Through tired eyes from a day of flying I half-watched the closing minutes of extra-time of the World Cup quarter-final between Netherlands and the competition’s surprise package, Costa Rica. I settled into my seat with fevered anticipation at the thought of penalties. Then, to mine and everyone else’s surprise, Louis van Gaal made the decision to swap goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen (who’d played every minute of the World Cup up to that point) with substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul. “What’s he at? Krul’s not particularly good at penalties, is he?!” I thought to myself. Then it hit me, that’s exactly what the Costa Rican players and management team would be thinking too. The substitution no doubt shook them, as it did everyone else. No one saw it coming. It’s inevitable that as they watched the Newcastle United goalie take the field, they wondered just how good he was at penalties he must be for van Gaal to have brought him on. Not only that, but it’s a near certainty that Costa Rica studied the penalty-saving skills of Jasper Cillessen, the Dutch and Ajax number one. It’s less likely they studied those of Krul.
And with that, with one substitution after nearly 120 minutes of football, Louis van Gaal turned what would have been a previously completely equal penalty shoot-out into one that the Dutch had an advantage in almost before they stepped up to kick the ball. It’s hard to imagine any other manager in world football today having the wherewithal to do something like that, never mind in the latter stages of a World Cup. It’s not so much the fact that the substitution paid off, though that obviously was hugely impressive, but for me it was the fact that van Gaal decided to go through with it. Most managers would not even consider removing the goalkeeper who’d stood them well throughout the whole tournament before what could be his pivotal moment. But then again, most managers aren’t Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal. He disregarded the idea of potentially upsetting his goalkeeper, and saw the opportunity to give his side a mental edge before a ball had even been kicked in the shoot-out.
As the new season approaches for Manchester United, fans all over the world rejoiced in what turned out to be a moment of brilliance from the Dutchman, all of us salivating at the thought of this man taking control of our side from mid-July onwards. There’s more to van Gaal than simply surprising substitutions, he’s a master tactician and complete authoritarian who refuses to take bullshit from anyone (sound like anyone else?) but for me at least it was what the substitution represented that gave me the most encouragement. At a moment when nearly all managers sit tight and brace themselves for what may happen in the shoot-out, powerless other than whispering words in their players’ ears prior to it, van Gaal took the risk and the initiative and with one change made the opponents doubt themselves and overestimate Tim Krul. The change created doubt in the Costa Rican players’ minds as well as no doubt making Krul feel like the most important Dutchman since that little kid who stuck his finger in the dyke.
It is van Gaal’s ability to think outside the box in these situations and force others to reassess themselves and the situation that really makes him an exciting prospect at United. He was capable of doing so even before the Costa Rica game but what he did that night will have sent shock waves through the minds of Premier League managers. Here is a man who merely by existing, simply by being present on the bench can sway a match in his favour. Opposing managers will think he has something up his sleeve, and will act accordingly. On the occasions that they don’t, he probably will have something up his sleeve.
His presence on the Old Trafford bench from this season onwards will in my opinion bring the fear factor back to Manchester United. No one feared United under Moyes because he appeared so fearful himself, and that translated itself onto the pitch. Van Gaal will have no fear, only excitement and confidence at the prospect of restoring this great club back to the summit of football, even more so in the wake of the World Cup, regardless of what happens from here on in.