Why Dutch coach abandoned winning goalkeeper strategy in World Cup semifinal loss

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SAO PAULO – With the Netherlands-Argentina semifinal heading into a penalty shootout here Wednesday, Tim Krul's mug flashed on the Jumbotron.

The backup goalkeeper's image immediately sent the crowd into a fever pitch as the Dutch (and Brazilian) fans thought it meant Krul would be subbing into the game to be their savior once again.

It was a cruel trick. The option wasn't even there.

A visibly fatigued Netherlands team couldn't keep pace in extra time and coach Louis van Gaal had to burn his third and last substitution in the 96th minute as striker Robin van Persie simply didn't have anything left in the tank. The resulting effect: Starting goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen remained on the field for the shootout, and the Argentines beat the Dutch 4-2 on penalties after a scoreless 120 minutes.

''The issue in a championship like this one is that you score one more goal than your opponent, which we didn't do,'' van Gaal said.

[Related: Argentina win shootout after first ever scoreless World Cup semifinal]

Krul was famously the hero of the Netherlands' quarterfinal win against Costa Rica on Saturday after van Gaal shrewdly devised a plan to sub him in just before the shootout. The strategy worked perfectly, and most assumed that'd be the plan moving forward: If the Netherlands pushed into a penalty-kick situation to decide the game, the shot-stopping specialist would be the man to get it done.

Jasper Cillessen looks back after Argentina's Maxi Rodriguez scored the winning penalty kick. (AP)
Jasper Cillessen looks back after Argentina's Maxi Rodriguez scored the winning penalty kick. (AP)

But with his first two substitutions burned on tactical moves and with an exhausted striker in extra time, van Gaal didn't have any choice but to use his last sub.

The coach offered little in the way of excuses after the match, reasoning that he made all of his substitutions according to how the game was playing out. Nor did he seem to have any regrets.

"I subbed in [Daryl] Janmaat for [Bruno Martins] Indi because of Indi's yellow card and because he was often slow or too late – too much space was created because of him," van Gaal said. "I subbed out [Nigel] de Jong because I didn't want to risk him getting injured and also because [Jordy] Clasie can play forward much better than him. I substituted van Persie because he was exhausted."

He continued: "Argentina is a top country with top players, but we didn't lose to them. Penalties are always just a matter of luck."

Luck may play a part, but skill and mental acuity factor in as well, and Cillessen had plenty of reason to doubt himself heading into Wednesday's penalty shootout.

Playing a starting goalkeeper in a shootout obviously isn't a damning scenario. It's what happens 99 percent of the time. But Krul's substitution in the quarterfinal against Costa Rica made the Netherlands' goalkeeping situation exponentially more complicated.

Strategically speaking, it was probably the right choice. At 6-foot-3 and with a lot of range, Krul's specialty is stopping shots from the spot. He showed how good he was on Saturday against the Costa Ricans, stopping two of the five penalties taken to advance his team to the next round of the World Cup.

Tim Krul (right) was the hero for the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. (AP)
Tim Krul (right) was the hero for the Netherlands in the quarterfinals. (AP)

But the switch also appeared to have a mental effect on Cillessen.

[Gallery: World Cup semifinal - Netherlands vs. Argentina]

On Sunday, the starting goalkeeper had said he was "angry" that his coach had taken him out just before the penalty shootout – something that was pretty evident in the moment on Saturday, as well, when the 25-year-old kicked water bottles in a tantrum on his way off the field.

"I wanted to play," Cillessen said in a news conference on Sunday. "But the coach made the decision. And that was better for the team."

The two goalkeepers were supportive of one another, with Krul even going so far as to say there was "no jealousy" within the group. At the same time, it was revealed Sunday that van Gaal and goalkeeper coach Frans Hoek had planned the strategy all along and clued in Krul just to have him mentally ready if the Costa Rica match went to a shootout. They also told him not to tell Cillessen.

Between the tactical switch and the secrecy behind it, it'd be easy to understand if Cillessen wasn't perfect mentally when Lionel Messi and Co. were lining up against him with a trip to the final on the line.

All the more reason to save a substitute and stick with the tried and true, right? Van Gaal always has his prerogatives though, and at the end of the day, the Netherlands had a chance to make the final in a penalty shootout.

But whether another late substitution of Krul would've been the difference in the Dutch playing on Sunday in the final instead of Saturday in the third-place game, we'll never know.

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