As always, match data from Stats Zone, except average position locations from ESPN FC.
Two managers and teams cancel each other out tactically, then one manager springs a psychological surprise in the penalty shoot-out.
Van Gaal knew his side had to be patient, keeping possession in defense and on the flanks, passing, poking, and prodding. The Netherlands didn't take a shot until the 20th minute despite constant possession. All four of their first half shots were on-target, seven of their 10 shots in normal time were on-target. Costa Rica weren't allowing many chances, but the Netherlands did well to get decent chances, denied by excellent keeping yet again from Keylor Navas. Holland didn't become desperate until extra-time, firing 10 shots from every angle – the same amount in the final 30 minutes as in the previous 90 minutes – with only one of the ten requiring a save (two were off-target, seven were blocked, but two also hit the frame of the goal).
Yes, the Netherlands is a vastly more-talented team, but that they didn't win in normal time is no slight on the side or van Gaal. Costa Rica allowed just one open play goal in this World Cup, in 510 minutes against Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece, and the Netherlands, and that was with 10 men: Greece's scrambled rebound equalizer in injury time in the last round. Navas was immense yet again, making seven saves, while Los Ticos also rode their luck, with Holland hitting the woodwork three times, with one of those woodwork strikes scrambled off the line by Tejada.
Costa Rica caught the opposition offsides 41 times this tournament; it happened to Holland 13 times yesterday. Only two other teams caught their opponents offsides more than 13 times in the entire tournament: Germany on 17 occasions, the USA on 15. In Costa Rica's previous matches, Uruguay were caught offside six times, Italy 11, England just once (Hodgeball!), and Greece 10 times. That's an offside trap that even makes Villas-Boas drool in delight, made much more impressive because it's happened in international competition, where managers have much less time to drill their players compared to when with their clubs.
And van Gaal's 3-4-3 system did well to deny the counter-attacks which saw Costa Rica beat Uruguay and Italy. Los Ticos took just six shots, and put just one of those six shots on target – Ureña's fast break with just three minutes remaining, smartly denied by Cillessen. Costa Rica were allowed just two danger zone shots, both from set plays and both off-target, the Dutch defenders doing just enough to prevent a clear chance.
So I guess it's fitting that the match was decided by a quirky decision from van Gaal, switching to backup keeper Tim Krul for the shootout. Full credit where due. I absolutely hated the move when it happened – maybe it's the former keeper in me, who'd be beyond furious to be removed at that point; maybe I'm just reactionary, as it's something that almost never happens. It's no surprise that van Gaal's smarter than I am, and I guess it's not surprising that it worked. It's an impressive call even if just for the psychological advantage, but Krul, two inches taller than Cillessen, also guessed correctly on all five spot kicks, saving the two weakest from Ruiz and Umaña. All four of the Dutch spot kicks were unstoppably placed: van Persie and Kuyt stuck theirs directly into the low corners, Robben and Sneijder's were high enough to avoid Navas' dive.
And those are the small margins that decide such a tight contest. Costa Rica have been the surprise of the tournament, and deservedly so, expected by almost everyone to finish last in their group. Jorge Luis Pinto did a wonderful job. But, up against the toughest opposition they'd faced in this tournament, the Netherlands' talent and van Gaal's tactics were just enough, barely enough, to eke out a win in the end.