Why Is Louis van Gaal Jumping Ship Just as Future Brightens for Netherlands?

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Why Is Louis van Gaal Jumping Ship Just as Future Brightens for Netherlands?
Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Guus Hiddink cannot wait to get started.

"I am honoured to return as coach for the Dutch team," the 67-year-old said last month when it was announced that he would take over as head coach of the Netherlands national team in the summer.

Hiddink, returning for his second spell at the helm of his home country, is not the only manager excited by the prospect of coaching De Oranje.

Danny Blind, the former Ajax Amsterdam defender with 42 caps to his name, will serve as Hiddink’s assistant, taking over the top job in 2016, following the conclusion of the European Championships.

The 52-year-old has also agreed a two-year deal, taking him to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

"It is wonderful that I can oversee my own succession," Hiddink added. "In this way the football vision for the Dutch team in the long term can be guaranteed."

"With Guus Hiddink we have appointed a Dutch trainer with a treasure of international experience and success,” KNVB team director Bert van Oostveen stated. “Danny Blind will get two years to grow further under him.

"By allowing Blind, after Euro 2016, to take over from Hiddink, we are keeping long term valuable knowledge and a line of succession."

Every party involved seems excited about the future of the Dutch national team, yet there is the small matter of the World Cup—the Holy Grail for the Dutch, like any other passionate footballing nation—to come in Brazil this summer.

Which begs the question: Why are the KNVB planning for the future when there is still so much to play for in the present?

And if Hiddink and Blind are so keen on the job, why is the country’s current head coach seemingly so desperate to find alternative employment as soon as possible?

***

Peter Steffen

If age is the reason behind Hiddink’s relatively short-term contract with the national team (he will be a few months off 70 upon its completion), then perhaps current Dutch boss Louis van Gaal can plead the same.

At 62, the Amsterdam-born coach—full name Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal—only has a limited period left as a coach at the highest level. And for all the prestige and importance that comes with being a national team coach, it seems the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss would prefer to spend that time in club management.

This is the Dutchman's second spell in charge of his home country after another two-year spell at the turn of the millennium, so he should know the drill by now.

On that occasion he was unable to guide his country to World Cup qualification, a failing that perhaps left him with a sense of unfinished business—a nagging feeling that will finally dissipate this summer.

"My goal was to coach at a World Cup once in my life," Van Gaal told World Soccer magazine earlier this year. "After Brazil that aim has been achieved."

It seems, however, that the particular rhythms of the international game—where matches are less frequent, face-to-face training is less extensive and much of the job involves tedious liaising with clubs and their managers about the form and fitness of players—are not to Van Gaal's tastes.

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

"People asked me if I wanted to continue for two more years after the World Cup. I said no because I don’t want to be dependent on the interests of clubs and their coaches," he continued to World Soccer, before adding the sort of "come-and-get-me" plea any unsettled player would be proud of.

"If the right big club doesn’t come along then I’ll take a sabbatical. But right now my focus is entirely on the World Cup."

That sort of unsubtle advertisement of his availability has had an effect, seeing him linked with a number of high-profile club jobs across Europe.

Most prominently, he has been suggested as a candidate to take over the top job at Tottenham Hotspur in the summer, following a disjointed campaign that has seen Tim Sherwood convince few inside (or outside) the club that he is a viable long-term manager.

As recently as last week, Van Gaal’s move to White Hart Lane was being called a "done deal" by former Dutch international Ruud Gullit on BBC Radio 5 live, although curiously that confidence seems to have diminished since a certain opening came up at Manchester United.

With few other coaches of his pedigree and reputation currently on the open market, Van Gaal suddenly finds himself the front-runner for two enticing jobs in England, a country he has not previously managed in.

"I want to work in the Premier League, because that is the league I haven’t worked yet," Van Gaal told the Daily Mail, in passable English, recently. "I have worked in top countries like Spain and Germany, and I want to coach here as well because they are the three strongest competitions.

"That is my ambition. Who knows?"

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

There may be more to Van Gaal’s desire to move on, however, especially considering the verve with which he has attempted to secure himself subsequent employment long before Netherlands play their first competitive match this summer.

The World Cup usually boosts a manager’s standing (and therefore job prospects), yet Van Gaal seems unwilling to roll the dice and see whether a successful tournament will serve to improve his options and bargaining position later in the summer.

The obvious conclusion is that Van Gaal does not expect his side to do well this summer.

Indeed, the consensus is that this Dutch team is not as talented as previous cohorts, unlikely to match the runs to the final of 1974, 1978 and 2010.

"I think [their chances] are less than normal," Johan Cruyff, the man against whom all Dutch players and managers are subsequently compared, told B/R. "They have a good team, but it’s very young.

"It will be good preparation for the next [World Cup], in four years."

In short, Van Gaal wants to sort out his next job now because he fears he will be less employable after the World Cup.

***

Buda Mendes/Getty Images

December's World Cup draw did not exactly help Van Gaal in this regard. Spain, Chile and Australia's presence immediately led Group B to be dubbed this tournament's "group of death," although this is not necessarily something borne out by statistics (according to Bloomberg Sports, it is Group D that is the hardest, with evenly-matched England, Italy and Uruguay fighting for two qualification berths).

With Spain the reigning champions (something Dutch players and fans will not need reminding of, having been on the receiving end of Andres Iniesta's extra-time dagger in Soccer City) and Chile a dangerous proposition on (or at least very near) home turf, progression to the knockout stages is far from guaranteed.

Assuming they do, however, the task is unlikely to get any easier. Coming second in the group would likely result in a second-round meeting with hosts Brazil, a daunting prospect.

Going out at that stage, after finishing runners-up four years ago, would be considered a disappointment for Van Gaal.

Going out at the group stage would be nothing short of an embarrassment.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

At the time of the draw, Van Gaal noted (per Reuters): "As far as opponents are concerned it is a tough draw. The conditions are even tougher.

"We are playing the world champions, we've never won against Australia, and Chile are no slouches. It is certainly not easy at all."

Former Dutch international Ruud Gullit told B/R: "It is going to be a challenge for all the European teams to win in South America. And it is going to be tough [for us].

"Chile are very, very strong. The thing is you cannot end up second [in the group] because then you are going to face Brazil."

Van Gaal has not been helped by injuries, particularly to the small number of truly "key" players at his disposal. While he has a vast pool of promising young players to choose from, he is relying on a core of just a handful of genuine stars to lead his squad.

The three "cornerstone" players for Van Gaal, the ones he intended to build his side around, were originally Bayern Munich's Arjen Robben, Manchester United's Robin van Persie and AS Roma's Kevin Strootman.

Robben, at the time of writing, looks fit and firing ahead of the World Cup, but Van Persie has struggled with injury concerns all season and Strootman has already been ruled out of the tournament with a cruciate ligament injury.

"Unfortunately Strootman is out, and he was one of our strong players," Ronald de Boer, a member of the 1994 and 1998 Oranje World Cup squads, told B/R. "Hopefully now one of the young players steps up.

"Maybe in four years in Russia we can make a difference, but just now it's a bit too soon. I think the average age [of the squad] this time will be around 24—but I think to win the World Cup you need an average age of 27 or 28."

Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Most casual fans may still be expecting Netherlands to be a threat in Brazil, performing to their usual standards, but inside the country and among its ex-professionals, the mood is less optimistic.

In general, the hope appears to be that Van Gaal's men can catch Spain off guard in the opening game and use that momentum to at least reach the knockout stages.

"The good thing is the first game is against Spain," Gullit notes. "In the first game everyone is touchy, players adapting to the temperature and situation and things like that.

"That’s the moment you can maybe make a statement."

De Boer adds: "I remember a group we played in with France and Italy in the Euros [in 2008]; they were the two World Cup finalists and we beat them 4-1 and 3-0, so you never know. You still have to play the games.

"But to be honest I think it will be too much."

***

Van Gaal was offered the national team job for the second time after the disappointment of the 2012 European Championship, an abject failure that cost Bert van Marwijk his job.

Van Marwijk had surprised many when he led his country to the final in South Africa in 2010, but two years on, he found it too difficult to bring together a squad of burgeoning egos for the assault on the European title that was now expected of them.

The result was somewhat predictable; the Dutch losing all three group games as they crashed out of the tournament at the first hurdle.

"The team was too divided, too many 'captains' and guys who wanted to be important," De Boer notes ruefully of that experience.

But since then some of the big names—notably Wesley Sneijder—have been marginalised by Van Gaal, who has instead turned to emerging talents such as Feyenoord's Jordy Clasie and PSV Eindhoven's Memphis Depay as he attempts to refashion his side.

De Boer adds: "I think now we only have two guys who are important [Van Persie and Robben], so the young boys need to work hard for them, so [those two] can make a difference."

Remy de la Mauviniere

It is an evolution—what an NBA organisation might term "a rebuild" or "period of transition"—that is ongoing, with the rewards likely to only truly arrive two years or more down the line.

For now the Dutch have a collection of players who will learn from the experience this summer but will be perhaps too green to triumph when faced with some of the finest players in the game.

In defence, for example, Van Gaal may end up starting against Spain with a back four consisting of Daley Blind, Ron Vlaar, Bruno Martins Indi and Darryl Janmaat. Blind (Danny's son), Janmaat and Martins Indi all have fewer than 15 international caps to their name, while Vlaar, 29, has just 22.

The Aston Villa captain is the experienced link in the side; uncharitable as it may be, in a way that only serves as a reminder that producing defenders of equal ability to those further forward has been Netherlands' Achilles' heel for the last decade.

In tournaments past, the likes of Van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy have been somewhat undermined by the series of comparative journeymen—John Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen, Andre Ooijer—past coaches have had no choice but to select.

The hopes for the current crop of defenders are higher—but at the moment it is all potential, not realised ability.

De Boer believes in the talent of the young defenders coming through—which also includes Paris Saint-Germain's Gregory van der Wiel, Ajax's Joel Veltman and Feyenoord's Stefan de Vrij—but acknowledges that this World Cup is too soon for them.

"We have a lot of very good [defenders], but they are only 18-20 years old, so you cannot expect them to do everything right," he says. "Probably in three or four years everyone will talk about them, but for now the only one with any experience is Ron Vlaar.

"Hopefully Van Gaal can make them prepare and know their job very well. But it will be a test case.

"They are good players but they are young, and when you face a Diego Costa, a Neymar or a [Lionel] Messi that’s a whole other ball game."

Remy de la Mauviniere

De Boer was a veteran member of the Dutch squad that failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002, the blot on Van Gaal's CV that he is now so determined to erase.

Yet, despite that failing, De Boer believes in his old coach’s skills—having no hesitation in calling him "one of the best in the world."

He adds: "He can find the weakness of any opponent and prepares his players well, which will help us to be really solid. Hopefully in that part he can make a difference."

But could he change things at White Hart Lane or even Old Trafford?

"He has so many qualities that he will really make a difference [in England]," De Boer insists. "If you give him time, he will really set the team to his hand.

"At Bayern Munich he won the league the first year he was there, losing the final of the Champions League, but if you also look at his record nobody had heard about young guys like Thomas Mueller and he put them in and now everyone talks about them.

"He has an eye for talent and would be a great asset. But also the character that he has, you will give you a spectacle [on the pitch]."

Much has been written in recent days, as the links with United have grown, about Van Gaal's tactical approach. He has proven adaptable wherever he has been, but in essence he believes in a certain structural discipline when defending while giving his players a freedom to express themselves when in possession.

"He is the perfect coach of the 'Dutch School' which is similar to attacking football," fitness coach Raymond Verheijen, a strident critic of sacked United boss David Moyes, recently told the BBC World Service. "The fans can be assured that it will be a very attacking playing style.

"He's an extremely good team builder, a good technical teacher. If a club wants to start from scratch and build a new team then he's the perfect candidate."

***

Luca Bruno

De Boer has more reason to be an admirer of Van Gaal. Along with his twin brother Frank, De Boer was a member of Van Gaal's famous 1994-95 Ajax squad, a team of almost entirely homegrown players that won the Champions League against AC Milan in Vienna.

It remains one of the most impressive victories the tournament has seen, a triumph that, while continuing Ajax's rich tradition on the continent (they won the European Cup in three successive seasons in the 1970s), also elevated Van Gaal’s reputation to such an extent that he would be appointed Barcelona’s head coach upon his exit from the Amsterdam ArenA in 1997.

Ajax has traditionally been the wellspring from which the Netherlands has found much of its international success, with Ajax products integral to the country's fine World Cup final runs in 1974 and 1978.

In 2010, meanwhile, five of the 11 men who started the final for Van Marwijk's side began their professional careers at the Amsterdam club.

Now many of that vintage, the class of '95, are back at De Toekomst, Ajax's training facility. Frank de Boer is the manager—on course for his fourth Eredivisie title in as many seasons—with his brother helping with training the youth players two days a week.

Marc Overmars is the club's technical director; Dennis Bergkamp is an assistant coach, while Jaap Stam, Wim Jonk and Bryan Roy are all involved at various levels of the club.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

You could hardly conceive of a more talented group of players to guide the next generation of Dutch talent. It is perhaps not a coincidence, then, that there are high hopes around the club that their next crop of youngsters coming through could prove to be the best in generations.

"We have amazing talent [at Ajax]," De Boer says. "Especially the Under-17s, but also at Under-19 level we have some boys who are in my eyes exceptional, they have a quality with speed of thought and technique that is unbelievable.

"Ricardo Kishna has made his [senior] debut and is already in the first team, he is one of the biggest talents in Europe. But we also have four strikers that are coming through."

Not that anyone at the club is getting ahead of themselves, however, aware that youth development is a complex alchemy with constantly uncertain results.

Still, De Boer seems hopeful that these players can propel Ajax, a side that has recently struggled to get out of the group stages of the Champions League, back to being a threat in the later stages of arguably club football's most prestigious competition.

"That doesn't mean they can make it, because it takes much more to make it to the end," he adds. "But they have special qualities that nobody has, so hopefully [they will].

"We say that we hope the quarter falls in their head the right way, and they understand what it means to be professional, that it is not youth football.

"But yeah, we have such talent coming through that I dare to tell you in three or four years we will have an exceptional team."

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The prospect of such a touted cohort of young players coming through, complementing what already exists further afield in Europe's lowlands, is a tantalising prospect for the national team in the years ahead.

Ajax have already paid a significant fee to sign the prodigiously talented 17-year-old forward Richairo Zivkovic from Groningen this summer, for whom there are ludicrously high hopes (if De Boer has such praise for Ajax’s existing young strikers, surely only a standout talent would lead them to sign another).

Dutch observers seem confident players such as winger Memphis Depay and Jordy Clasie—a classic No. 6 in the Pep Guardiola mould—are long-term certainties for De Oranje, while the likes of Davy Klaassen, Luciano Narsingh and Adam Maher (among many others) look set to continue the nation’s proud attacking tradition.

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

And there are real hopes the defence might finally match up, with Martins Indi one of many strong defenders impressing in the Eredivisie and around Europe.

"Depay is one of those exceptional players who can make something from nothing," De Boer says. "He has speed, a good shot, everything [you need] he has in him.

"Klaassen is an exceptional player, and then we have some young defenders like [Joel] Veltman and De Wiel, De Vrij and [Jeffrey] Gouweleeuw, too."

Making prognostications about a country's starting XI for a tournament four or six years down the line are invariably destined to be made to look stupid by the passing of time and vagaries of fate, but nevertheless it seems likely Netherlands will have a wealth of options—across all areas of the pitch—when they are preparing for the next two World Cups.

It is just this one that will need to be negotiated first.

For Van Gaal, it comes too soon. But then again, if he ends up sitting in Sir Alex Ferguson's old chair at Carrington come July, then perhaps it will have worked out well for all concerned.

 

Victor R. Caivano

Load More Stories

Team StreamTM

World Cup 2014

Subscribe Now

We will never share your email address

Thanks for signing up.