Win or lose Wednesday’s semifinal against Argentina, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal will leave the World Cup having firmly reinforced his reputation as a master tactician.
The manager in the rival dug-out, Alejandro Sabella has proved spectics wrong.
When he was handed the task of reviving Argentina’s fortunes after a poor campaign at the 2011 Copa America, not everyone in his homeland was convinced he was the right man.
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“I don’t know why they chose him,” said the country’s legendary 1978 World Cup-winning coach Cesar Menotti. “I don’t know what his project is.”
Manchester United fans must be feeling on excellent terms with themselves at the prospect of seeing the distinctive Van Gaal’s presence filling the Old Trafford dugout in a few weeks time.
But before he swops his orange tie for red to direct his prodigious grey matter to reviving United’s fortunes, van Gaal has unfinished business in Brazil.
After Holland’s 2-1 last 16 comeback win over Mexico van Gaal was hailed as the most tactically astute coach in the game by Dirk Kuyt.
The way van Gaal switched the former Liverpool forward between three positions in Fortaleza as circumstances required illustrated his thinking-out-of-the-box approach.
As did the way he exploited the cooling breaks in that match to make tactical switches.
But for sheer audacity it was hard to beat his switching of keepers to bring on Tim Krul for Saturday’s quarter-final penalty shoot-out — the Newcastle shot-stopper repaying the coach’s daring move by stopping two Costa Rican penalties, to put the Dutch in the semifinals.
A disciplinarian who has rarely lacked confidence in his own ability, van Gaal has won domestic titles and cups with Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Barcelona and Bayern Munich as well as guiding Ajax to Champions League glory.
He is not a man to suffer fools gladly.
On his United appointment the Dutch media offered their British cousins 10 tips to follow when interviewing the new United manager. “Congratulations on obtaining Louis van Gaal,” the advice began.
“From this moment on, you will be patronised, looked at with disdain, and haunted by a constant doubt if Mr. Van Gaal is flat out making fun of you or being dead serious.”
That’ll certainly make a difference to Moyes’ ever polite and apologetic turns in front of the press in his ill-fated spell as Alex Ferguson’s replacement.
“Bravo, you’ve signed the best coach in the world,” is what van Gaal is reported to have said after being promoted to head coach at Ajax in 1991. After his latest exploits in Brazil, United fans will be saying the same thing.
Sabella may not have the same aura of Van Gaal, but three years after his appointment as the South American country’s coach he is starting to look like a stroke of genius by his bosses at the Argentina FA as they prepare for their first World Cup semi-final since 1990.
Under Sabella — nicknamed El Mago (“the magician”) during his playing days — Argentina have developed into a formidable side that is again punching its weight.
They may have won all their matches by just one goal margins but they have shown a mental strength that was singularly lacking four years ago under the unpredictable Diego Maradona.
Some have queried if the team relies too much on four-time World Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi but if that is the case it only goes to prove that Sabella took the right decision when he took over at the helm by swiftly installing him as captain.
Unlike some of his predecessors Sabella has not hesitated to tailor his team in order to make the most of the four-time World Player of the Year’s talents.
The results have been spectacular, with Messi for the first time consistently producing his sparkling Barcelona form in Argentina’s famous colours, with four goals alone at the finals.
“He’s the water in the desert. He finds solutions when we think there aren’t any,” Sabella commented after the 1-0 win over Belgium in Saturday’s quarterfinal.
Sabella’s rise to the top job in Argentinian football was a long time in the making. He worked as an assistant to Daniel Passarella for several years, and was part of the Argentina coaching staff at the 1998 World Cup.
However it was not until Sabella was appointed Estudiantes manager in early 2009 that his coaching career took off. Within months he had guided them to the Copa Libertadores title, and followed up that success by taking the 2010 Apertura championship – effectively making him a shoo-in for the Argentina job in 2011.