Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Standing powerless on the touchline as his Netherlands team were beaten last month was certainly not a new experience for Louis van Gaal.
This time it was Belgium, not Ireland, and more importantly, it was just a friendly, rather than an all-important World Cup qualifier.
More than a decade after his first spell as Dutch national coach ended in shambles and a failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, the KNVB reached out to him after the worst Dutch tournament performance in 30 years. It was a popular decision with supporters, players and fellow coaches alike - time heals all wounds.
The collective aim is simple: to return Oranje to their former glories, playing in the spirit of their predecessors. But Van Gaal is no miracle worker; his vision being effortlessly displayed on the pitch will be a slow process.
Van Gaal will aim to banish memories of his past international failures
We live in an age where, even in friendly matches, results seem to have become the be all and end all. But despite being humbled 4-2 in Brussels, Van Gaal accomplished what he had set out to do; instil a new system and integrate new faces.
One defeat won’t undermine those long-term plans. There’s no need to panic or draw any knee-jerk conclusions. As Frank Rijkaard once said; “You wouldn't judge Pavarotti on how he sings in the shower.”
What will have angered him will be the fact that individual errors lead to the defeat, although as many a pundit will tell you, if you’re going to make silly mistakes, it may as well be in a friendly.
There have still been many positives to take.
Return to a familiar system
The recurring discourse of the Bert van Marwijk era was his system - a much loathed 4-2-3-1. Van Marwijk was winning games but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the purists.
Once the Dutch consciously decided to base their football around aesthetics there was no turning back. The game has to be played in a certain way, adhering to certain rules. Louis van Gaal is a purveyor and guardian of such a philosophy and to ensure he got his message across he appointed Patrick Kluivert and Danny Blind, two former star students, as his right-hand men.
The ‘Dutch model’ that has become world renowned is effectively the brand of football that evolved in Amsterdam during the mid 1960s. An emphasis on creativity, cleverness and collectivism inside a proactive and flexible 4-3-3: classical wingers providing natural width – as well as support in the middle – supplying a natural No.9 supported by two advanced midfield playmakers anchored by a controller.
Van Bommel and De Jong were a far from attractive midfield combo
The structure of his system was implemented against Belgium: the Dutch defence, midfield and attacking lines now play much closer to each other, increased mobility, fluidity and synergy in midfield only enhances their passing game. It’s all geared towards controlling possession: without the ball there’s a requisite to press the opposition to win it back. With the ball, Van Gaal will look for his team to play at a far greater tempo than they were accustomed to under his predecessor. One of the first questions Van Gaal asks of his players is ‘can you pass at speed’ preferably not to feet but few yards in front so not to disrupt the rhythm.
Van Marwijk, a fellow student of the game, wasn’t oblivious to this style, but chose to go in another direction. He solely focused on the ends rather than the means, whereas Van Gaal’s philosophy is the antithesis. Van Marwijk’s move away from the traditional Dutch model was seen as an affront, likened to defacing a Rembrandt. It wasn’t to be tolerated. His resultaatvoetbal strategy may have taken Oranje to a World Cup final and top of the FIFA rankings, but the method left a sour taste.
After the debacle in Ukraine and Poland, it became obvious a large chunk of the squad would not be around for the next major tournament. However many of those that did travel to Euro 2012 made Van Gaal’s first two squads, suggesting he didn’t want to do too much too soon. His remit to rejuvenate will be undertaken, but gradually over the next 18 months.
Five players won their first caps against Belgium, and four of those - Ricardo van Rhijn (Ajax), Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi (both Feyenoord) and Nick Viergever (AZ) – made up the defence, an area in need of surgery.
Ricardo van Rhijn (right) made his senior bow in Brussels
Adam Maher, the other player to have make his debut in August, won’t be involved in the opening round of World Cup qualifiers, his midfield place taken by Jordy Clasie. Right-back Daryl Janmaat, another Feyenoorder, has also been given a first time call-up.
Aside from fresh blood, there were returning players, who weren’t seen as part of the picture by Van Marwijk; they include AC Milan utility man Urby Emaunelson, FC Twente box-to-box midfielder Leroy Fer and PSV winger Jeremain Lens. His teammates Luciano Narsingh and Jetro Willems continued their progression, with the former scoring his first goal in Brussels.
His way or the highway
One of the more important decisions Van Marwijk had to make before Euro 2012 was who to play as his number nine. Most felt the same debate would continue post Euro 2012. In a refreshing twist Van Gaal used his pre-match press conference to draw a line in the sand: Klaas-Jan Huntelaar would be his central striker, it’s up to Van Persie to change his mind, and the Schalke marksman repaid him with a goal, his 32nd in an orange shirt.
"Huntelaar has [always] performed well for Oranje, Van Persie less so," he said. “With Robin, I had a wonderful conversation,” he added. “We had a good discussion on both a social level and in terms of football vision. I told him that in my opinion where he fits, but that can change. It was one of the best meetings I've had with an individual player."
Another issue of importance was discipline - or lack of it - during the Euros. There were even reports of split factions within the squad - those loyal to Van Marwijk and others who felt his way wasn’t the right one. Van Gaal, with memories of disobedience from his first tenure, made sure history wasn’t going to repeat itself.
Now who's laughing? Van Gaal favours Huntelaar over Van Persie
Clear-the-air talks were held in the first training session before leaving for Belgium. “There were many things put on the table,” Van Gaal told the media, who he still treats with contempt. “The players were frank with each other but things ended on a positive note.”
No one objected to the new way on or off the pitch. As trivial as it may sound, the significance cannot be underestimated. The players, some notoriously known for being outspoken, made it collectively clear who’s boss by figuratively kissing the ring on his finger.
And there’s a good reason. Those longer in the tooth know an emerging group of talents are only a selection away. Those breaking through would be wise not to try and play Van Gaal. A fresh start requires a new leader. Mark van Bommel, who fell out with Van Gaal during their time at Bayern , will be unlikely to get a phone call anytime soon.
Even before the announcement there was one standalone candidate the people’s choice: Wesley Sneijder. He was duly made captain. Van Gaal requires his captain to represent his ideals on the pitch, as well as show initiative. Sneijder does both. He’s also helped that his place in the starting XI is secure which can’t be said for those around him.
There’s enough to suggest a successful period lies ahead, if that comes to fruition, Van Gaal’s false start will quickly be forgotten. First up, Turkey at the Amsterdam ArenA on Friday evening...
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