Van Gaal’s tactical nous sees Oranje exceed expectation

Netherlands lining up in a 5-3-2? Madness!

Dirk Kuyt at left wing-back? Lunacy!

Jeremain Lens over Klaas-Jan Huntelaar? No chance.

The World Cup has been a rather strange one for the Netherlands.

Heading into the tournament in Brazil, no one, especially the Dutch fans and media, gave them a chance. Getting out of the group stage will be a success, was the general consensus, but even that’s difficult. The team isn’t good enough. The players are too young and the defence is too weak.

Kevin Strootman’s injury in March sealed it. The Roma star was the best performing Dutch international all season and his absence came as a massive blow to their chances and a feeling of resignation swept Netherlands.

With Van Gaal opting to change his entire philosophy from the 4-3-3 he has tried to stick with throughout his coaching career, fielding the team in a 5-3-2.

Such a defensive style came as a huge surprise and was met with a great deal of scepticism across the world. While only Luca Toni can confirm or deny Arjen Robben’s claims to NOS that Van Gaal has a “golden dick”, the one thing the coach has proven in the tournament is that his tactics cannot be doubted.

“We believe in the coach,” Kuyt told Goal after the game. “I think he’s a quality coach and every time he tells us how to play, it works.”

It certainly does.

He has turned a seemingly weak Netherlands side into a very effective, fast and dangerous team, getting the best out of all of his players.

The support and freedom this formation has afforded Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie has been incredible and has seen them become the players if the tournament in the first round, particularly the Bayern Munich star who has been simply unbelievable. At 30-years-old, the energy and blistering pace he has put in to threaten opponents even in the late stages of game has seen him prove that he is one of the most decisive players in the world.

The fluidity and flexibility of this system allows the Dutch to become a very strong counter-attacking team. While there remains some defensive frailties which may be exposed by better teams in the deep stages of the summer showpiece, that the defending world champions and the highly-rated Chile failed to exploit them effectively shows that Van Gaal’s formation has done well to cover for an area which was always seen as the weakest spot in the team.

Daley Blind is a player who, despite spending recent years at left-back at Ajax, club coach Frank de Boer went to great lengths to avoid playing him there last season. But Van Gaal has got the best out of him in that position and carefully catered for his defensive weaknesses, freeing him up to play key roles against Australia and Spain.

In the absence of Bruno Martins Indi, the use of the 24-year-old at centre-back struck fear into the hearts of Oranje fans heading into the crucial meeting with Chile which would decide who tops the group.

The pairing on that left side with Kuyt as a wing-back only intensified that feeling. “Louis has lost it!”, was the reaction of those caught out by the decision.

Incredibly, though, it worked extremely well. The Fenerbahce player is derided for a lack of electrifying pace and world-class ability, but he is famous and well respected for his excellent work rate and it was absolutely critical in this position. He helped cover for Blind, which was a vital aspect with both players being used out of their natural position. Kuyt defended very well, making some key interceptions and tackles, while Blind hardly put a foot wrong in the 90 minutes.

Jeremain Lens, although nothing special, put in a decent display and is the right choice to start in Van Persie’s absence with his pace, dribbling ability and threats from deep areas. In this counter-attacking style, he is much more suited to the team than Huntelaar.

Nigel de Jong has been magnificent in each of the three games, being able to maraud the entire width of the pitch and put in great contributions to both the attacks and defence.

The versatility of the squad allows Van Gaal to completely alter the style and effectiveness of the team with his substitutions. Memphis Depay has come on twice to score two goals in 66 minutes of World Cup football, the winner against Australia and the goal which finished off Chile. On Monday, Depay added an extra threat from deep areas to add strength to the Oranje’s counter-attacks. Meanwhile, Leroy Fer was brought on to beef up the midfield and then to capitalise on the South Americans’ lack of height.

The reactionary style of the Oranje has seen them demolish Spain, edge past Australia and contain and beat the biggest threat – Chile.

The three wins and ten goals have seen the Dutch finish top of the group, one they believed they would struggle to get beyond. Having already exceeded expectations, the Oranje can now meet Mexico before facing either Greece or Costa Rica in the quarter-finals before a possible tie with Argentina.

The Oranje’s chances of reaching the final remain low. There remain too many defensive weaknesses and issues which more dangerous and fast-paced teams will be able to expose, but that they have gone this far and impressed so much has been a magnificent achievement and it is vastly down to Van Gaal. His tactics have been excellent and have benefited the whole team as well as individual players and he has turned a tournament which was supposed to be a dismal one into one of great excitement and pride.

Whether or not he has a “golden dick” is between him and his wife (and maybe Robben and Luca Toni), but his tactical brilliance cannot be overstated. Van Gaal is the key to Oranje success this year, even more than Robben and Van Persie.

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