Players laud van Gaal's masterstrokeComment on this story
London - They used to call him the ‘Iron Tulip’ in Holland, a reference to a perceived inflexibility as well as a rigid self-confidence. As he prepares to head to the Barclays Premier League, however, they are going to have to come up with some new names for Louis van Gaal.
During the three-and-a half weeks of this World Cup in Brazil, the Dutch manager has emerged as one of the international game’s great innovators.
His rotation of formations, tactics and his use of substitutes had grabbed the world’s attention even before his remarkable decision to throw reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul into Saturday night’s penalty shoot-out at Arena Fonte Nova.
The only people who don’t seem to be the slightest bit surprised by any of this are his players.
“I think you need to look at his resume,” said former Manchester City midfield player Nigel de Jong late on Saturday night.
“He is a fantastic coach and I really do think he is one of a kind. Certainly he is in terms of his tactical changes and the calls he makes during games. That is all new to me.”
Great managers make ordinary players do great things and they make great players even better. It’s that simple and Van Gaal is ticking the boxes.
For example, he has turned Dirk Kuyt from a fading centre forward into perhaps the most industrious wing back the international game has ever seen. Arjen Robben, meanwhile, looks ready to win a World Cup on his own while Wesley Sneijder found something of his 2010 self almost from nowhere against Costa Rica.
It is often too easy to talk about squads with great togetherness and a sense of purpose. They all say they have it.
Here in Brazil, though, I have watched Holland - often so fractured at big tournaments - progress through this World Cup and now recognise a group of players not just committed to their manager, but also tuned into his methods almost sub-consciously.
“We have a superb trainer,” said Robben. “He is a coach who works magic like this all the time. He is the king.
“Nobody knew about what he was going to do before the shootout apart from himself and one goalkeeper.”
Van Gaal’s decision to send on Krul for the penalties was perhaps a psychological trick as much as anything. Neither he nor indeed Dutch No 1 Jasper Cillessen have a particularly good record in shootouts.
It is also a trick that has been used by coaches before. Never has it been tried when the stakes are so high, though. Had it failed, Van Gaal’s critics in the Netherlands - and he does have them - would have loaded their bullets and released the safety catch.
Perhaps this is part of Van Gaal’s brilliance. Rarely has there been a coach so seemingly unfazed by opinion. It would be wrong to say the 62-year-old is oblivious because he clearly hears and sees absolutely everything.
With Van Gaal, though, the feathers are seldom ruffled and the effect this has on his players is noticeable.
“He has shown in many countries that he can do this job, but he has also convinced the players that his way can be successful and I think that is the key,” said Kuyt. ‘We believe in him. He is calm so we are calm.’
Certainly, this is not the most gifted Dutch squad we have seen. Bert van Marwijk’s team four years ago was perhaps more talented.
This one, though, is increasingly fuelled by the belief that anything may just be possible here.
In Robben they have the star of the tournament. The Bayern winger was sensational on Saturday and, on another night, would have led Holland to the comfortable victory much of their football deserved. His courage in the face of rudimentary Costa Rica tackling was admirable and should be remembered next time we criticise him for falling down too easily.
The form of Robin van Persie, meanwhile, may worry Van Gaal a little ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final with Argentina in Sao Paulo. The Manchester United striker is short on timing and confidence, though he was still man enough to take Holland’s first penalty.
But then again, does Van Gaal really worry about anything? If he does, he is hiding it well.
“He has made us believe,” said De Jong. “And if you don’t have belief, you will not reach anything.”