Twin feats would be separated by 27 years and a shift in thinking. Van Gaal was one of the great entertainers when his Ajax side conquered Europe in 1995. Now, and while the Dutch scored three beautiful goals against the United States, there is a cautiousness to a positional game with players stationed behind the ball. Long a man who is convinced he is right, Van Gaal feels he was a trailblazer.
“My vision has evolved,” he said. “I was a head coach of Ajax with very offensive DNA then I moved to Barcelona where I learnt that you can’t always pursue that goal. When in 2014 I started to develop the more defensive system, people criticised me but now half the world is playing that way.
“Football is evolving and it is much more difficult than it was 20 years ago to play as offensively as Ajax did. Football is no longer being played in 1998 or 1974. Then it was an open game, which it no longer is.”
Those dates were not just chosen by chance. The Netherlands against Argentina is a match of great historical resonance. There was a 4-0 win for Johan Cruyff’s total footballers in the 1974 World Cup – Van Gaal and Cruyff were later to have a lengthy feud – while Argentina won the 1978 final at the expense of the Dutch. In 1998, Dennis Bergkamp scored one of the greatest World Cup goals to defeat Argentina. And in 2014, after Van Gaal embraced pragmatism, a semi-final ended 0-0, Ron Vlaar’s missed penalty in the subsequent shootout perhaps costing the Netherlands the World Cup that has long eluded them.
Louis van Gaal and his players after a shootout defeat by Argentina in the 2014 semi-finals
Now, in a country where style matters, where it is almost more important how you win than if you win, Van Gaal attracts plenty of criticism. The wider world is enjoying his antics; some in the Netherlands are enjoying his football less. He was asked about defending with nine outfield players. “I consider this extremely negative just as you said you found my telephone in the toilet,” he replied, quixotically.
But a defensive ploy will assume an importance in the glamour quarter-final. Messi did not touch the ball in the Dutch box in the 120 minutes of the 2014 semi-final, with Nigel de Jong given a man-marking job on the maestro. Now a similar task may fall to another De Jong, Frenkie, though Van Gaal opted not to divulge his plans. “Revealing our tactics to you would be pretty stupid,” he responded forcefully. “You could have come up with an answer yourself. You may want to block and close the passing lanes.”
Now Van Gaal, who still thinks the Netherlands were the outstanding side of the 2014 World Cup, has been in regular contact with his former Bayern Munich midfielder, Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose Germany team beat Messi’s Argentina in the final.
Now, as he nears the end of a third spell in charge of his country, Van Gaal could complete a trilogy of sorts. He failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in his first spell in charge. He almost reached the final in his second. He termed his return for a third “an emergency situation”, following Frank de Boer’s departure after Euro 2020, but thus far it has been an inspired decision. His last defeat as a manager was United’s 3-2 loss to West Ham in 2016. He is unbeaten in his third spell with the Netherlands – indeed, his last competitive defeat, penalties apart, was 1-0 by the Republic of Ireland in 2001. Over three stints, he has only lost four of 63 games. Avoid defeat in three more, and any penalty shootouts, and Louis van Gaal will be a world champion.
And, being Van Gaal, he will have done it his way.
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