Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica: Oranje progress after van Gaal’s late keeper switch

July 6, 2014

The starting line-ups

The Dutch dominated but couldn’t find a way past Keylor Navas – then finally broke their penalty shoot-out curse.

Louis van Gaal played a more aggressive wing-back pairing than against Mexico, with full-back Paul Verhaegh making way for winger Memphis Depay.

Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto was without suspended centre-back Oscar Duarte, so Johnny Acosta came into the side.

In a long, drawn out and – eventually – dramatic 120 minutes, the Dutch dominated but were disappointing in the final third.

Counter-attack v counter-attack

Before this match, both sides had generally played against teams happy to dominate the game, retain the ball, push up and leave space at the back. That played into the hands of these two, who used their pace on the break – the Dutch with direct balls to Arjen Robben, Costa Rica by pushing the wing-backs forward.

With two counter-attacking sides, however, the game was more static. The best moments in the first half came when Costa Rica pushed men forward for set-pieces, and allowed the Dutch to break.

Holland continue marking

The Dutch continued their approach of man-marking the opposition in midfield, where the battle was 2 v 2, rather than 3 v 3 as has been the case in their previous matches. At the back, the centre-backs always shut down Bryan Ruiz and/or Joel Campbell when they collected the ball in central positions, which often meant Daley Blind dropped deeper to become an extra centre-back, and Memphis Depay moved back from his wide position to become the wing-back. As always, the Netherlands don’t mind being drawn out of shape, as long as they have a spare man at the back.

Costa Rica started with Campbell on the right and Ruiz upfront as a false nine, the reverse of what they’ve used in this tournament previously – although they switched midway through the first half when they weren’t creating much. They probably attempted the starting format because they knew how tight the Dutch man-mark – Ruiz was designed to bring them up, Campbell would sprint in behind. It didn’t create chances, but Bruno Martins Indi spent the game getting far too tight to his opponents, conceding fouls and eventually being booked.

Formation battle

Proper formation battles at this tournament have been relatively rare, but this was an interesting example of both sides playing three at the back, but one manager changing his system higher up the pitch specifically for this challenge. The Dutch had completed a remarkable turnaround against Mexico in the previous round by playing three forwards stretched across the pitch, pushing back the opposition wing-backs, and he tried something similar from the start.

The three Dutch forwards occupied the Costa Rican centre-backs to hamper their build-up play, but Costa Rica were scared of leaving 3 v 3 at the back, so the wing-backs dropped back and formed a five. They were rarely able to get forward on the counter-attack, so Costa Rica’s attacking play was poor – but they remained extremely secure at the back.

Netherlands retain ball with little penetration

The Dutch were on top with Costa Rica sitting back, but it was frustrating that Van Gaal was content to leave 3 v 1 at the back, with none of the three centre-backs stepping forward into midfield to force Costa Rica forward, creating space elsewhere.

The three Dutch centre-backs spent much of the game playing passes to one another – in fact, they ended the 120 minutes as the three most prolific passers on the pitch. The distribution of Martins Indi and Ron Vlaar, in particular, was incredibly unambitious.

Robben the main outlet

Arjen Robben has spent this tournament finding space in the channels from a central starting position, but here it was the reverse – he was out wide and generally drifting into central, congested positions. Most problematically, he always had at least two Costa Rican opponents around him, usually showing him onto his right foot.

Robben was happy to dribble past them, though, and got no fewer than three Costa Ricans booked – with Junior Diaz lucky not to be shown a second booking for another foul late on. Robben was the Netherlands’ most direct attacker, although the more the game went on, the more Wesley Sneijder came into the game. He hit the woodwork twice.

The Dutch were also denied by another stunning goalkeeping display by Keylor Navas. The goalkeeping in the first couple of weeks of this World Cup was dreadful, but it’s been excellent in the knockout stages – which is one of the reasons we’ve had so few goals.

Costa Rican offside trap

Another feature was the Costa Ricans’ well-drilled offside trap, which caught the Netherlands offside 13 times. This, coming after they caught Italy offside 11 times in the group stage, is a remarkable statistic.

In fact, they caught the opposition offside 41 times in this competition. Compare that to the other seven quarter-finalists (Germany 17, Netherlands and Argentina 10, France 6, Brazil and Belgium 5, Colombia 4), and it’s clear the offside trap was extraordinarily successful, even with the minor caveat that Costa Rica played two periods of extra-time.

There’s nothing too much to say about the trap, other than the fact the defenders worked excellently as a unit, stepping up extremely quickly. It’s difficult to remember an offside trap so successful since Jose Mourinho’s Porto side of 2004, who were similarly a defensive team, yet defended high up the pitch.

Costa Rica needed to defend well, because after bringing on Marco Urena for Campbell, they completely lacked an out-ball – Urena didn’t offer pace in behind, or hold-up play, and the Dutch pressure kept coming.

Formation switch

At half-time in extra-time, Van Gaal finally changed his formation, moving from a 3-4-3 to roughly a 4-2-4, with Martins Indi off, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar on upfront.

It felt like this change was a long time coming, considering the Dutch played with an unnecessary defender for so long – but they seemed completely destabilised defensively by the switch. Costa Rica had more chances in the final 15 minutes than in the previous hour – so perhaps the extra defender had been needed.

Krul for Cillessen

Then came the most famous substitution of this World Cup, with Van Gaal making a 119th minute substitution to switch his goalkeeper, bringing on Tim Krul for Jasper Cillessen. It actually seemed very risky to introduce Krul quite so late – had Costa Rica been able to retain possession for about a minute, the Netherlands wouldn’t have had time to make the change…

This type of goalkeeper switch isn’t an entirely new idea, and makes perfect sense. The peculiar thing, though, is that Krul doesn’t have a particularly good record at saving penalties. He’s saved just 10% of penalties faced in the last five seasons, whereas the Netherlands’ other reserve goalkeeper, Michel Vorm, has saved 27%.

Perhaps the main impact of the change was psychological:┬áKrul isn’t a penalty specialist, but the late switch probably convinced Costa Rica he was. This still doesn’t explain why Vorm wasn’t used instead, with Van Gaal simply saying, “We all thought Tim was the best keeper to stop penalties. He is taller and has a longer reach.”

It was clear, too, that Krul had a gameplan for the penalties. As the taker walked towards him, Krul always ventured out of his goal, generally walking to one side. Whether this had any significance or not is difficult to tell, but with the exception of the first penalty (when he didn’t walk to one side), the direction Krul walked was always the opposite direction to where he dived, and also to where the taker put the penalty.

He dived the right way each time, saving two kicks, and putting the Dutch through to a semi-final.


More formation tinkering from Van Gaal, although this time it wasn’t entirely successful. The Dutch dominated the game in terms of possession, but this was because they had too many players in defence, who passed the ball between them without being pressured, and without moving it quickly into midfield. The formation change late on seemed the logical attacking move, but it nearly backfired.

Costa Rica have been a revelation at this tournament. From the 32 countries, they seemed to have the least chance of getting out of their group – not because they were a poor side, but because the opposition was so strong. Instead, they’ve reached the quarter-finals, were penalties away from the semi-finals, and end the tournament unbeaten. Their defensive organisation, combined with tactical flexibility, meant they caused bigger sides real problems, and regardless of what happens with the four sides still standing, Pinto should be regarded as the manager of the tournament.

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