Van Gaal gets the reward for his courage and starts off his second reign in style
The look on the faces of young Feyenoord-starlets Jordy Clasie and Darryl Janmaat emphasized the nervous atmosphere surrounding the first World Cup qualifying group game of the Netherlands. After the Euros, Oranje not only Bert van Marwijk was replaced, six players were lined-up in the starting eleven that didn’t get a game during this tournament. With the Dutch opening the qualification at home against Turkey, arguably the toughest opponent in the group, and coming off four losses on the trot, pressure was already on for second time national manager Louis van Gaal and his men. Or boys, as this was the youngest starting eleven the Netherlands fielded in over fifteen years.
Ninety minutes later, a chip from Luciano Narsingh (sent deep by Kevin Strootman) ensured the first win in five, overcoming an energetic Turkey-side in the process. The relief was illustrated by Feyenoord central defender Bruno Martins Indi, who jumped Louis van Gaal after the goal and knocking the 61 year old over. On paper, only the 2-0 final score will remain, with the first goal scored by Robin Van Persie from a Wesley Sneijder corner. but a more detailed look signals the start of a new beginning for the Dutch.
The fear of Louis van Gaal favouring (former) Ajax-players has been put to bed by the manager right away. The diverse background of the first eleven is rather remarkable. With Tim Krul, Darryl Janmaat (ADO Den Haag), Jetro Willems, Kevin Strootman (Sparta Rotterdam), Luciano Narsingh (AZ Alkmaar), Bruno Martins Indi, Jordy Clasie, Robin van Persie (Feyenoord/ Excelsior) and Arjen Robben (FC Groningen), only Wesley Sneijder and John Heitinga remained as former Ajax-alumni. Luckily for van Gaal, most youth set-ups in the Netherlands propagate a 4-3-3 playing style, which makes it easier to implement players into the system he eyes.
The team selection suggests this system is an expansive 4-3-3, with Robben and especially Narsingh keeping the play wide, in order to create space for Sneijder to roam in, coming in from left midfield. Van Persie was disciplined in the striker role, with more focus on the left and occasionally allowing Sneijder to leap him. From the look of things, Louis van Gaal has installed confidence in the creativity and class of Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie for his side to win matches. This triangle in the left forward field were always searching to combine, while Narsingh appeared a little bit lost on the right. His main role was to occupy space and push back the left side of the Turkish defence. One last thing that caught the eye in attacking sense was the switch of sides between Robben and Narsingh in the last minutes of the game, when Turkey pinned the Dutch back on their own half. With Narsingh and Robben coming in on their good foot, the counterattacking options became way more direct, as was shown by Narsinghs finish in the 90th minute.
The change in the way the midfield was set-up was remarkable. Against Belgium, he preferred the rather immobile Nigel de Jong and Rafael van der Vaart accompanying the Internazionale star, now he opted for Jordy Clasie in a controlling role, with left-footed Kevin Strootman on the right. Jordy Clasie is more of a deep lying playmaker and Van Gaal’s plan with him looks reminiscent of the plan Marco van Basten had with Wesley Sneijder: An intelligent, ball-playing, rangy midfielder who has the ability to switch fast from defense to attack. Sneijder struggled back then and so did Clasie this time. But whereas Sneijder couldn’t cope with the discipline required for the position, Clasie appeared just nervous. He was substitute after 50 minutes, but the youngster could still play a role I for the Dutch national team. Those who have seen him play for Feyenoord last season know he can occupy the deep lying playmaker role with verve at a lower level and if he gets used to playing in such a high tempo and on such a stage, he could hold down his place in the Oranje-side. Kevin Strootman played the right midfield-positon and was one of the star performers for the Dutch. The PSV-midfielder balanced the play by slotting in a more central position once Sneijder started to move forward. The assist on Narsingh (a counter attacking, 60 yard pass) was testament to his excellent performance. Strootman has been linked with top clubs in the past and from a performance like the one versus Turkey, it’s not hard to see why. The 22 year old is both technically and tactically astute, a neat passer, has physical presence and seems to thrive under pressure. His versatility is also an asset, as he filled in the role of Clasie after the substitution of the latter after 50 minutes. From that moment, Leroy Fer of FC Twente occupied the right midfield. In the mold of players like Yaya Touré and Abou Diaby, he added some extra dynamic and steel to the midfield. With most attacking moves played over the left, he rarely got the chance to show this feature of his play. One thing that stood out from the midfield performance was not only the mobility, but also the higher tempo of passing.
In defence, Van Gaal opted for two attacking full-backs. PSV’s Jetro Willems leaped Robben a few times, but looked prone and nervous defensively. The same went for Darryl Janmaat (Feyenoord), who struggled to position himself when Turkey attacked over his side. He was substituted after the first half. Ricardo van Rhijn, the successor of Gregory van der Wiel at Ajax, wasn’t too impressive either, but wasn’t found out as often as Janmaat. Overall, Turkey should have exploited these weaknesses more and the Dutch were lucky that they didn’t.
In central defence, Van Gaal looked to Heitinga to lead the defence. Accompanied by the aforementioned Feyenoord-youngster Bruno Martins Indi, they were rarely threatened through the centre, apart from some miscommunication between Martins Indi and goalkeeper Tim Krul, almost resulting in an own goal. Tim Krul was preferred to Maarten Stekelenburg and looked vulnerable from crosses a few times, but he was a calm presence in a young defence.
There is still a lot of work to do to make all the youngsters click, but with a first major result secured and two years to go until the next major tournament, these talents could well develop into class players by gaining experience on international level. The higher tempo, the constant pressuring of opponents, the togertheness, fight and the energetic play in general must all have pleases van Gaal. In all fairness, the match itself could have gone either way, but where his first period as a national coach was dominated by coin flips in his disadvantage, the first one in his second fell his way.