By Richard Jolly
Even Sir Alex Ferguson lost some. There were days when his choices seemed strange, when his radar went awry. Just when Manchester United could be forgiven for thinking their new manager was all powerful, all knowing and all important, Louis van Gaal found he couldn't shape his destiny one more time.
A penalty shoot-out against Costa Rica had been perfectly orchestrated from the sidelines. There was no repeat against Argentina, no Tim Krul to bring on in the 119th minute, no Robin van Persie to take the first spot-kick. Centre-back Ron Vlaar, thrust into a responsible role rather than a regular penalty taker, missed it instead. Van Gaal will not arrive at Old Trafford with a World Cup winner’s medal around his neck.
The compensation for United is that he can divert his gaze to events in England slightly sooner. Technically, Van Gaal has three more days and one more game to negotiate before his second spell as Netherlands manager is officially over. His is an indirect route to Old Trafford. He has to go to Brasilia to face Brazil in a third-place match that, with typical bluntness, he declared he thinks is pointless. Then, after a brief introduction to his new charges at Carrington, it is back across the Atlantic for United's pre-season tour.
Events are proceeding at a breathtaking pace. Van Gaal's United have spent £55 million – on Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera – before the manager has even arrived. There are at least two more, possibly costlier, transfers to conclude. His new squad is underpopulated at the back, which will be exacerbated should Patrice Evra head off to Juventus, and overpopulated in midfield and attack. A ruthless manager does not have long to decide who to cast aside.
Van Gaal has rendered his task at Old Trafford harder by taking the Netherlands further than most expected – remember the predictions they would go out in the group stages? – and pre-season training started without him and under the auspices of an assistant, Ryan Giggs, he barely knows.
Yet while his World Cup ended with 240 minutes without a goal in open play, while Holland recorded one shot on target against Argentina – and they waited 98 minutes for that – he has cast himself as the anti-Moyes, the opposite of his unfortunate predecessor.
He will enter a new environment with credibility enhanced and reputation improved. Van Gaal has had a far better World Cup than most of the players he inherits. Unlike Moyes, he can already pass the players' test of "show us your medals". He has won the league title with each of the four clubs he has managed. The sole blot on a stellar CV was Van Gaal's failure in his first spell as Netherlands manager. Now he has rectified that.
He has shown his new charges his pedigree, his intellect, his bloody-minded decision-making and his capacity to turn a team into something greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps the achievement in a stalemate with Argentina lay in the salient statistic that Lionel Messi never touched the ball inside the penalty area. He was surrounded as Holland double-teamed against him. If it lent itself to suggestions it was double Dutch, it nonetheless made sense. They kept the world's best player out of danger areas.
Netherlands lack a world-class defender – though Vlaar did a hugely convincing impression of one for 120 minutes – and Van Gaal adopted a strategy of containment. It will be instructive to see if Van Gaal adopts a similar policy in the biggest away games next season or whether he has sufficient confidence in his United charges to play on the front foot.
His tactics for much of this World Cup have been dictated by the need to stop the opposition, whether Spain, Chile or Argentina. As the tournament progressed, their counter-attacking football became less potent. The reality that there was a plan, however, contrasts with the rather aimless football seen at Old Trafford last season.
Van Gaal's purist past, his progressive principles fostered hopes of buccaneering football in the truest traditions of Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby. The Netherlands have been altogether more pragmatic at times.
They have made the most of what they have, aided by flexible tactics. Van Gaal conjured a Lazarus-like recovery from Nigel de Jong – such galvanising powers may be welcome after some United players were out for strangely long periods of last season – and, after his players followed his every other wish, it is a surprise two refused to take a penalty. That led him to Vlaar, to criticism, to a World Cup ending as a new world begins.