Why did Van Gaal gamble in the penalties?

The penalty shootout can be seen as a goalkeeper’s dream

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Many questions are being raised about the motivation behind Dutch manager van Gaal’s decision to bring in Tim Krul to replace Jasper Cillessen in the final minutes of extra time. To many of the people watching, the replacement at the very end of extra time was unusual and even mind-boggling.

No matter his reasons, the gamble certainly worked: the Netherlands advanced to the semifinals, while Costa Rica is going home.

The more one attempts to dissect the reasoning behind Van Gaal’s decision, the more fascinating it becomes. What really was behind the daring decision by the Dutch skipper? Why would he spare a substitution until the very end of the game? It may just be that Van Gaal, renowned strategist and highly regarded coach that he is, had kept that card up his sleeve in case the game was going to go into a shootout.


The penalty shootout can be seen as a goalkeeper’s dream. In a sense, the psychological pressure and the onus to score are on the kicker. It is always expected that the kicker should score, so the goalkeeper does not have the obligation to save any particular penalty kick. Anything the goalkeeper does is seen as added bonus.

Because of this dynamic, the penalty shootout is a golden opportunity for the goalkeeper to emerge from the game as the savior of the match. Júlio César, the Brazilian goalkeeper, was hailed as a messiah in Brazil following his ultimate performance in the penalty shootout against Chile, when he closed down the house and defended two shots.

A goalkeeper has a unique position in a team. On the pitch, most of the time he is alone, at a distance from the rest of play. It can be lonely at times. But at the same time, he is in a critical position, and how he performs is a key determinant of the outcome of a game. No one ricochets between Heaven and Hell more than a goalkeeper. If he makes a daring save to win the game, he is the savior, but if he fails, he is the scapegoat. Because his fate can shift so abruptly, the goalkeeper can be in a psychologically volatile position.

Van Gaal’s gamble may have undermined his first keeper and placed at risk his psychological integrity by taking him out right before the penalty shootout

Ricardo Guerra

Thus Van Gaal’s gamble may have undermined his first keeper and placed at risk his psychological integrity by taking him out right before the penalty shootout. Jasper Cillessen, the first keeper, may have interpreted the move as a lack of confidence in his performance. He may have felt his chance of glory usurped at the last minute after all his effort throughout the course of the game. Obviously, at the moment we can only speculate about Cillessen’s reaction and its repercussions. It will be interesting to note how Van Gaal’s decision impacts Cillessen’s performance in the semifinals against Argentina next Tuesday—if he is even chosen to be the starter.

Nevertheless, Tim Krul’s entrance right before the penalty shootout worked in unsettling the Costa Rican players. The “Wall of China” stature of the 6’4” goalkeeper, who plays for Newcastle United, may have made the goal seem smaller in the eyes of the opposition than it really was.

The Central American players must have been wondering why all of a sudden this guy was put in to replace the number one keeper. There is no way those players were not worrying about what Krul had up his sleeve for them. It can be a very long walk for a kicker from center field to the penalty box.


We also know that Krul used psychological warfare on the Costa Rican players who were chosen to take the penalty kicks for their side. He was constantly taunting them and specifically telling them that he knew where they were going to place their kicks. From the moment he walked on the pitch, his presence exuded confidence that may have spilled over to his own team and served as a weapon against the opposition. The strategy worked, and it was clear from some of the Costa Rican players’ body language that they were unsettled.

But there may be one explanation for Van Gaal’s strategic decision that has not received a lot of attention. And it may have to do more with science than anything else.

When Tim Krul entered the game, he had to be the least fatigued player on the field. His physiological capacity—more specifically, his reaction time and the amount of power he could generate—had to be at their peak. Any player, goalkeeper included, who has played a whole match of football will find that his power is compromised at the end of the game.

It is a normal outcome resulting from the physiological stress of the match. Krul’s intact power, coupled with his reaction time, offered the Dutch the perfect combination, the best opportunity to challenge the Costa Rican players. As everyone witnessed, he rightly guessed where the kickers would place their shots. His intact maximum power gave him the ability to launch himself with tremendous speed to his left side, where he was able to block the shots that allowed his team to advance to the semifinals.

In the end, the Costa Rican players were not dragged to their knees. There was no need, because they were in that position from the very beginning of the penalty shootout. The Dutch had been standing all along.

Ricardo Guerra is an exercise physiologist. His articles have appeared in several international publications in five different languages, and his writing covers topics related to medicine, science and sports. He has a Masters of Science in sports physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several clubs and teams in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams.

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