Netherlands World Cup squad: The coach – Louis van Gaal

After failing dramatically during his first spell in charge of the Netherlands national team, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has given Louis van Gaal a chance to redeem himself.

A great footballing mind who had already achieved incredible things with Ajax and Barcelona, the Dutchman took over looking to guide the national team to the 2002 World Cup. However, picking up only a solitary point from their two matches against the Republic of Ireland and another point in two against Portugal saw the Dutch finish four points behind both in third place.

The failure stands as one great big black mark on Van Gaal’s record. While his second spell at Barca was a shambles, his first reign there is enough to compensate for it and that it was he who gave Xavi, Iniesta, Valdes and Puyol their debut in the team and influenced Pep Guardiola a great deal leaves his contribution to the club’s future achievements in no doubt. His achievements at AZ were simply remarkable, although often blown out of proportion, while he took Bayern Munich to a Champions League final and laid down the foundations for what they have gone on to achieve since.

And so, the arrogant and defiant 62-year-old couldn’t finish his career without returning to set the record straight and balance out that one job weighing down his reputation before he retires.

Throughout his career, Van Gaal has developed a reputation for being a man who has strict principles. He is fully committed to attacking football. Dedicated to his 4-3-3 system, he demands his team dominate each and every game and attack throughout, regardless of the opponent.

This World Cup, however, is the exception.

Throughout the Oranje’s disastrous Euro 2012 campaign, Bert van Marwijk fielded a team with two holding midfielders behind a front four consisting of two wingers, Wesley Sneijder as a No.10 and Robin van Persie up front. Unfortunately, with Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel both sitting deep in midfield, it left a massive gap which every team was able to exploit and build their attacks. When going forward, there was absolutely no support for Sneijder – there was no unity in the team, it was made up of two separate parts – four attackers and six defenders. Tactically, it was the anti-Total Football and when it came to their more muscly, rough style of defending, it was the polar opposite of what had made the Dutch famous over the previous four decades.

Van Gaal’s appointment after that disgraceful showing in Poland and Ukraine lifted a lot of spirits in the Netherlands. Finally the Dutch were returning to their principles and traditions of passing based and fluent attacking football. The 4-3-3 was back!

While Van Gaal’s men were dominant throughout the qualifying phase – failing to win only one game – they were hardly fluent and magnificent. The coach never really settled on a regular starting XI and while his faith in youth is admirable and saw him had debuts to a host of young players, it meant the team was never really settled.

Without a solid core of players starting every game, Dutch natives were never really confident heading into this tournament even though they had scored 34 and conceded just five in their qualification group.

So when Kevin Strootman’s severe knee injury in March saw him ruled out of this summer’s tournament, an entire nation conceded that their hopes of improving on, or even matching, 2010’s final were dashed. In fact, there was an immediate resignation that simply getting out of a group consisting of Spain, Chile and Australia was beyond this mighty footballing nation.

On the face of it it seemed like an incredibly extreme, bizarre reaction to the absence of such a player. It’s not like it was the world class Arjen Robben or main striker Robin van Persie, right? Well, no, it’s much worse.

If Robben was injured, another winger – say Quincy Promes – would have slotted into that position. Van Persie? They’ve got Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to throw in there.

In Euro 2012, Strootman was the missing piece of the puzzle. Had he been in the midfield, they might not have avoided elimination, but they would have stood a much better chance against Denmark, Germany and Portugal. Sadly, he was injured.

Heading into the tournament in Brazil, his athleticism, speed, strength and effectiveness on the ball makes him absolutely crucial. The Dutch don’t have another player like him other than the still raw Marco van Ginkel, who spent a large part of the season injured and hasn’t played for Chelsea since the first two weeks of the season.

Strootman would have complemented De Jong immensely. While the AC Milan striker has a reputation for being an aggressive, dirty midfielder, his positioning is much better now and his reading of the game has improved to, meaning the two Serie A players could have been the perfect midfield partnership in this team.

As a result of Strootman’s injury, though, Van Gaal has had to throw everything out of the window. His entire plan undermined by the injury of one player. The 4-3-3 simply had to be abandoned and the focus of the team completely altered.

Thus, Van Gaal employed the 5-3-2 system that Ronald Koeman piloted with Feyenoord in the Eredivisie during the season.

The Rotterdam giants are the main contributors to the national team with defenders Daryl Janmaat, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Terence Kongolo in the team as well as midfielder Jordy Clasie and ex-Feyenoorders Robin van Persie, Ron Vlaar and Jonathan de Guzman.

And so Van Gaal has utilised this system, using Daley Blind and Janmaat as attacking wing-backs who will make the system more of a 3-4-1-2 when on attack.

The three centre-backs allows for much greater defensive stability while Blind and Janmaat beef up the midfield as they operate as more orthodox wingers. Meanwhile De Jong remains crucial, but his midfield partner is a bit of a problem. In recent friendlies, De Guzman has shown that while he is better suited to the role than Clasie, he is still a step behind play and there remains the issue of the attack being a separate entity to the midfield and defence. But what’s crucial is that the Oranje are better suited to dealing with it because of Van Gaal’s change in formation.

In his penultimate job (Van Gaal will likely retire after his spell at United ends), the stubborn Amsterdam-born coach has finally compromised.

His team cannot dictate games anymore, they cannot dominate or pass their way around them and they cannot play in the iconic 4-3-3. They have to be smart and revert to a counter-attacking game in the World Cup.

Expectations are not great at all in the Netherlands and while Van Gaal insisted that his side can reach the final in his pre-match press conference as the Oranje prepare to meet Spain, he knows deep down they won’t.

He’ll take them as far as he can and he has achieved his objective of reaching a World Cup with his team, but sadly it won’t go down as one of the best in the Netherlands’ history.

Van Gaal is a man who has laid down foundations on which a long term plan for success can be built several times in his coaching career. It will be the same here with the national team. He has brought players like Clasie, De Vrij, Martins Indi, Kongolo, Promes, Jean-Paul Boetius, Tonny Vilhena, Davy Klaassen Jasper Cillessen and Karim Rekik into the team throughout his spell.

With some extremely bright talents coming through and gaining great experience under Van Gaal, it seems once again he will be the man who clears the path for a brighter future for the Oranje. But at least that black mark has been grayed out.

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