Tuesday 9 September 2014

No Substitute for a Winning Strategy, Louis!?

As the number of countries qualifying for the next EURO Cup is to increase by no less than 50(!)%, it is, sadly, undue to pay any heed to the qualifiers: whoever wants to participate – except for Gibraltar – can and will. So I prefer to come back to one of the most striking moments at this summer’s World Cup, i.e. the rabbit staying inside van Gaal’s hat during Nederland's semi-final against Argentina.

As most will remember, during Oranje’s quarterfinal against Costa Rica, right before the shootout, van Gaal had come up with the unseen move of substituting the penalty-inapt Cillessen by the gigantic Krul. And the ploy paid off big time. Krul turned out to be not just a talisman but truly exceptional at saving penalties, diving into the right corner at every occasion and saving two. Nothing short of an epiphany. Costa Rica’s Navas was elected man of the match, but would not be the goalie to be remembered from that game. Van Gaal had once more proved himself a tactical mastermind, unbound by convention.

In the next round match, the semi-final against Argentina, it again came to penalties. But this time, there was no substitution left once penalties had become inevitable. Oranje's secret weapon was to remain shackled on the bench – and soon to exit the tournament. Cillessen, who reportedly had never saved a penalty in his professional career, did not manage to stop one that night either, bringing his personal penalty performance at 0/17.

Source: welt.de

As van Gaal explained after the game, “If I had had the opportunity to substitute Jasper [Cillessen] I would have done that but I had already used three substitutes so I couldn’t do that. I thought it was necessary to get van Persie out because he was on his last legs… My feeling was that Huntelaar would make the goal.” So van Gaal presents it as if there wasn't any space for him to maneuver. Accepting the premise that van Persie was “on his last legs”, substituting him apparently meant that it was ruled out for Krul to save the day.

Was that necessarily so, though? When van Persie was brought off, there were still 25 minutes on the clock. However, once in extra time, a shootout becomes more than a remote probability. In fact, since the adoption of penalty shootouts by FIFA in 1976, out of the 43 World Cup games that had gone into extra time, 25 (so 58%) went into shootouts.

I will argue that with Cillessen Nederland hardly stood any chance of winning a shootout at the '14 WC anymore. Several years of conducting research into penalty shootouts, together with Profs. Govert Vroom (IESE) and Brian McCann (Vanderbilt University), have helped me to appreciate the role played by psychological pressure in these events. In terms of skill, there is typically not much that separates the sides at such a level and small differences in the pressure experienced and pressure-handling abilities are likely to amplify. 

If your goalkeeper tends not to be very good at stopping penalties, this is usually not a big deal, as the pressure is on the kicker. However, given van Gaal’s move in the previous game, it was now all too clear to everybody – not in the least Cillessen himself, his teammates and the opposition – that this particular goalkeeper was so lame – incapable even – of stopping a spot kick, one would not just contemplate the bold move, but actually go as far as having him substituted, if possible. Talking about taking off the edge for the Argentine kickers. And reminding the Dutch ones of the likely outcome in case of a miss.

The crux of the problem was that it had effectively become impossible for van Gaal to return to the status quo of before his substitution of Cillessen in the quarterfinal, when Cillessen had been “exposed”. Starting a shootout with the Ajax goalie thereafter would be nothing short of suicide. The hapless Dutch nr. 1 further accentuated his helplessness during the semi-final shootout by attempting to mimick Krul’s intimidation tactics – an unconvincing performance to say the least. Van Gaal could have realised that his substituting Cillessen in the previous game was a double-edged sword and that fielding him in a shootout later on in the tournament now simply was no longer a viable option.

Now, let’s revisit van Gaal’s comments. Again taking for granted that van Persie was actually “on his last legs”, did this necessarily imply doom for the Dutch team? Far from it. At least two alternative options remained open, in fact:

Option 1. Check whether van Persie, (one of) Oranje’s most proficient penalty kicker(s), would be up for kicking a penalty, despite his tired legs. In case he's up to the task, take him off and continue the game with ten men. Playing with one man less indeed implies you are just hoping to reach the shootout, but it is far from certain you wouldn’t manage to (e.g. out of the 12 World Cup games, since 1976, where a team that had been or had come to be a man down during extra time, only twice did this team lose during extra time. One of those instances, however, happened to be Nederland losing the 2010 World Cup final...). Under this option, replace Cillessen by Krul at the very end; van Persie takes a penalty.

Option 2. Van Persie is not up for taking a penalty. You substitute him by Krul, who enters as a field player. The task of Krul during extra time would be to stay out of trouble and be there at corners (he’s 193 cm). During Oranje’s training camp in Brazil, Krul had actually already acted as a field player. Psychologically, it would also be a constant reminder for the Argentines of what they had coming as the clock was ticking away. Come the final whistle, Krul would just pick up his gloves – no need for Cillessen to be substituted. Downside is that neither van Persie nor Huntelaar would be eligible to kick a penalty.

Hard to judge from a distance whether van Persie was up for a penalty. But it would always be either one of these alternative options for me – too young to die. Of course, we have the advantage of hindsight. What would you have done had you been in Louis's shoes?