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

The Netherlands take on Spain on Friday


“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.

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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.

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