Which coach will win the World Cup

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The World Cup has entertained a globe of football fans but the real debate is over coaching tactics, writes Professor Adam Shoemaker, on the eve of the semi-finals.

Four teams, two games.    In just two days we will know who is in the World Cup Final and in less than a week the entire tournament will be over.

What will not be over is the heartfelt debate over coaching tactics at the Brazilian tournament.

There are certain moments that crystallise sport as a metaphor for risk, for change.  One of those occurred on Sunday morning (Australian time) at the death-knock of extra time in the game between Costa Rica and the Netherlands.  As the Hublot clock showed 120 minutes of goalless stalemate—the Dutch coach Louis van Gaal replaced his keeper Jasper Cillesen for substitute goalkeeper Tim Krul.

The shock around the stadium was truly electric.  Nothing like this had ever happened before in the World Cup.  Jasper Cillesen was uninjured.  He had just made several fantastic saves in extra time.   He was eager to continue.  Then, without any warning, he was replaced by the tall, lanky second-string keeper who plays his professional football for Newcastle in the British Premier League.

Even more important:  the shock of the substitution led to unprecedented scenes of gaming and verbal sledging as both Krul (and to a lesser degree, the brilliant Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas) sought by word and body language to intimidate their opponents.

Krul’s antics will go down in history as one of the most overt attempts to psyche out the opposition in any World Cup.  He gestured, he strutted. He spoke to his opponents directly, saying that he knew where the next shot would go.  He guessed correctly four times in a row.  He saved two Costa Rican penalties.  The Dutch won the match.  Game over.

Since that moment the blogosphere has been flooded with comments about the ethics of his aggressive behaviour; the refeering which allowed it; the theme of winning at all cost which underlined it.

Should we be surprised?  Hardly.   The tactics of Tim Krul were actually the tactics of Holland’s coach Louis van Gaal.  All of this was the coach’s brainchild.  And what was patently clear from the first moment of the penalty shoot-out is that the curse of multiple Dutch failures in previous World Cup penalty shoot-outs was van Gaal’s actual target—not the Costa Ricans.

It was as evident as the face-paint on their legions of fans that the Dutch team had rehearsed, practiced and trained extensively for exactly such a moment.  The penalty-takers:  Robin van Persie;  Wesley Sneijder; Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt were clinical, calm, self-possessed.  Meanwhile, the Costa Rican shooters were clearly discomfited.  This was especially true for team captain Bryan Ruiz who played for nearly three years for FC Twente in the Netherlands and probably felt an additional layer of pressure as a result.

So what is the big picture?  Will this radical tactic of goal-keeper substitution catch on?  Perhaps.  What is certain is that in that Costa Rican-Dutch showdown the football world saw a radical experiment.

Just as specialist place-kickers can dominate rugby union matches; just as expert punt-kickers are highly sought-after in American football; just as so-called pinch-hitters in baseball can lift a team from the depths of near-defeat, we may be seeing the first premier example of a soccer keeper who becomes known as a specialist in penalty shoot-outs.

The crucial point is that all of this came out of the mind’s eye of the Dutch manager; the same coach who substituted striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in the second period of extra time in the previous game against Mexico.  The result?  Huntelaar scored the winning goal in less than ten minutes.    The genius of this endeavour is undoubtedly the outspoken, boisterous Dutch coach Louis van Gaal.

If anyone has any doubt about the power of a coach to fashion a team in radical, risk-taking circumstances, consider again.  And if anyone doubts that it will be the coach who—more than any other individual—accounts for World Cup success, look no further than Germany’s Joachim Löw, Argentina’s Alejandro Sabella, and Brazil’s Luiz Felipe-Scolari.

Four teams.  Four coaches.  In a few days, just one will be hoisted on the shoulders of his team—and for very good reason.

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