Netherlands vs Mexico: Blind faith in Louis van Gaal’s Dutch revolution
Linked with a move to England, Daley Blind, son of Ajax legend Danny, is one of a group of players moulded by the coach into a team that, for once, is fuelled by talent not egos
Saturday 28 June 2014
One of the stories of this World Cup has been how the nations that are home to Europe’s great leagues, the ones that generate football’s vast salaries and vaster advertising contracts, have fallen. One by one, the teams that represent the Premier League (England), La Liga (Italy) and Serie A (Spain) have been eliminated. Only the Bundesliga – ie Germany – remains.
The Netherlands are still there, but the Dutch Eredivisie is seen only as a proving ground even though, after Brazil, the nation is the greatest exporter of what Ruud Gullit once called “world footballers”. Manager Martin Jol thought leaving the reigning champions, Ajax, one of the great names of European football, for Fulham was an upward career move.
There are still some world footballers in the Dutch team in the shape of Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben but the backbone of Louis van Gaal’s side that faces Mexico this afternoon plays its football for Ajax or Feyenoord.
How long those players will remain there once the World Cup is done is another question entirely, and none is coveted more than Daley Blind. The 23-year-old wing-back announced himself on the world stage in Salvador by providing the cross that Van Persie met with the poise of a gymnast, followed by a perfectly judged ball for Robben to run on to and trigger Spain’s astonishing disintegration.
It was a princely performance from someone who belongs to Dutch footballing royalty. The first time Daley Blind appeared on television he was 10 years old, advertising McDonald’s with his dad.
Danny Blind won everything an Ajax player could win: the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Uefa Cup, the European Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. This was when Ajax, who had won the European Cup in 1995, were judged the best club team in the world.
Danny’s son, naturally, went to the Ajax academy, De Toekomst, and made his debut as an 18-year-old. His father, a defender, won the League five times. Daley has won four Eredivisie titles by the age of 23. When, having just been voted Dutch footballer of the year, he signed a contract designed to keep him in Amsterdam until 2016, he declared himself Ajax to his core.
That statement may not bear too much scrutiny. Luke Shaw’s imminent arrival at Old Trafford may have stopped the stories that he would join Van Gaal at Manchester United but Liverpool and Tottenham are among those preparing to bid for his services.
When Daley and Danny were filmed munching their way through a Big Mac, it was to advertise scratch cards for Euro 2000. The Dutch performed typically in that tournament, playing sublimely until it really mattered – in that instance the semi-final in the Amsterdam Arena when they failed to break down an Italy side reduced to 10 men for much of the game before fouling up the penalty shoot-out, just as they had done two years before in their epic World Cup semi-final against Brazil.
Frank de Boer was one of the three players who missed their spot-kick, and when later he became manager of Ajax, it was he who remodelled Blind’s game, transforming him at that time from a full-back into a holding midfielder.
Van Gaal, however, demanded that Blind operate as an aggressive wing-back for the Netherlands, with Nigel de Jong and Jonathan de Guzman pushed up in support. Between them they provided the platform that allowed Robben and Van Persie to dismantle Spain’s brilliant, ageing midfield.
The Netherlands may have reached the World Cup final four years ago but the lasting image they left in South Africa was the imprint of De Jong’s studs in Xabi Alonso’s chest. Coach Bert van Marwijk seemed to have no other tactics than to try to grind Spain down in Johannesburg. Four years later, Van Gaal took Spain on and destroyed them.
Reaching and losing a third World Cup final, after missing out in 1974 and 1978, seemed to have a negative impact on the national side. There has always been friction. Danny Blind’s World Cup, in the United States, had seen Gullit try to remove Dick Advocaat as manager in favour of Johan Cruyff and, when that failed, he walked out of the Dutch training camp, citing a lack of unity.
After Van Marwijk’s side reached the 2010 final, Robben argued that it led to a disastrous Euro 2012 because the players’ egos had become too inflated. “It has been very difficult for us at the Euros because there are too many big egos after the World Cup,” said Robben, not known for his own modesty.
When Van Gaal’s squad arrived in Brazil, there was a feeling that a defence whose most famous member was Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar would not withstand much pressure. That, however, may be why the Netherlands face Mexico with a 100 per cent record. The world footballers have largely gone and as a result this a different type of Dutch side – where talent and team spirit has not been buired under a mound of egos.
Holland v Mexico is live on BBC1 and ITV1 Sunday, kick-off 5pm
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