It was, as ever, a blunt dose of realism from Louis van Gaal. The Netherlands coach was asked about his team’s chances at the World Cup but did not exactly go over the top. “There are eight to 10 teams better than we are,” Van Gaal said. “The chances of reaching the quarter-finals are 20 per cent.”
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That would be some comedown for a country which reached the final four years ago, but it is also a result of all the changes from 2010 that have produced a remarkably callow squad. Only seven players survive from South Africa and Van Gaal is just about confident of surviving what he describes as “the worst of the groups”, with the Dutch in with Spain, Chile and Australia. That is not an attempt at downplaying expectation in order to amplify any achievement, as is often the case with Van Gaal’s disciple Jose Mourinho. It is simply the truth.
It also puts a different spin on the coach’s own situation since being appointed by Manchester United. There can be no avoiding the fact that the context has changed, or that the pressure has increased, even if Van Gaal has never been one to feel it.
It is not just all of the Netherlands looking to the 62-year-old, but now everyone at United. The club’s TV channel has made that all too clear by showing the Netherlands’ recent friendlies. Van Gaal has fostered a new sense of optimism around Old Trafford, as best personified by the beaming Robin van Persie. While the coach has worked to rein in expectations, Van Persie cannot hide his excitement about Van Gaal. “I find it energising – wonderful,” the forward said about his coaching.
As such, Netherlands’ results could further frame a key summer for United. Given the circumstances, and added scrutiny, there is a genuine danger the Dutch could go out in the first round.
Yet, for all that United require results to improve immediately after the debacle of the reign of David Moyes, they also need the sort of work Van Gaal is doing with the international team. The Dutch coach has taken the deliberate decision to build for the long-term future, even if he is not around to see it through with the Netherlands side. Guus Hiddink, who is set to succeed him after the World Cup, would not be the first manager to benefit from his foundations. It has been the pattern of Van Gaal’s career. He did it at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, bringing through the likes of Thomas Müller.
Now, youngsters such as the winger Memphis Depay – whom Van Gaal is said to be interested in bringing to Old Trafford – could be next. The make-up of the Netherlands squad makes it clear.
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Eleven of the 23 are under 25, while 10 still play in the Eredivisie, the highest number of home-based players in a Dutch tournament squad since 2006. Similarly, there are only two players from Europe’s elite – Van Persie at United, Arjen Robben at Bayern. That is quite a departure for a country usually dependent on stars. It is also a direct reaction to the failure of those big names.
Van Gaal is not just responding to the Netherlands’ first-round exit in Euro 2012, but also his own bitter experience. The coach’s failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup has been given a lot of attention in the Netherlands over the past two weeks, with one TV documentary covering it in detail.
Many of the players involved spoke in detail, and stated that Van Gaal at that time grew frustrated he no longer had the same influence on individuals who had grown into stars. Ruud van Nistelrooy was said to be particularly fed up with his micro-management, as Van Gaal even tried to instruct players on what socks to wear.
Needless to say, the coach has not suffered such a reaction from a much younger group this time. Those close to the Dutch squad say Van Gaal has been extremely hands-on during an intense preparation period in Portugal, working through every detail in training. He has also adopted the 3-5-2 formation used by Feyenoord, bringing in a core of their young players, such as midfielder Jordy Clasie.
Robben is one of the few big names left in the Netherlands squad compared to four years ago “I’ve seen the first signs of a good team spirit developing,” Van Gaal said last week. It is precisely that intensity he is said to have missed in the international game, which is why he is leaving the Netherlands after just two years.
That might have brought criticism from what have been described as “Van Gaal’s many enemies in Dutch football”, but it has not been the case. While there may be a lot of sourness towards the new United manager, there is always an equal amount of respect. Even Johan Cruyff, usually so critical of the coach, has been supportive. In the Netherlands, there is no extra pressure on Van Gaal. He is seen as one of the sole reasons a young side has a chance.