There’s little time for ideology in international football. Training sessions come at a premium, with patience a virtue that doesn’t quite stretch as far as the World Cup. Unless you’re the Netherlands.
The Dutch expect something more from their national team. The legacy of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels’ ‘Total Football’ hangs like an anchor round the neck of every manager that takes the Holland job.
So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Louis Van Gaal has come in for widespread criticism back home over the course of this World Cup. He might now have his Netherlands team playing the famed ‘Dutch way,’ but he does have them playing the winning way.
“You just have to play according to your strengths,” Van Gaal said ahead of his side’s final group game against Chile. “It’s all about winning. I’ll pick a system that helps me win.”
When one journalist challenged Van Gaal last week as to whether he betrayed the ‘Dutch way’ of playing the game, the Holland boss asked his protagonist to define the philosophy he spoke of.
Any native criticism of Holland at this World Cup stands as somewhat galling for anyone who had to endure the insipidness of England in Brazil this summer. Regardless of whether their style falls in line with country’s inherent footballing identity, the Dutch have been one of the tournaments brightest lights.
Yes, Van Gaal’s ethos does not share the same fundamentals as that of Michels and Cruyff’s, but it’s closer to ‘Total Football’ than whatever Bert van Marwijk professed at the last World Cup.
Holland are certainly playing a more cavalier style of football than their fans are perhaps used to, but by doing so Van Gaal has given his country their best chance of winning a World Cup in a generation. Their hard and fast counter attacking style makes them the anti-Spain international football desperately needed.
Old Trafford going Dutch?
So could Van Gaal take his philosophy (or non-philosophy, if you are to believe him) to Old Trafford? It would seem United are counting on it.
Club vice-chairman Ed Woodward has already started buying according to Van Gaal’s masterplan. His system requires flying full-backs, and so Luke Shaw arrived from Southampton for a reported £27 million.
Man Utd needed a Wesley Sneijder; the player who brings attacking guile and invention to Van Gaal’s midfield with Holland. Had things gone a little differently a few years ago they might actually have had Sneijder to be their Sneijder. Now they have Ander Herrera, who will fulfill the same role as his Dutch counterpart in Van Gaal’s 4-3-3, turned 3-5-2 formation.
What’s more, Van Gaal will face the same problems at United that he has dealt with so effectively at the World Cup. Just like Man Utd, Holland’s glaring weakness can be found at the back.
There is plenty of potential to be found in the Oranje defence, with centre-backs Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan De Vrij both just 22, but little in the way of experience, know-how or genuine quality. It’s akin to what Van Gaal will find on his arrival at Old Trafford.
The future’s bright. The future’s orange
But there is more to Van Gaal than just tactical shrewdness. Much, much more. The man himself demonstrated as much mid-way through a game as Bayern Munich boss, pulling down his trousers in the dressing room to show his players that he had the balls to make big decisions.
David Moyes never had the personality to lead a club like Manchester United. Nobody expected him to pull down his trousers, but he wasn’t mentally strong enough to handle the pressures and demands of succeeding the greatest manager of all time, Sir Alex Ferguson. Van Gaal, however, certainly is.
‘He is a super, super coach,’ explained Uli Hoeness, Van Gaal’s former president at Bayern Munich. ‘His only problem is that he thinks he’s above God.’
Indeed, he possesses unshakeable self-belief. With his side trailing 1-0 to Mexico just last week, Van Gaal hooked his captain, and best player, Van Persie with 15 minutes left to play. In his place he threw on Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who went on to provide a headed assist for the equaliser, before converting the winning penalty in stoppage time.
Would Moyes have made the same call? In fact, Moyes once publically admitted that he refrained from substituting Van Persie during a home defeat to Newcastle for fear of a backlash from the United fans.
One thing is for sure, Van Gaal cares little for what others think (demonstrated by his decision to replace Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul for the penalty shootout against Costa Rica on Saturday). Disagree with him, and he might even show you his balls.
Like the best modern managers, in the mould of Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho, Van Gaal knows how to get the best out of his players. He gets them playing for him.
It’s easy to forget that upon his appointment as Dutch national team boss back in 2012 Van Gaal actually exiled an under-performing Van Persie, anointing Klaas Jan Huntelaar as his first choice number nine. Van Gaal got the response he wanted, and Van Persie actually traces his form over the past two seasons back to that decision.
So while Dutch fans still have their reservations, Man Utd supporters should be decidedly giddy at the prospect of Van Gaal at Old Trafford next season. Van Gaal’s Holland might not be playing the ‘Dutch Way,’ whatever that means, but they are playing the United way.