Robin van Persie may have had no interest in keeping his bronze medal—instead handing it off to a Dutch fan, along with his captain’s armband, moments after he was presented with it—but for coach Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands’ third-place play-off victory was a fitting send-off as he heads for his new role at Manchester United.
Van Gaal plans to arrive in England on Wednesday, by which time his country's 3-0 win over Brazil on Saturday will have been well and truly overshadowed by the result of Sunday’s final. But the victory means he achieved his (somewhat contrived) aim of becoming the first Dutch coach to go an entire tournament without losing a game in “regulation” (i.e. without a penalty shootout), having already defied most expectations for both him and his team for this World Cup.
"It was a big honour for us to be here and a once in a lifetime experience," Arjen Robben told reporters, per The Telegraph, after the game. "Today's match was the best way to end this tournament.
“We also fully deserved this third place the way we played. Nobody expected us to be in the last four."
The World Cup for Van Gaal was about redemption, having failed to even qualify for the 2002 tournament last time he was in charge of the Oranje. Drawn in a group that also included Spain and Chile, however, many neutrals feared his belated World Cup experience would end up being a truncated one, especially with a squad of players that skewed toward the young and inexperienced.
Losing Kevin Strootman, one of three players Van Gaal had previously identified as vital to his team, prior to the tournament lent further weight to that prognostication. Instead, Van Gaal turned that setback into an opportunity with a grace and expertise that United fans will be fervently hoping to see at Old Trafford next season.
Decisively and pragmatically he moved to a new system involving three centre-backs, one that perhaps erred from the Dutch tradition (one built on a fluid, attacking style) but better played to the qualities he had left to his disposal—and was rewarded by getting within a penalty shootout of the World Cup final.
That was achieved with a core of defensive players—Jasper Cillessen, Bruno Martins Indi, Daley Blind and Stefan de Vrij—all under the age of 26, all presumably some way from reaching their full potential. Youth was also sprinkled liberally throughout the rest of Van Gaal’s starting line-ups, with 23-year-old Georginio Wijnaldum becoming a regular as the competition progressed and 20-year-old forward Memphis Depay impressing enough to be one of three players on the shortlist for the young player of the tournament award.
Due to that youthful feel to the squad (11 of the 23 selected are 25 or under—while Strootman is only 24), it was widely considered that Brazil would be a tournament too soon for them: a learning experience, but not one where they could be viable contenders. But coming so close to reaching the final means both a revision of perceptions and an adjustment in future expectations—with new targets now set for tournaments to come.
"We were able to show a kind of football that is rather novel, in the Netherlands at least, with players who cooperate so well," Van Gaal told reporters, per Eurosport, alluding to the tactical changes he made.
"A coach has to work based on the quality of his squad and it worked out, apart from the fact that we are not world champions but really we were very, very close."
Van Gaal will now be succeeded by Guus Hiddink, another elder statesman of the Dutch game, who will guide the team for the next four years before one of Van Gaal’s assistants, Danny Blind, takes on the mantel in 2018. Such a long-term succession plan is rarely seen in football, but it has been intended to give the national team stability while allowing Blind time to learn about his squad and the demands of the international game.
Blind—who got to enjoy what must be one of the best feelings in football, seeing your son score in a World Cup, when full-back Daley lashed home against Brazil on Saturday—must be quietly relieved that he is not stepping into the top job right away. Because after Van Gaal’s achievements this month, the pressure will surely be on Hiddink to do even better than Van Gaal managed over the next four years.
Hiddink, like Van Gaal, has managed the national team before—taking a team that included Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and the De Boer brothers to a quarter-final exit at Euro ’96 and fourth-place finish at the 1998 World Cup.
That was a brilliantly talented generation of Dutch players. Based on what Van Gaal has achieved this summer, it would seem that he is now taking the reins of another.
Most of the young players mentioned above are likely to improve considerably over the next few years, being far more experienced by time the next European Championships roll around in 2016 and, as they reach the fable 26-29 range, entering their peaks by the next World Cup. If Van Gaal was working with raw talent and making adjustments for it, Hiddink should soon have the real deal to fashion in whichever way he pleases.
For all that cause for encouragement, however, the key issue for Hiddink might be that the team’s most important players this summer are probably now past their peaks as far as international competition goes.
Arjen Robben seems to be getting better with age, but he, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie will all be 32 by the next Euros and 34 by the time of the World Cup in Russia. Having been stalwarts of the side for so long, others will soon have to shoulder their responsibilities—although it remains to be seen which emerging Dutch players have the class to reach the very pinnacle of the European game as all three have done in their careers.
Van Gaal will not worry about that too much, however. His focus will now be on Manchester United, on restoring the club to the sort of success it enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson.
He has left his successor a blueprint for success with this Dutch side, a roadmap toward potential victory at the European Championships. With that comes pressure and expectation, of course.
Van Gaal might like that, having not always enjoyed the best relationship with Hiddink—a man who has not been afraid to appear critical of the man he will now replace over recent months.
"The next coach of the team, I heard him say he wants the Dutch way of playing football,” Van Gaal added on Saturday. “I have always played the Dutch way and I also gave it something else.
"Perhaps this will open everyone's eyes in the Netherlands and make people realise that there's not just one system.”
The benchmark has been set. It will be interesting to see how Hiddink fares from here on.