2010 World Cup final seems a world away as Van Gaal puts his faith in unknown quantities ahead of rematch with Spain
The World Cup resumes in Salvador where it left off in Soccer City, South Africa. The meeting of Spain and Holland on Friday is a repeat of the World Cup final of four years ago and a reminder of how differently the two nations have fared in the interim.
Unstoppable Spain went to Poland and Ukraine and added a second European Championship to their roll of honour, which now stands at three victories in the past three tournaments. The Dutch had plenty to be proud about in 2010, they knocked out Brazil and came within an Arjen Robben chance of winning the final, even if they did sully their reputation for pure football with an over-aggressive display against Spain. Yet Bert van Marwijk’s side did not progress at Euro 2012, they departed after the group stage without winning a game, costing the coach his job and allowing Louis van Gaal to take over the reins for a second time.
Considering how unsuccessful Van Gaal was in his first spell as national coach – under his supervision Holland failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup – that in itself could be seen as a sign of desperation and now the new Manchester United manager is under attack in some quarters for dismantling total football, no less. That is a false accusation but one that Old Trafford regulars will soon come to recognise as symptomatic of the coach’s penchant for confrontationalism. Van Gaal has his own way of doing things. People disagree with him and say so, but few can ever get him to change his mind.
In fairness, Van Gaal must be doing something right, because Holland were the first European side to qualify for the finals in Brazil, after winning nine of their qualifying games and drawing the other. While it may be argued that Romania, Hungary, Turkey, Estonia and Andorra were not the most testing of opponents, it is a fairly safe bet that England would not have sailed through the same group so serenely and had they done so they would have travelled to Brazil on a tidal wave of optimistic expectation.
Van Gaal is not really abandoning total football either, he is just going against his own long-standing principles by ditching 4-3-3 in order to experiment with 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2) having been denied the opportunity to use his favourite midfielder by the injury that cost Kevin Strootman his World Cup place. With Rafael van der Vaart also ruled out, Wesley Sneijder is back in favour as the midfield general behind the established front two of Robin van Persie and Robben, as Van Gaal attempts to find a formation that best suits his somewhat unbalanced squad.
Unbalanced because while most other teams in Brazil would be happy with such an experienced and reliable forward pairing, the defensive side of the equation is another matter. With the exception of Ron Vlaar, who hardly had the best of seasons at Aston Villa, all of Van Gaal’s back line still play for Dutch clubs, which is not so much an indication of a lack of quality as a sign of youth and inexperience.
Doubtless Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi will move on from Feyenoord one day, indeed both are being flagged up as possible targets for Van Gaal at Manchester United, but at the moment they are not quite the finished article. Van Gaal has capped 25 new players since taking charge in August 2012 and the only regulars he has retained from Van Marwijk’s regime are the obvious ones, Van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Nigel de Jong. Of those, only the front two are automatic choices because even Sneijder was treated with suspicion at first.
“Wesley has been a positive surprise for me,” a formerly sceptical Van Gaal said once the Galatasaray player had been recalled to the squad. “He has made a good impression and he deserves the credit for that. I’ve seen a difference in Wesley since the start of the year.”
To some extent Sneijder has been reaccommodated because other midfield options became unavailable, whatever Van Gaal now says, though the possibility exists that initial reservations were well-founded and a 30-year-old now playing his club football in Turkey has lost some of his focus and fitness since the last World Cup. As with the strikers, Van Gaal has little choice but to trust to experience and hope for the best.
Everyone knows what Van Persie and Robben have to offer and the Dutch are unlikely to spring any surprises, which may be one reason why Van Gaal has been tinkering with different formations. “I don’t think opponents will defend man on man against Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder,” Van Gaal said. “That’s why our new system is going to be hard to play against.”
Not everyone is quite so sure, and Van Marwijk has been critical of the late change. “Moving to 5-3-2 is not just an adaptation but a significant transition,” the former coach said. “With so little time left it calls for a lot from the players.”
Van Gaal actually tried playing 4-4-2 in a recent friendly against Wales and remains convinced that he does not have the players at his disposal to operate his normal 4-3-3 system. “Against Spain and Chile I think I am going to play 5-3-2,” he said. “The 4-4-2 is less promising.”
Holland usually bring more to tournaments than mere tactics, however. Whether spectacularly good or spectacularly bad, the Dutch always seem to have an eventful time away from home, with opinionated players, splits within the camp and training ground bust-ups more or less guaranteed.
As so few of the participants from four years ago are left, revenge for the last World Cup final may not be the dominant theme when Holland’s latest tournament kicks off, particularly as the opening game against Spain could be the key to a difficult group. After the holders come Australia and Chile, and Van Gaal is under no illusions that if things start to go wrong the World Cup experience could be a short one for such a young side. “There are eight to 10 teams better than we are, so I would say our chances of reaching the quarter-finals are only around 20%,” Van Gaal said. “I also think we are in the worst of the groups.”
As with England, who have also turned to youth since the last World Cup, there is no great expectation on the Dutch squad despite their march to the final four years ago. Van Gaal is not the most popular or admired of coaches but he can be trusted to bring the best from a fresh and inexperienced group of players.
That is exactly how he first earned a reputation at Ajax, only for the same players to prove more difficult to handle when he encountered them in the national squad a few years later and found they had developed a superstar mentality. Sweeping the old names out and ushering in the new suits Van Gaal perfectly.
Holland could be among the surprise packages in Brazil if things go well, but they need a good start.