Oranje hopes on the rise

Last Updated 21 June 2014, 16:42 IST

The excellent news for Louis van Gaal is that the Netherlands beat Spain, 5-1. The bad news for Louis van Gaal is that the Netherlands beat Spain, 5-1. Managing expectations — both the outside world’s and your own — becomes an immediate challenge when your team starts its World Cup by making the defending champion look antiquated.

But van Gaal, one of the strong-minded men in soccer, cannot be accused of sounding triumphant — no matter how triumphant he looked on the sideline in Salvador during his wild-eyed high-five with his present and future striker, Robin van Persie.

“You win the World Cup by winning the final,” van Gaal said the day before his team faced Australia 3-2 in their second game. “That was just a first step, and we have to keep our feet on the ground. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. We need to prove our ability to win against Australia, which will not be that easy.”

It was not. The Netherlands had a world of trouble on a cool, sunny afternoon and needed to rally twice in the second half to win, 3-2, and clinch a spot in the second round after Chile’s 2-0 victory over Spain.

Australia remains a minnow among the sharks, but the Dutch, three-time finalists but never World Cup champions, were not supposed to be the ultimate predators this time around.

Before the Cup, the mood was downbeat in the Netherlands, with its orange-clad, orange-souled fans convinced that the Dutch defence was too untested, the pre-tournament friendlies too unconvincing and the Dutch league too weak to guarantee a deep run. It is safe to say that the mood has changed, even if van Gaal has not.

At 62, he remains a polarising figure in soccer, and win or lose here, he will only loom larger with the Manchester United coaching job waiting for him.

He will be the first man from outside Britain or Ireland to manage United, and his undeniable head for tactics and eye for talent combined with his prickly, suffer-no-fools manner should make for plenty of headlines — just as it did in Spain, where he coached Barcelona, and in Germany, where he coached Bayern Munich.

Van Gaal wins, but van Gaal also wears thin, departing Barcelona for the first time in 2000 with his famous line, delivered in heavily accented Spanish: “Amigos de la prensa. Yo me voy. Felicidades.” (Friends in the press. I am leaving. Congratulations.)

In anticipation of the next fireworks display, Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad published an open letter to British soccer journalists last month that offered up 10 ground rules for postmatch interviews with van Gaal.

The list included:
“Be prepared for any possible mood.” (“Even if he has won and seems to be quite happy, one wrong question can - and will - put him off.”)

“Don’t introduce yourself.” (“Or else he’ll know your name, remember it and use it against you.”)
“Try to avoid the meta-interview.” (“An interview with Mr van Gaal will almost inevitably wind up being an interview about the interview, or more specifically him asking questions about your questions.

This will be the moment you feel the conversation is slipping away from you. Switch back to the studio, or it will end up on YouTube.”)

“Distinguish fact from opinion.” (“This is hard, as only Mr van Gaal can determine which are facts and which are opinions.”)

Such well-meaning advice was not essential in Porto Alegre, where van Gaal seemed more tempered than testy. But his glance did harden on a few occasions, mostly when questions at the news conference centered on his tactics and formations.

His decision to go with a 5-3-2 instead of the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 was clearly just the right, counterattacking move against the up-tempo quick-passing Spanish, who, in light of the Chile result, were clearly in decline (or bone weary).

Van Gaal stuck with the 5-3-2 early against the Australians, only to see his team get outplayed and out-hustled in the first half, which ended tied, 1-1, after a goal from Arjen Robben in the 20th minute was answered in a flash by a wonder goal from Australia’s Tim Cahill. Just before halftime, van Gaal replaced Martins Indi with winger Memphis Depay and switched back to a 4-3-3. That, too, turned out to be a better move as the Dutch went on to win a hard-fought contest.

“When you lose possession of the ball so simply and so often, it does not matter what formation you play,” van Gaal said. “So I knew I had to change something at halftime in order to boost their confidence. I had to change the mindset.”

Formation seems a particular Dutch obsession, and 4-3-3, with its two wingers, is wrapped up with national identity, underscored by Johan Cruyff, Dutch soccer’s most influential figure. Cruyff, the former star player and coach and exemplar of Total Football, remains a vocal proponent of three men up front and has long clashed with van Gaal on a variety of issues.

To an outsider, all the number crunching feels far inside the Beltway. Presumably even 8-1-1 would have been just fine if the Netherlands had beaten the Spanish by four goals with it. But van Gaal has seen and coached (and been fired) enough to understand that consensus is as elusive as the ball at Robben’s feet.

What seems beyond debate is that van Gaal has two world-class, in-form players up front in van Persie and Robben, who each has scored three goals in only two games. Van Persie, who will miss the final group game against Chile that will decide first place after getting a yellow card on Wednesday, is peaking at the right time after an injury-riddled season.

Robben somehow still looks fresh after a long, draining season with Bayern Munich.

With the pocket-size midfielder Wesley Sneijder pulling strings behind them, it makes for quite a golden triangle, but van Gaal’s relationship with van Persie is clearly the essential one going forward.

Van Persie is the prolific goal scorer every great team requires, and although van Gaal did not start him when he took over the Dutch national team in 2012, he has long since changed his lineup. He and van Gaal attended games together when van Persie was recovering from injury, and when they have finished their work in Brazil, they will continue as co-workers at Manchester United.

Van Gaal has never coached van Persie at the club level. With his deep experience and strong hand on the tiller, van Gaal will be quite a sea change from the more consensual David Moyes, who was fired before completing even one season as Alex Ferguson’s successor.

Van Gaal will be arriving at a good time, with some room for error and experimentation and with expectations unusually low at Man U. Only a week ago, they were low for the Netherlands, too. But that all changed in the second half against Spain.

(Published 21 June 2014, 16:42 IST)

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