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As the Dutch beat Costa Rica in the shootout, all praise has gone to Tim Krul and his heroics. But his performance wasn’t a lucky one, it was a well planned approach to winning. Nikhil Krishna examines it here.
The phrase “I’ve seen it all” is perhaps too easily tossed around in Football. But Netherlands’ penalties victory over Costa Rica was perhaps the only occasion thus far where the phrase would be apt. Almost 120 minutes wasn’t enough for the Netherlands to break the resolute Costa Ricans and the game looked destined to be determined on the “lottery” that is penalty shoot out. In the dying minutes of extra time, Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal did almost the unthinkable, taking off goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and replacing him with reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul. The change was met with widespread bewilderment, understandably so considering that Cillessen was neither carrying any injury of any sorts, nor had he had a bad game in any respect, having made a number of good stops throughout. This was a genuine tactical substitution, quite unlike anything ever seen before at this level of the game. Sure, there have been many outfield substitutions for penalty specialists, but for a goalkeeper to come on is virtually unheard of. Krul seemed fully prepared and studied; going on to win the shootout for the Netherlands with a couple of brilliant saves, thereby vindicating Van Gaal’s brave substitution.
The goalkeeper is perhaps the least tactically affected person on the football pitch. Sure, the likes of talented sweeper-keepers such as Manuel Neuer and Hugo Lloris play a key part in a team’s tactics, but a goalkeeper is hardly ever substituted or dropped for tactical purposes. The reserve goalkeeper on the substitute’s bench cuts an unfortunate figure, gaining his only opportunity from his peer’s injuries or bad form. It wouldn’t be too much of a falsity saying that he’s rather unwanted when things are going well, occupying a valuable substitution spot only for the fear of an injury. They were so unwanted that back in 2005-06 Neil Warnock’s then Premiership side Sheffield United almost sparked the death of the understudy goalkeeper, by utilizing defender Phil Jagielka as a part time goalkeeper, giving the manager much needed tactical options on the bench (League rules then limited the number of substitutes to 5). The idea didn’t quite catch on after 7 substitutes were once again allowed on the bench.
Strangely enough, Van Gaal can hardly take credit for being the first man to make such a change. There have been several occasions of substituting a goalkeeper on intentionally, but all of them remain relatively obscure. The Guardian’s well titled series called “The knowledge” on football queries once covered the same topic way back in 2005.
The piece enlightened me on quite a few instances of such substitutions. Take, for example the 2004 African Champions League final between Enyimba FC of Nigeria and Tunisian side Etoile Sahel which went to penalties after the two-legged tie finished 3-3. Off came Vincent Enyeama (yes the very present day Nigerian keeper), with penalty specialist Dele Aiyenugba taking his place. Aiyenugba duly saved Ben Frej’s effort as Enyimba prevailed 5-3 and retained their crown. Incredibly, Enyimba had done exactly the same thing in the semi-finals against another Tunisian side, Esperance, where Aiyenugba saved two penalties and saw two others missed.
But it must be said that the modern day pioneer when it comes to meticulously planning and taking the unpredictability equation out of the lottery is none other than current Napoli manager Rafael Benitez (Fact!). The tactical mastermind is even today loved with great affection on Merseyside, having served as Liverpool FC’s manager for over 6 years. He will always be remembered for masterminding the “Miracle of Istanbul” in the 2005 Champions league final, leading Liverpool to a penalty shoot out victory over AC Milan after having been seemingly down and out at half time with a 3-0 scoreline against them. Here’s an excerpt from his fantastically insightful book on his years at Liverpool titled “Champions League Dreams”.
“It’s easy to say that penalties are a lottery, are all down to luck, but that is deeply unfair. All managers, goalkeepers and goalkeeping coaches prepare for penalty shootouts. An enormous amount of work goes into those ten kicks, for and against.
We knew where we thought Milan’s players would aim. We had examined the last half dozen penalties taken by each player and divided the goal into six areas. Each area was given a number. From the goalkeeper’s point of view, one is the top right corner, two down the middle and high, three top left. Four is bottom left, five low and central, six along the ground to the right.
Each penalty was annotated with the corresponding number. We had a list for each player -no easy feat, given that in a penalty shootout players who very occasionally take spot kicks would be called into action. This is information I have been compiling since I was 26, for almost thirty years and it is something my coaches- first Manuel Ochotorena then Xavi Valero are assiduous in doing. It’s years of research as a dedicated team which can sometimes help you make your own luck.
Once we submitted the penalty takers making sure Dudek (Liverpool’s goalkeeper at the time) knew the numbers was my primary concern. We had shown him on a laptop prior to the game, had explained where every likely taker could be expected to aim, but under such circumstances, it is understandable they sometimes forget. As each Milan player walked forward, Ochotorena was frantically signalling to him where to go.”
It’s safe to say the only thing that wasn’t planned by Benitez was Dudek’s wobbly legged theatrics, an idea which Jamie Carrahager gave him, one inspired by legendary former Reds keeper Bruce Grobbelaar’s own antics at the 1980 European cup final shootout against Roma. Whatever the preparation was, it worked as Liverpool won 3-2.
Almost as meticulous as Benitez, Louis Van Gaal planned this substitution well before hand after he and his team worked with Krul in a similar manner. It has emerged that goalkeeping coach, Frans Hoek, suggested making the change and Van Gaal agreed. This planning was well reflected in the penalty shootout as Krul amazingly managed to “Guess” right every kick. While Dudek’s wobbly legged antics were a great mind game, Krul on this occasion had a couple of tricks up his sleeve too. Before every penalty kick he faced, he walked up to the kick taker and apparently told them that he knew where they were aiming for. The move seemed to psych them out and made them understandably even more nervous. It wasn’t just that though, here’s an extremely observant and interesting image.
He seemed to have mentally outplayed the Costa Ricans, and as everyone will tell you, in a penalty shootout once you’ve lost your head, you’re always going to mess up.
Krul was well and truly the game-changer and all the credit must rightly go to Van Gaal and his staff. To throw a goalkeeper (usually the calmer person during a shootout) directly into the game for just 5 spot kicks was always going to be an incredible gamble considering it would add the weight of expectations onto the goalkeeper. Tim Krul is also hardly a “penalty saving specialist” having just saved 2 out of the last 20 penalties he faced. In addition this was going to be his first competitive game in over two months. It was certainly harsh on Jasper Cillessen who was left in the dark about the whole set up and understandably threw a fit on being subbed out. But Cillessen is assured a place by Van Gaal for the semi-finals despite his understudy’s heroics.
“We often don’t celebrate tactics with keepers, but Van Gaal’s decision to throw Krul on was perfect. Krul has studied the Costa Rican penalty takers all week, he jumped the right way for each penalty, that’s the use of data analysis in football at it’s finest. Football isn’t simple. It’s complex. It’s beautiful.”