It's Not Total Football, but Louis Van Gaal Has Netherlands Moving Forward

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistJune 12, 2014

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 11:  Nigel De Jong of the Netherlands tackles Xabi Alonso of Spain with a kick in the chest during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The Netherlands squad in Brazil is inexperienced and relatively unfancied, which—the Dutch being the Dutch—seems to be seen as a positive.

Although the Netherlands reached the final of the last World Cup, there were those who saw only disgrace in their performance: They weren’t Dutch enough, and the chest-high challenge by Nigel de Jong on Xabi Alonso in the final became seen as the emblem of the unpleasant cynicism that had been allowed to dominate their play.

This World Cup has become as much about re-establishing their identity as it is about winning.

Since the 1970s, as Simon Kuper argued in Issue 0 of the Blizzard (subscription required), there has been a sense of the Dutch as a team that played beautiful football—and lost.

They went down 2-1 to West Germany in the 1974 World Cup final and went down 3-1 to Argentina in 1978, beaten both times by host nations who played a more muscular style of football. The Dutch insisted that didn’t matter: They preferred to play with quixotic beauty than to deal in something as base as results.

Five or six years ago, that changed. The build-up to the last World Cup spoke of a new pragmatism. The Nike adverts before the tournament appealed to a sensibility far removed from Dutch tradition.

"Tears of joy are made of sweat," said one. "Destroy egos, starting with your own," said another (h/t David Winner of the Telegraph).

But the new approach still brought a final defeat—against Spain, against whom the Netherlands begin this World Cup campaign on Friday.

The revulsion against that pragmatism—allied to Louis van Gaal’s disappointment last time he was Netherlands manager, when they failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup—led to him jettisoning a number of senior players and looking to build for the future.

There appeared to be green shoots in qualifying, as Paul Wilson of the Guardian noted: "Van Gaal must be doing something right, because Holland were the first European side to qualify for the finals in Brazil."

During qualifying, everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. The Dutch topped their group comfortably, playing a 4-2-3-1 that, if not awakening memories of Total Football or even Van Gaal's Ajax side of the early 1990s, at least took Dutch football back towards its historical principles.

Kevin Strootman's absence is a huge blow for the Dutch
Kevin Strootman's absence is a huge blow for the DutchGiuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Two injuries, though, have hit them hard. Kevin Strootman had emerged as almost the iconic player of Van Gaal’s new vision, a powerful but deft player at the back of midfield. Without him and Rafael van der Vaart, one of the few experienced players to survive the cull, Van Gaal seems to have lost faith with the tactical system that saw the Dutch through qualification.

In the warm-up games, he has experimented with a 4-3-1-2 and a 3-4-1-2, the latter apparently after being inspired by Feyenoord, whose young side finished second in the Eredivisie last season.

It remains unclear whether Van Gaal will opt for the back four or a back three against Spain, but it may be that he will reason that adding the extra midfielder is the best way to try to frustrate Spain’s passing game—with De Jong the only certainty, sitting in front of the defensive line.

The front three, meanwhile, are all experienced: Wesley Sneijder sitting deep behind an asymmetric pairing of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

They switch over, but Robben tends to start from the left—rather than the right as he does for Bayern Munich—with Van Persie often dropping deep, looking to link with the midfield and release Robben with his pace.

"I don't think opponents will defend man on man against Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder," Van Gaal said at a press conference this week. "That's why our new system is going to be hard to play against."

So, although this is part of the process of rebuilding the Dutch team to a Dutch model, it seems likely to begin with an attempt to pack the midfield and prevent Spain from playing while threatening on the counter-attack.

At least, though, it should be less cynical than the Dutch of four years ago.