World Cup 2014: Louis Van Gaal restores the beautiful side of the Oranje game

The Netherlands take on Spain on Friday

Salvador

“It was ugly, tough, vulgar, barely watchable, and with very little football involved.” Johan Cruyff is not known for pulling his punches and his verdict on his native Netherlands’ approach to the 2010 World Cup final could not have been more explicit. 

That final inside the great bowl of Soccer City four years ago was the World Cup’s ugliest since Germany and Argentina met in an ill-tempered contest in Rome 20 years earlier.  It featured 48 fouls, 14 yellow cards and a red for John Heitinga. Aside from Andres Iniesta’s 116th-minute winning goal and a crucial Iker Casillas save from Arjen Robben, its most memorable moment was Nigel de Jong’s chest-high kung-fu kick on Xabi Alonso, an assault that escaped the red card it merited from Howard Webb.

It was a night of Dutch aggression and Spanish simulation, but when these two great footballing nations reconvene at what could well be a rainy Arena Fonte Nova in their opening Group B fixture in Salvador, the hope is for a spectacle more befitting their rich traditions.

The difference will not come from a Spain side seeking to become only the third team to retain the world title, and the first since Brazil in 1962. No, the change has come from Holland. Their likely starting XI today features just four survivors of that South African night four years ago – the front three of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, along with De Jong – but the most significant change is the presence of Louis van Gaal.

After replacing Bert van Marwick after the Dutch failure to survive the group stage at Euro 2012, Van Gaal set about restoring the Oranje’s sheen. No player was guaranteed a place in his squad, the old guard were phased out and the response was stunning: the Dutch cruised to the finals, scoring 34 goals in ten games, 11 of them from Robin van Persie. They played football too.

In David Winner’s book on the Dutch game, ‘Brilliant Orange’, Van Gaal’s former right-hand man at Ajax and Barcelona, Gerard van der Lem, said of the success of the now Manchester United manager’s teams: “The main principle was possession of the ball.” And the key was its quick circulation. In this context, it is no surprise to note that it was Van Gaal who as Barcelona coach gave debuts to the two players who came to define Spain’s style – Xavi Hernandez and Iniesta.

Xavi spoke of the Manchester United manager-in-waiting in glowing terms in yesterday’s presence conference at the Arena Fonte Nova. “I have incredible memories of Van Gaal, he was virtually my first professional coach and I have a special feeling for him,” he said. “I owe him a lot.  He was a very direct coach, he was great with me and trusted 100% in what I could do.

Van Gaal’s promotion of young players has been a defining feature of his management – his 1995 Champions League-winning Ajax side had an average age of 24.7 years – and the same applies with this Dutch team who are expected to face Spain with six players 25 or under.

Read more: World Cup fixtures and tables
Latest World Cup video
Daily World Cup quiz

There has been an air of calm at the squad’s base on Ipanema beach yet among the Dutch press, there are questions being asked about a recent, notable shift in strategy by Van Gaal. Since losing rumoured midfielder Kevin Strootman – a rumoured Old Trafford target – to injury in March, Van Gaal has switched from the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 formation to a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 formation, prompting plenty of debate, hardly muted by unconvincing friendly performances. After qualification, they went four games without victory until wins over Ghana and Wales in the past fortnight.

Now for that rematch with Spain. The first European nation to win a World Cup outside of the old continent, triumphant in their past three tournaments, they are now bidding to become Europe’s first winners on South American soil. They reached the final of last year’s Confederations Cup but history suggests a winning cycle can only go on so long. They retain great defensive solidity in Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos but there are concerns over who will score their goals. Del Bosque could either field Cesc Fabregas as his false No9 today or start with Diego Costa, the Brazilian striker now in a marriage of convenience with Spain who was jeered as a “traitor” by a handful of spectators at an open training session on Tuesday.

Van Gaal has no such doubts, and if Robin van Persie really is fit and Robben can retain the form he showed for Bayern Munich this season, then the Dutch have the firepower to worry any team. A youthful defence may be more of a concern, not least if Ron Vlaar’s troubles in marshalling Aston Villa’s inexperienced back line is any measure.

Xavi, for one, remains wary of his old boss’s powers. “With Holland, he has adapted the style a bit to the players he has. He has three players up front with experience and a lot of speed and in Sneijder the ability to find the last pass.”

With a big job at Old Trafford waiting for him, the 62-year-old has nothing to prove in one sense. The reputation that took a dent when he failed to lead Holland to qualification for Korea/Japan 2002 was restored when he led AZ Alkmaar to the Dutch title and built the foundations for Bayern’s current era of success. The man who once dropped his trousers in the Bayern dressing room would doubtless like to go out with a bang but he must stop the world champions first.

Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before