World Cup 2014: Is Louis van Gaal a tactical genius?

By Mike KeeganBBC Sport
Louis van Gaal
Van Gaal is a strong candidate for best World Cup coach

From sending on a substitute goalkeeper for a penalty shootout to switching tactics during a drinks break - Louis van Gaal has played a starring role in the Netherlands' march to the World Cup semi-finals.

The self-assured Dutchman, who will take over as Manchester United manager when his side leave Brazil, has proved more than once over the past month that he is a shrewd strategist.

Initially not considered among the frontrunners to lift the trophy, the Dutch are closing in on an appearance in the final for the second successive tournament.

In the build-up to Wednesday's game against Argentina, BBC Sport lists five reasons why Van Gaal can claim to be a tactical genius.

The end of total football

Karim Benzema
France's 2-0 friendly win over the Netherlands in March prompted a tactical rethink by Van Gaal

In March, Netherlands midfielder Kevin Strootman was injured during a friendly with France in Paris. The French won 2-0, with forward Karim Benzema excelling against a suddenly exposed Dutch defence. Van Gaal decided then that he would switch to a 5-3-2 with the flexibility to transform to a 4-3-3 if the situation demanded it.

A bold move, it was interpreted in the Netherlands as a defensive break from their proud, Johan Cruyff-inspired traditions of attacking 'total football'.

The backlash was substantial. Expectations were lowered and a pre-World Cup poll showed just 5% of the Dutch public believed their side could reach the final.

"It's all about winning," said Van Gaal, still haunted by his previous spell in charge when the Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.

"I want to win. I'm going to pick a system that will help me win."

Pain for Spain

Louis van Gaal
Striker Robin van Persie said the Netherlands' shock 5-1 win over Spain was down to Van Gaal

It was the result nobody, apart from Van Gaal, saw coming. The Netherlands' 5-1 destruction of Spain in their opening World Cup group match was a seismic moment.

For Spain, it looked like the end of their era of dominance. For Van Gaal, it was an immediate vindication of his methods. Over 90 pulsating minutes the world champions were caught time and again on the break and, ultimately, humbled.

Just four years after the Netherlands had attempted to tackle Spain's tiki-taka passing style with persistent, crude fouling in the 2010 World Cup final, Van Gaal used more subtle methods than predecessor Bert van Marwijk to stunning effect.

Striker Robin van Persie, who scored twice in the rout, was quick to praise the man who will join him at Old Trafford at the end of the tournament.

"This is definitely down to him," said the 30-year-old.

"If you see how he prepared us, and how he predicted the game would go, and you see how it went - unbelievable."

BBC pundit Clarence Seedorf, capped 87 times by the Netherlands, agrees and predicts his fellow Dutchman will take the Premier League by storm.

"Dreaming is important but no-one expected what happened against Spain," he said.

"It was a brilliant start and important for the confidence of the players because there are lots of young players in that Netherlands squad.

"Van Gaal is a top coach - he will add a lot of positive value to the Premier League. United's fans can expect a good team with a vision to always go for the win. He has a strong, explosive personality that brings some extra stuff sometimes but his track record speaks for itself."

Making mincemeat of Chile

Arjen Robben
Arjen Robben supplied the cross for the second goal in the Dutch victory over Chile

The Netherlands' final Group B opponents Chile, with their high-energy pressing, had been too hot for Spain (and Australia) to handle.

So how would Van Gaal approach this dangerous opponent? Once again, he went for a defensive style he thought would give his side their best chance of victory. The Dutch sat deep and waited for opportunities to pick off the vibrant Chileans.

Van Gaal had noticed a potential weakness at set-pieces on the part of the South American side. It took 77 minutes, but that was finally exploited when an unmarked Leroy Fer headed home Daryl Janmaat's cross.

The Dutch coach had also noted a drop in Chile's energy levels in the last 15 minutes. Sure enough, Memphis Depay prodded home an Arjen Robben cross on the break to seal the 2-0 victory in the 90th minute.

Still, there were complaints about a perceived negative style. Van Gaal was quick to respond.

"You have to allow your squad to play according to the qualities they have," he said. "If I had tried to play 4-3-3 we would have been overrun by them."

Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen was impressed by Van Gaal's self-confidence, but warned against complacency.

"Louis van Gaal is single-minded, not afraid to make decisions and the big decisions have come off for him," he said.

"The only problem would be complacency, That's the enemy of success but the manager will be saying the right things in the dressing room because that's ultra-important."

Pouring cold water on Mexico

Louis van Gaal
Van Gaal used a drinks break against Mexico to revive his flagging team with a tactical switch

A goal down to Mexico in stifling heat with the last-16 match approaching the final 15 minutes, most coaches would not dream of substituting their star striker and captain.

That is exactly what Van Gaal did, replacing Van Persie with Klaas Jan Huntelaar. But it was during a drinks break a minute later that he made his most important change, telling his rejuvenated side to launch long balls at Huntelaar and Dirk Kuyt. Simple but effective, the tactic worked and Wesley Sneijder equalised with two minutes to play before Huntelaar knocked Mexico out with a penalty in the last minute.

Far from being angry with his own premature departure, Van Persie once again praised his manager.

"This trainer wants to win so he makes substitutions," he said. "It's simple."

Former England international Alan Shearer agreed. "They've changed systems to counter whoever they are playing," he said.

"Van Gaal has made some big decisions and bringing off Van Persie for Huntelaar worked."

Krul intentions

Tim Krul
Substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul had saved only two spot-kicks in his past 20 for club side Newcastle

Van Gaal claimed he sent substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul on for Jasper Cillessen before their penalty shootout win over Costa Rica because of his greater height and reach.

That may well have been the case, but the mental impact his bold decision had on the watching Costa Ricans cannot be underestimated.

Krul had kept out only two spot-kicks in his past 20 for Newcastle - which hardly makes him a penalty expert. But he equalled that tally from just five Costa Rica penalties to send the Dutch into the semis.

"It worked out - that was beautiful. I'm a bit proud of that," said Van Gaal.

Netherlands v Argentina: Louis van Gaal - score first, stop Lionel Messi

Sports psychologist Dr Tom Fawcett believes he has every right to be. The University of Salford lecturer said: "He is always one step ahead and that decision will have been pre-planned.

"Van Gaal is the ultimate strategist. Krul may be better at saving penalties than Cillessen but he will have wanted to get in Costa Rica's heads and he clearly did that. It was a very shrewd move."

Former Republic of Ireland international Kevin Kilbane was one of many stunned by the "genius" substitution.

"It was an incredible decision from Van Gaal; it was such a brave decision," he said.

"I think that shows there is unity in the squad. You rarely see it in a penalty shootout and it's a masterstroke really, a touch of genius. It would be incredible if he went to Manchester United as a World Cup-winning manager now."

For the best of BBC Sport's in-depth content and analysis, go to our features and video page.

Top Stories