Despite their place in the final in 2010, few people gave the Netherlands a chance to go far during the World Cup in Brazil. Too many of their players were still inexperienced, it was said, not ready to compete on football’s biggest stage.
This was, of course, not a far-fetched assertion. With a defence largely consisting of players from the Dutch Eredivisie, like Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi, it was difficult to expect the Netherlands to win against nations like reigning world champions Spain and dangerous outsiders Chile.
What’s more, Kevin Strootman, one of their key players during the qualifiers, had just suffered a serious injury, and the Netherlands had not done well during their preparatory campaign. Surely, the Dutch would be forced to leave the Brazilian party early.
How different would proceedings unfold themselves once the tournament got underway. The Netherlands demolished the once-invincible Spanish tiki-taka machine during their first group match, and later, Australia and Chile were dealt with. In the knockout stage, Mexico and Costa Rica were beaten in thrilling but empowering knockout-stage matches.
As it turned out, this Dutch team was not as bad as was expected. As it turned out, this Dutch team could be seen as one of the contestants to win the World Cup.
Although it was the players on the pitch who scored the goals and won the matches, this success could largely be ascribed Louis van Gaal. Time and again, it was the Dutch manager who changed the Oranje’s fortunes by making exactly the right call at exactly the right time.
Take the tactical change Van Gaal made, shortly before the Netherlands’ opening match against Spain. Defying expectations and stepping away from his favoured 4-3-3 formation, he switched to 5-3-2.
Friend and foe were shocked, but it worked like charm. Against Spain, a liberated Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie put goal after goal past the Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The lost final of 2010 had been avenged.
Against Australia, the Netherlands were forced to make a comeback after falling 2-1 behind. Thanks to Van Gaal, who switched back to 4-3-3 to allow for more options up front, the Oranje eventually won 3-2.
During the Netherlands’ round-of-16 match, against Mexico, it was Van Gaal’s man-management skills that won the day. Fighting back from being 1-0 behind, a deeply motivated Wesley Sneijder, who was once heavily criticised by his boss, and a raging Klaas-Jan Huntelaar changed their team’s fortunes.
Against Costa Rica, Van Gaal’s audacious move to substitute first-choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for apparent penalty killer Tim Krul in the dying minutes of extra time fundamentally changed the penalty shootout that followed.
Should you have predicted this turn of events a couple of months ago, you would have been called a madman. But it was true: The Netherlands had reached the semi-final of the World Cup in Brazil. And in many ways, this was thanks to their manager.
Sure, Van Gaal ran out of tricks in the semi-final. The manager was unable to directly influence the match from the dugout, and the Netherlands lost to Argentina after a penalty shootout. But the simple truth is that it had been an amazing achievement to even get that far.
As a fan of the Netherlands, it will be difficult to look back at this World Cup without a feeling of satisfaction. By rising above themselves match after match, the Oranje managed to exceed expectations immeasurably.
Louis van Gaal, too, can look back with pride. Before starting a new chapter in his career at Manchester United, he has shown how far a well-managed collective can get.
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