You would think the Netherlands’ successful campaign at the World Cup in Brazil made the Dutch happy. But in truth, only about half of the Oranje fans were happy with their team’s third-place finish. The other half was too busy commenting on the style of play being used to enjoy the success.
Since Dutch football came to maturity in the 1970s, there has been a divide in Dutch football culture.
On one side of the boundary there are the romantics, who believe a game of football should, first of all, be attractive to watch. Then there are the pragmatists. They believe matches are there to be won.
It’s difficult to blame the pragmatists for thinking football is a competitive game. Who wouldn’t want to wrap their fingers around that beautiful, golden trophy?
If you’re not willing to play for the win, you can’t even compete in the tournament. Somewhere during the qualifying round, San Marino or Andorra would send you home.
At the same time, you have to admire the romantics.
In the 1970s, Dutch football became famous not only because it was so effective, but also because it was beautiful to watch. Dancing around the pitch, constantly looking for opportunities to attack, manager Rinus Michels and star player Johan Cruyff made football into art.
But Louis van Gaal, who saw himself facing a major problem when key man Kevin Strootman suffered a serious injury just before the World Cup, wasn’t bothered.
2014 was not the 1970s, and he wasn’t going to go to the World Cup in Brazil to win a dancing competition. Louis van Gaal was going to do what Louis van Gaal does best: outsmarting his opponents and winning—no matter what.
And so, shortly before the Netherlands’ opening match against Spain, he switched from his regular 4-3-3 formation to an unusual 5-3-2.
This caused utter confusion among the Dutch public. How do you play with five defenders? Where does that leave the wingers? And what, for heaven’s sake, is the use of two defensive midfielders?
The Dutch romantics went a step further, outright condemning Van Gaal’s new tactics. If it had to be done in this way, then why bother? According to the romantics, dumping the Oranje’s traditional 4-3-3 setup like some out-of-favour, second-rate striker was like selling the Dutch soul to the devil. It simply wasn’t worth it.
A few months later, and with the World Cup behind us, Van Gaal and his pragmatist following have been vindicated. The Netherlands were successful in Brazil, reaching third place and beating top nations like Spain, Chile and Brazil along the way.
Pact with the devil or not, Van Gaal had shown the Dutch public that a no-nonsense approach to football could bring them success in the 21st century.
Still, the romantics cling onto their ideas, not allowing themselves to be swept away by the new tidal wave of pragmatism. But new Netherlands boss Guus Hiddink, who took over from Van Gaal after the World Cup, is not one of them. Hiddink has seen what his predecessor did in Brazil, and he liked it.
As reported by Mike Allen of the Mirror, Hiddink said: “You go to tournaments to win. First survival, and then worry about playing good football." Under Hiddink, Van Gaal’s legacy of pragmatism will likely be continued.
In the Netherlands, the debate between those who want to win and those who prioritise beautiful football in an absolute sense will likely continue forever. But thanks to Van Gaal, it is no longer the official doctrine to favour style over result, and in doing so, the new Manchester United boss has made life much easier for his Oranje successor.
That, in itself, is a legacy Van Gaal can be proud of.