The big story from the last quarter-final of the World Cup is, of course, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal and his substitution in the last seconds of extra time. Bringing on Newcastle’s Tim Krul to face Costa Rica’s penalties instead of Jasper Cillessen has been hailed as a stroke of genius from the man who will be in charge of reviving Manchester United after the shambolic performance of David Moyes.
Van Gaal claimed after the game that it was Krul’s greater height and reach which persuaded him to make the substitution that many have seen as clinching the game for the Dutch. Even the Costa Ricans agree, midfielder Celso Borges saying ‘They were right, he did his job.’
But was it really the moment of genius everyone seems to believe it was? I’m not so sure.
Firstly, if we look at Krul’s record against penalties, it’s not all that great. Last season at Newcastle he faced five penalties and failed to stop a single one. This isn’t to say that Cillessen is a penalty maestro – he saved zero out of one at Ajax last season – but Krul’s sample size is a bit bigger, if still pathetically small. Either way, Krul doesn’t exactly have a reputation for saving penalties (like, say, Joe Hart used to).
So how did he do on the night? On the face of it, his performance justified van Gaal’s decision to bring him on – he saved two penalties and the Netherlands got through to the semi-finals. But if you look at the numbers, Krul’s performance was far from exceptional.
There have been 25 penalty shootouts at the World Cup since the first one in 1982 (West Germany beat France 5-4 in the semis, if you’re interested). Of the 50 goalkeepers that have been involved, only 12 have failed to make a single save. So, on the basis of pure statistics, a goalkeeper – any goalkeeper – has a 76% chance of making at least one save in a World Cup shootout. To put it another way, the odds were heavily in favour of the Dutch keeper making a save, whether it was Krul or Cillessen, especially given neither is especially noted for being good at saving penalties.
But Krul made two saves. In the end, he only actually needed to make one but it’s always nice to have a bit of security. The chances of that happening are 46%, so a shade less than even. However, the last penalty he saved, from Umana, he actually had an even higher chance with. If you’re taking a penalty that you need to score to keep your team in the competition, your chances of scoring are a staggering 14.2%. In other words, Krul had an 85.8% chance of saving Umana’s penalty, having already saved Ruiz’s earlier. Add to that the fact that Umana’s penalty was a poor one – slow and low – and Krul didn’t exactly beat the odds.
That’s the numbers bit, which suggests that Krul did about as well as could be expected of any World Cup keeper and didn’t really contribute anything special in that department. But what about psychology?
This is a little bit harder to quantify. Yes, Krul certainly did his best to get inside the Costa Ricans’ heads, but that’s not something specific to him. Anyone can do a bit of sledging along the lines of ‘I’ve seen your videos, I know where you’re going’, you don’t need Krul for that.
Maybe you could argue that it took a lot of the pressure off the Dutch penalty takers as, if it all went wrong, it would be van Gaal’s fault and not theirs.
But I don’t buy that. Firstly, it piles the pressure onto Krul. Normally, there is absolutely no pressure on the goalkeeper – players are expected to score penalties, so if the keeper concedes nothing remarkable happened and if he saves it, he’s a hero. But Krul was being brought on specifically to deal with penalties, which puts all the expectation back on him.
I also don’t believe that the Dutch players would have been all that relaxed anyway. It’s the ultimate test of nerves, you’re utterly alone and still, in the back of their minds, would be the understanding that people expect them to score. That doesn’t go away with one last gasp substitution. Maybe it will help players deal with it afterwards but at the time, with millions watching them and the added pressure of wanting to back up their manager’s big call with a performance, the pressure is still huge.
In the end, the thing to remember is that nothing really remarkable happened last night. Krul made one good save and one easy one that he had a very high chance of making. The odds were either in his favour or, at the very least, not stacked against him and he performed in line with him.
What this says about van Gaal is that he’s a gambler, but not a particularly skillful one. Yes, it paid off, but he didn’t significantly increase his team’s chances with his big decision. The guy at the roulette table who puts his life’s savings on red and wins isn’t a genius, he’s just lucky.
Don’t believe the hype.