What is cute game management and what is boring football? This has become the existential question of Louis van Gaal’s third Netherlands tenure as he plots a route to the World Cup final.
It was the narrative before and after Tuesday’s 2-0 victory over Qatar that sealed a serene passage to Saturday’s last-16 showdown with the USA and, frankly, it is annoying him. When one inquisitor wondered if fans deserved more sparkling fare the man known as the Iron Tulip showed his metal. “Why don’t you write it’s boring? I don’t think things are as bad as you say,” he countered.
Are they? Pertinent here is the fact that Van Gaal has previous with plodding teams, including his Manchester United side of 2014-16. The discourse of fans and the cognoscenti at the time ran: how could a side that contained Wayne Rooney, Memphis Depay, Ángel Di María, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, and Marcus Rashford be so sideways and pedestrian, so dull and uninventive?
On a consistent basis, that is. Because there were flashes of what might have been for Van Gaal’s United in, say, the 3-0 shellacking of Tottenham at Old Trafford in March 2015 that was an exhibition of high-octane, synchronised play that offered a throwback to the Sir Alex Ferguson golden years. But type was always reverted to and a similar pattern emerges at Qatar 2022 where Van Gaal’s Oranje are yet to dazzle for a full 90 minutes.
At this tournament Van Gaal can call on Depay, Frenkie de Jong and Cody Gakpo in advanced areas, order Denzel Dumfries to be the flying wingback who lit up Euro 2020 under Frank de Boer, and allow Virgil van Dijk to be a classic play-building centre-back of the Ajax/Netherlands school. Except, no. By the Persian Gulf, Dumfries is channelling his inner Aaron Wan-Bissaka not Trent Alexander-Arnold, De Jong’s pretty patterns are yet to be the team focal point and Depay began not game-fit (not Van Gaal’s fault). Gakpo has been the only man putting the fantasy into the Dutch football.
The Netherlands can turn it on, though, and when they do there is a glimpse of how scintillating they can still be. For that to happen Van Gaal will have to switch to anti-Van Gaal mode but he does have the ingredients. Watch again, for example, how Gakpo drifts on to a floating De Jong diagonal for his header against Senegal after the former had also been involved in textbook geometric pass-and-move to engineer space. Or see Gakpo against Qatar feature in a sequence that has him back-heeling a Depay pass – who had received the ball from Daley Blind – into Davy Klaassen whose return to the PSV man is hammered home.
The 23-year-old Gakpo has three goals in three outings and with Depay able to start for a first time against Qatar and De Jong’s confidence boosted by his first World Cup goal, Van Gaal can be optimistic there will be improvement. But will this be within the paradigm of his preferred style or a more expansive one which those enthused by the total football of the teams created by Rinus Michels hope to see?
A clue to the answer was found when this writer spoke with Van Gaal at an Amsterdam hotel in 2019 and he explained why United had been sluggish under him. “We did not have too many creative players to increase the tempo of the ball and to use more vertical passes,” he said, a declaration that came despite the United players mentioned above – five of whom he signed or gave debuts to – and so suggests it is the workman not his tools which is the deciding factor in how the 71-year-old likes to play.
After the win against Qatar he said: “Sometimes there is not enough space and we have to go past a player, which is why I have [the forward Steven] Berghuis and [midfielder Teun] Koopmeiners because they’re used to going past players and against the opponents’ backline I felt we moved the ball quicker. That gives me hope for the future.”
There is still work to be done when the opponent has the ball, though. “We were a bit better than the last game [in that area] but when you lose the ball you have to exercise pressure and make sure everything is organised as quickly as possible. That can be improved.”
There is an acceptance he has become more pragmatic: “As a coach I had Ajax DNA – all about attacking and over the years I evaluated and applied the lessons, and slowly but surely this evolved into a less attacking style and winning more matches.” In the knockout stages of the World Cup, this is the bottom line.