowed him a touch.

That Messi's only shot came from a free-kick – i.e. the one time De Jong wasn't allowed near him – was instructive.

When Argentina came forward they were faced with a line of six to beat as Van Gaal's back three was augmented by wing-backs Dirk Kuyt and Daley Blind, as well as De Jong.

With Arjen Robben, Georginio Wijnaldum and Welsey Sneijder also tucking in, Holland were solid and compact, offering precious little encouragement to their South American opponents.


But the knock-on effect was that Van Persie was completely isolated up front, and that neither Robben nor Sneijder could get the ball in areas where they could cause any real damage.

That Robben touched the ball only six times in the first-half was both instructive and a little depressing.

Yet despite this crushing defeat, we have to acknowledge that both Holland and Van Gaal enjoyed a superb tournament.

This group of players from the Eredivisie were supposed to crumble and were meant to be unable to get out of a group containing Spain and Chile.

Instead, they provided numerous moments of genuine quality and were one of the finest sides in the tournament, even if they could not quite see it that way afterwards.


“I believed from the start,” said the unfortunate Vlaar after the game when asked if he always thought his side could win the tournament. “We all believed in that. But only one thing counts and that is first place.

“I am proud of what we gave done but it was not enough. We wanted more but it wasn't good enough. We were really close but it wasn't good enough to go to the final.”

And unfortunately for Van Gaal, he will not get another chance with Holland.

On a personal level he has enjoyed a superb tournament in Brazil. His tactical changes from game to game have almost all paid off, while his substitutions have been inspired – from the call to replace Van Persie with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar against Mexico to the change of goalkeepers against Costa Rica.

His reputation has been enhanced and he appears to have loved every minute of it.

Van Gaal has been the centre of attention in Brazil, but we won't have to wait long to see what he does at Old Trafford; his first friendly match in charge of the club is just 11 days after the third-placed play-off on Saturday.

How Van Gaal must wish it was 10.

Julian Bennetts is in Brazil and covering the World Cup finals for us - you can find him on Twitter @julian_bennetts

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