Big Balls van Gaal

“van Gaal simply didn’t want to work with me, he treats players like interchangeable objects,” said Toni. “The coach wanted to make clear to us that he can drop any player, it was all the same to him because, as he said, he had the balls,” said Toni. “He demonstrated this literally (by dropping his trousers). I have never experienced anything like it, it was totally crazy. Luckily I didn’t see a lot, because I wasn’t in the front row.”

-Luca Toni, 2011

Louis van Gaal figuratively whipped his balls out on the biggest stage of the world, making out of left field substitution and it paid off brilliantly. It deserves special praise that go beyond 140 characters on Twitter, so it’s time to fire up the blog. Most of what you can read about the shootout is little more than “Krul rattled them.” He did, but how? By van Gaal–and Krul–giving his team some big advantages.

Marginal advantages can be the difference between winning and losing. Everybody loves an underdog but at the World Cup the best team almost always wins, in part because the have more than a few advantages over the weaker side.

That said, in an elimination game, you need all the help you can get. Heading into the Costa Rica – the Netherlands game, the Dutch had a couple of advantages. One, they have a wealth of talent: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt are a Murder’s Row of penalty takers. Not only are they excellent, but they’re also very experienced. And while starting keeper Jasper Clissens has no experience, which can be its own advantage, the Dutch do have a experienced keeper with a reputation of being an excellent penalty stopper, with the stats to back that perception up: Michel Vorm. So it wasn’t too surprising that van Gaal took Clissens off. It was who he put in that was ballsy.

So now the game theory begins.

The Dutch shooters need to either perfectly place their shots, because a keeper has no chance against a well placed shot, or throw Navas a curveball. Considering the talent on hand, van Gaal has every right to be supremely confident they can. Advantage the Netherlands.

But Clissenens has no experience in this situation, which can be a gift: Costa Rica doesn’t know what to expect, or a curse: neither does van Gaal, he can’t be sure Clissens won’t be rattled. At best for the Dutch a push, at worst and considering that he was subbed, in van Gaal’s mind, advantage Costa Rica.

So where can van Gaal find an advantage when Costa Rica is shooting? With controlled chaos. Depending on the league/tournament, penalties convert between 70-85% of the time. Shooters have a huge advantage, whether it be technical–keepers are helpless against top corner or extremely powerful shots, or mental–if a keeper guesses wrong he has no chance. Penalties are largely a psychological contest, and it is the shooter who has the most pressure. They can be rattled, especially after 120 minutes (which is why shootout stats are a better sample than all penalties) and anything a team can do to get in their heads is a distinct advantage. It is hard to detect this on an individual level, but on the whole we can see that. Entering this World Cup, there were 204 penalties taken in the World Cup since 1982. Penalties to win the shootout were converted 93% of the time, which is an absurd rate. The knowledge that the game is not entirely riding on this kick gives the shooter a relaxing mental state, and the keeper a tense one. But penalties to stay alive, where the weight of a nation is on the shooter’s shoulders, convert only 44% of the time. That is a massive disparity. Giving Costa Rican shooters something extra to think about would give the Dutch an advantage. So in came Tim Krul, a fine keeper in his own right, and had his own advantage over his teammates: he is taller and has a longer wingspan. van Gaal felt that the larger framed Krul would look more intimidating to the Costa Ricans. But more importantly, it caught Costa Rica off guard. They certainly prepped for Clissens, and possibly for Vorm, but probably not for Krul. An unorthodox move always has a reason behind it, and the Costa Rican players, like all of us, had to be wondering why van Gaal would make this substitution. Krul stated after the game he thought the whole Costa  Rican bench was perplexed by his entrance. As any coach will tell you, when you think, you’re in trouble.

Krul’s preparation and execution were perfect. He dove correctly on all five attempts, blocking two. His “I know exactly where you all are shooting” gestures were ridiculous after being scored on, but they also demonstrated that he was completely confident he knew what was coming. He also played some Jedi mind tricks on the Costa Ricans as each shooter made his way to the penalty box:

Krul said the shooters changed their tactics midway through, so his attempts to force their hand appear to have worked. Krul’s entrance and antics were seemingly bizarre, but highly effective. And that’s the point: van Gaal tried to give his team any edge he could, no matter how small the margin, by making Costa Rican uncomfortable. And it worked perfectly. A fantastic coaching job by a fantastic coach. Tactics aren’t just Xs and Os. Shootouts are great when it’s not your team.

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