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Louis van Gaal's Tactics

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Neal Thurman takes a comprehensive look at the weekend that was in the Premier League with looks at the …

Many teams have much to be excited about with the season approaching, but one of the biggest acquisitions of the summer won’t be seen on the pitch.  Instead, Louis van Gaal will be roaming the sidelines of Old Trafford.  The Dutch mastermind is a proven manager with a solid track record and I want to look at some great decisions he made during the World Cup that support that view.

I believe Louis van Gaal will be a great manager in the Premier League and decisions like those outlined below are the reason Manchester are paying £7million a year for his services.

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High Press Against Spain

No one really expected the Netherlands to beat Spain in their first World Cup match.  Most sports books had Spain at slightly better than even odds while the Netherlands were anywhere from 4-1 to 6-1 odds to win the match.  Despite that, the Dutch came out and destroyed Spain 5-1.  Many placed the blame on Spain instead of giving credit to the Netherlands.  And yes, Spain did play a striker in Diego Costa who didn’t fit their style and they did play two defensive midfielders in Busquets and Xabi Alonso that again didn’t fit what they wanted to do but one must also credit Louis van Gaal. 

Most teams defend Spain’s possession style by defending really deep and in turn trying to possess the ball once they win it back in order to prevent Spain from long possession spells. Van Gaal did the exact opposite.  He pressed really high, something we can see HERE (heat mat from Squawka showing the positions of Netherlands’ three center-backs).  Pressing high was a big risk, but it worked out for LvG.  On top of the high press, he instructed his players to counter quickly and hit Spain with the long ball.  Usually, you’d expect a team featuring three center-backs and two wing-backs to get up the pitch and cross the ball to a target man(a great on in Robin van Persie), but instead, they countered quick with long passes and through balls.  According to Michael Caley, the Dutch wing-backs had four through balls, nine long balls, and four crosses.  Two of those long balls from Daley Blind ended up as assists.  The experiment was a risky one for van Gaal, but it worked better than anyone expected.  Van Gaal 1, Spain 0.

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The Three Forwards

In the group stage matches, the Netherlands had generally gone with a 5-3-2 or a 3-5-2, whatever you want to call it.  You had three center-backs, two wing-backs, three central midfielders, and two strikers in Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.  You can clearly see it was a two-striker look if you look at the official FIFA tactical maps for the Netherlands’ first three matches (vs Spain, vs Australia, and vs Chile).  The same lineup came out against Mexico, but Mexico’s three-man back-line gave the Netherlands problems.  According to, in the first 75 minutes, the Netherlands had 41 dangerous attacks to Mexico’s 28.  On top of that, Mexico had 11 attempts to the Netherlands’ 10.  It wasn’t that they were getting dominated, but the game was close and Mexico was ahead 1-0.  During the 75th minute water break, van Gaal changed the Dutch formation to include three forwards, effectively changing the game.  You can clearly see the transformation on the ESPN tactical cam.  The results were positive once again.  In the last 15 minutes, the Netherlands had seven dangerous attacks to Mexico’s one and also had four times as many attempts.  They scored two late goals and were on to the quarterfinals. 

On top of changing the match against Mexico, Louis van Gaal decided to go with three forwards against Costa Rica’s three-man lineup as well.  He introduced Memphis Depay into the starting lineup, playing him as a left forward.  The three-forward look can again be easily seen on the ESPN tactical cam and it caused problems for Costa Rica.  The match ended 0-0, but the Netherlands dominated from start to finish and were clearly the better team.  According to, the Netherlands had 69 dangerous attacks to Costa Rica’s 33, also leading in total attempts 20 to 6 and enjoying 64% of the possession.  The Netherlands didn’t outright win, but van Gaal had it his way.

The Goalkeeper Swap

In that same match against Costa Rica, van Gaal decided to use his third and final substitution to bring on reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul in the final minute of extra time so he can partake in the penalty shootout.  It was a widely criticized decision as it happened, but it turned out to be the right one as Krul saved two penalties to send the Netherlands onto the semi-finals.  A few things on the decision:

  • Everyone mentioned how Krul had only saved 2 of his last 20 penalties.  First of all, Jasper Cillessen has never saved a penalty in his professional career.  Second of all, I’m a big believer that a goalkeepers’ ability to stop penalties can be better determined on film and in practice than by looking at a sample size of 20 penalties.
  • The other point I wanted to make is that the penalty shootout is a big mind game.  By introducing a substitute keeper, van Gaal is putting doubt into the Costa Rica’s strikers that have studied Cillessen for days before the match.  In a penalty shootout, even a small doubt can be enough for a striker to miss. 
  • We saw what happened Cillessen had to face penalties in the ensuing match, he saved zero.
  • At the end of the day, it was a great decision that had a lot of different effects which in turn resulted in a win.

Manchester’s Future

Manchester United have a manager here that isn’t afraid of the big moment.  He substituted his best striker, Robin van Persie, against Mexico with 15 minutes to go and it proved to be exactly what the Netherlands needed.  Substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored and assisted for the win.  Sometimes, that’s important at a team like Manchester.  David Moyes was afraid of making the controversial move as he hadn’t yet proved himself on the biggest stage.  That hurt Manchester as they were often too predictable and one-dimensional.  The Red Devils are not competing in the Champions League next season and van Gaal can solely focus on the Premier League.  With a revamped squad and a new manager, they can easily get back to their title winning ways.  Welcome back, Manchester, welcome back.

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