Take note of visionary Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands’ match-winning manager

While matches have taken a nervy turn, fans of the Dutch master dare not look away for a second, writes Ian Hawkey

Robin van Persie celebrates with coach Louis van Gaal after scoring against Spain. Manu Fernandez / AP Photo
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When Louis van Gaal was head coach at Barcelona, he became known for his “libreta”, his notebook.

He has always been a diligent scribbler on the bench, a pen and paper man, not a new-technology notetaker. The habit is still with him, a dozen years after he last worked at Camp Nou.

Back then, the “libreta” was sometimes taken as a symbol of Van Gaal’s overzealous obedience to certain dogmas, of a stubborn determination that the commandments in his book of the game were the only ones that counted, the sole laws to obey.

But right now, as Van Gaal prepares his Netherlands team for a World Cup semi-final, many are those who would like to glimpse the notes he has taken over the last four weeks, and look at them for clues, diagrams, ideas that support the notion he is anything but a rigid follower of preordained ideas, but, rather, a brilliant improviser.

Van Gaal’s notes are classified, they may in fact be indecipherable to anybody but King Louis, but the thinking behind them has been made open to all.

Van Gaal has enjoyed being celebrated for his tactical alterations, his apparent adaptability and quick-thinking during the World Cup and relished the praise his decisive substitutions has drawn.

“What did you see?” he asked a reporter in a press conference after the Netherlands had beaten Mexico, the first of two narrow, taut Dutch victories in the knockout phase of the tournament.

Van Gaal then went on to explain what we the audience may not not have seen, which was a visionary in the technical area, second-guessing the opposition, finding the right system to undo them, the right changes at the right times.

Van Gaal does not do false modesty. He draws attention to the coach as an enabler, match-winner, as the most sensitive diviner of micro-climatic shifts in the circumstances of a game.

One of his achievements at this World Cup is to have boasted loudly in public without, apparently, alienating his players.

Footballers generally thrive on being given credit, lauded by their boss, and though Van Gaal has not been mean with his public expressions of support for all of them – and 21 of the squad have all been given minutes on the pitch – his self-congratulation has been very conspicuous.

The game-changing interventions of Van Gaal are already the established shorthand by which the rungs of the ladder the Netherlands have climbed in Brazil are described.

After the defending champions, Spain, were toppled 5-1 in Holland's opening fixture, for which Van Gaal had altered the formation he mostly used in qualifying to something closer to a 3-5-2 scheme, he confronted an Australia who took the lead against the Dutch.

At half time, he adapted his personnel: four at the back again, and a speedy substitute who proved decisive, Memphis Depay. Against Chile, there would several changes to the XI, and some surprises. Dirk Kuyt, a centre-forward for most of his long career, played as a sort of wing-back.

Against Mexico, Kuyt occupied three very distinct roles in the course of another comeback from behind.

A very late substitute, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar set up the first goal, and scored the second in a 2-1 win.

The flourish came last Saturday, at 0-0 after 119 minutes against Costa Rica: A fresh goalkeeper, Tim Krul, introduced for the penalty shoot-out.

Krul dived the right way for all the Costa Rican spot-kicks, and saved two of them. “He has the longer reach,” explained Van Gaal of his decision to being on Krul for Jasper Cilessen, who can expect to be restored to the XI against Argentina. “I was a bit proud of the idea to bring him on.”

Can Van Gaal’s resourcefulness, imagination and pride in his own instincts reach all the way to a final? There is now an expectation that his notebook must have special pages left for coping with Lionel Messi and tracing out the skeleton key that will unlock an Argentina who in many ways have resembled the Dutch for long periods of the knockout phase.

Like the Netherlands against a well-organised Costa Rica, Argentina looked impotent, their ideas limited, for much of the two hours they needed to defeat Switzerland at the last-16 round.

Van Gaal will have recorded that in his libreta, noted how Iran, compact and very defensive kept Argentina goalless until very late in their group match, how Nigeria troubled the South Americans on the counter-attack. He also knows that a very wide audience indeed now watch the Netherlands with a sense of anticipation that the man with the pen and paper is likely to think of something radical, when the Dutch team look short of ideas, predictable, even dull.

It may be that so far Van Gaal’s cleverest trick has been to make the Dutch more watchable. This is the side who have scored only one goal from open play in three and half hours of the knockout phase and yet, because their manager now seems a magician, we dare not look away.

If we do, we might just miss the moment when he pulls the surprise trump card, the Ace of Spades, from somewhere up his sleeve.

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