Louis Van Gaal is up for his biggest challenge

A new episode in Dutch football starring Louis van Gaal began on the 10th of August. With a triumphant smile on his face, the Amsterdammer was re-instated in the same position he left eleven years ago after the debacle versus Ireland, causing the Dutch to miss out on the 2002 World Cup. Louis van Gaal’s return as national manager was certainly bigger news than the departure of his predecessor Bert van Marwijk, given the much higher profile of the twice Barcelona boss. And when presented, van Gaal did not disappoint, like a wounded former champion who was getting back in the ring. He faced the journalists assembled in Amsterdam  in his old, arrogant, school teacher-esque way. A few witty comments here and there, a promise of attacking football with a clear identity, an ambitious goal for the next big tournament (semis WC 2014): Louis van Gaal was back and he wanted the whole world to know it. ‘I’m here to serve the purpose of the squad, but I’ll only serve it when it lies within the philosophy I and the Dutch FA stand for. If these two interfere each other, I’ll quit!’, he bravely rumbled.

Five days later, he didn’t look so happy. After the 4-2 friendly loss against neighbours and rivals Belgium, he acknowledged there was still a long way to go for the Dutch national team.  The game highlighted several aspects of van Gaal’s philosophy, as well as the shortcomings of the current pool of players he can choose from. Van Gaal made some interesting decisions. Instead of opting for a 4-2-3-1, Van Gaal chose to play the popularity card and opt for his beloved 4-3-3 formation. Instead of wingers cutting in, he preferred to use out and out wingers.  The midfield set-up was also rather interesting. Bert van Marwijk played with two holding midfielders leaving the attacking midfielder in a free role. Louis van Gaal used two creative midfielders  with a defensive midfielder in behind. Defensively, there were no tactical changes.

The changes in personnel were equally remarkable. Eight player untainted by the disastrous European Championships were brought in with no less than six players yet to win a cap at full international level. Arjen Robben started in his most natural position on the left flank, freeing up the right side for PSV newcomer Luciano Narsingh, a young talented right-footed winger. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, so ostensibly ignored by van Marwijk when the big games came around, was given the nod upfront ahead of Manchester United bound Robin van Persie. Many had called for the Schalke 04 hitman’s inclusion, pointing to his  impeccable scoring record for Oranje and his status as the Bundesliga’s leading marksman. Both Narsingh and Huntelaar scored, with Robben weighing in with two assists.

In midfield, Wesley Sneijder was accompanied by Rafael van der Vaart, with Nigel De Jong behind his two former Ajax-team mates.  All three struggled to make a mark in the game as Belgium coach Marc Wilmots’ man-marking worked to perfection. Van der Vaart was substituted at half-time to give AZ-prodigy Adam Maher his debut.

In defence, young Jetro Willems kept his place as left back and in the centre, experienced defender and new Feyenoord-signing Joris Mathijsen regained his place next to John Heitinga. Ajax’ Ricardo van Rhijn replaced club colleague Gregory van der Wiel at right back, something he has done for Frank De Boer during the past six months.  Indeed, once van Rhijn had been joined at the start of the second half by AZ’s Nick Viergever and Feyenoord duo Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij., the entire Dutch back four comprised debutants. All four showed promise for the future even if their lack of experience at top level was evident. Stekelenburg held down his place in goal but mixed some good saves with a blunder for Belgium’s third goal. With Tim Krul and Michel Vorm providing stiff competition, the AS Roma-goal keeper really has to up his game to maintain his spot between the sticks.

Louis van Gaal will have a long way to go to rebuild this team.  As a glance at the squad shows, there is a gap between the ‘82-‘84 generation containing blue-chip players such as Van der Vaart, Sneijder, Van Persie, Huntelaar, Nigel De Jong, Heitinga and Robben and the new crop of prospects born after 1990. It means that the ageing core that were almost crowned World Cup winners cannot be replaced with experienced players who can be eased into the team. It was abundantly clear at Euro 2012 that a defence containing Mathijsen/ Vlaar and Heitinga is no longer anywhere near good enough to compete at the top level. The onus is therefore on van Gaal to strike the right balance between relying on the old guard to ensure qualification and slotting top prospects like Stefan de Vrij (20 year old captain of Feyenoord) into the team. In midfield, a similar problem has occurred. Even though PSV’s Kevin Strootman and Adam Maher are obviously on the road to bigger things, the experience of Van der Vaart and Nigel de Jong is hard to ignore given the necessity of qualifying for Brazil 2014.

Attacking-wise, the biggest challenge is enabling all the available talent to gel. Van Marwijk never lost faith in Van Persie, but it was rarely, if ever repaid. Whether it is van Persie or Huntelaar who has to sit on the bench, the decision will always court controversy unless one happens to be dramatically outshining the other . Arjen Robben is known as quite the egotistical player and can be seen as quite a liability from that perspective but there are few players in the world who can  consistently make such a devastating and decisive impact on a game. Ibrahim Afellay, the only player to break through from the ’85-’89 generation, might be a Barcelona-player, but he has struggled over the last eighteen months to get regular games due to various reasons. He was one of the bigger disappointments in Poland and Ukraine.  Waiting in the wings are young strikers like Bas Dost (Wolfsburg), Luuk De Jong(Borussia Mönchengladbach) and Jeremain Lens(PSV) while wingers Ola John (Benfica) and the aforementioned Luciano Narsingh will be eager to prove their worth when the opportunity arises.

The talent is clearly there for Louis van Gaal to make his second term as Dutch national coach a bigger success then his first. As is inevitable with such riches at his disposal, it will involve some hard decision-making and the nurturing of  young talent. A manager who has won a league title at every club he has managed should have nothing to prove, but this might be a career defining moment for the 61 year old. Will he be a great manager or a legendary one?

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