The back pages of the Dutch newspapers will not have made for pretty reading for Louis van Gaal although, given the terse exchanges in the wake of the Netherlands’ dour victory over Qatar the night before, the manager probably had a good idea what was coming.
“A parody of Dutch football,” wrote Valentijn Driessen, the long-standing chief football writer of De Telegraaf, the country’s biggest newspaper, in a withering assessment of an uninspiring 2-0 win against the worst host nation in the 92-year history of the World Cup. “If the Netherlands reach the final playing like this then what’s the point?”
Driessen’s colleague, Mike Verweij, opined that the Orange had been “sleepwalking” through the tournament and were set up “mainly not to lose”. “Of the countries that are likely to end up in the knockout stages, the Netherlands attack has been the slowest and most laborious of any of them,” wrote Jeroen Kapteijns after the Dutch set up a last 16 meeting with the United States at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan on Saturday.
In typical Louis style, Van Gaal had told his critics to go home if they were so “terribly bored” by the football and took exception to Driessen’s claims that watching his side was akin to “grinding teeth” and that a nation was getting restless back home, despite their progress as Group A winners. “I don’t think things are as bad as you say,” Van Gaal retorted.
So has the country that gave us Total Football become a Total Turnoff? It is certainly not an exaggeration to say there has been a lot more entertainment in observing Van Gaal off the field than his team on it. From being caught on camera asking his wife Truus if she wanted to "make out" back at the team hotel to posing for selfies with an army of admirers, the “Iron Tulip” knows how to play to a crowd. On one occasion, a question about Frenkie de Jong’s pale complexion afforded Van Gaal an opportunity to segue into a story about how his mother still had “rosy cheeks” on her deathbed and that his own tanned colouring was a “matter of genes”.
Equally, it is worth remembering that none of the past four World Cup winners collected nine points from the group stage and, more pertinently, none of them were among the most convincing sides during the first three games of the tournament.
Unlike a 38-match league season, or even the 13 games required to win the Champions League, it is often pragmatism rather than panache that wins out at World Cups. Spain, for example, scored only eight goals in seven games en route to winning the competition in 2010, their triumph underpinned by a solid defence rather than tiki taka flair.
Then again, there is a difference between being pragmatic and passive to the point of ponderous and the Netherlands have been straying very much into the latter category.
Indeed, any supporters of a Manchester United persuasion who watched the Dutch labour to a 2-0 victory over Senegal, escape with a fortuitous point against Ecuador and leave everyone feeling rather cold after that win over Qatar will probably be able to draw parallels with Van Gaal’s final season at Old Trafford. More than a third of United’s Premier League games that season ended in 1-0 wins or 0-0 draws – the most in the division – and United finished the campaign with only one goal more than fourth bottom Sunderland, who had spent 237 days in the relegation zone.
Strikers became exasperated by Van Gaal’s insistence that they should not attempt first time shots from balls coming across the penalty area and instead take a touch, wide players alarmed by a diktat to wait for their full-back to arrive in support rather than take on their man. Only Watford, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion created fewer chances, United were 15th out of 20 clubs for shots and for a long period Van Gaal’s side had played more backwards passes than any Premier League rival and produced the lowest percentage of balls forward. Players came to look upon international duty as a welcome escape from the rigid monotony of Van Gaal’s “process” and insistence that “intuition” was the enemy.
The Netherlands’ football in Qatar has, at times, been of a similarly bland and plodding variety. Van Gaal has vowed to stick with his 5-3-2 system, rather than revert to the hallowed 4-3-3, and has so far resisted calls to start the exciting young PSV Eindhoven midfielder, Xavi Simons, alongside De Jong. Manchester United defender, Tyrell Malacia, would offer more pace and penetration at left wing back but continues to be overlooked for Daley Blind, whose father Danny is one of Van Gaal’s assistants.
The US will fancy their chances. Despite the emergence of Cody Gakpo, whose three goals have been impressive even if there is a risk of the PSV forward and United target being overhyped, the Dutch have missed Memphis Depay in attack. Muscle injuries have limited the Barcelona forward to two substitutes and a 66-minute run out against Qatar and he is still not 100 per cent fit. At the same time, his club team-mate De Jong has yet to get going although it is harder to determine if that is a byproduct of Van Gaal’s tactics or the playmaker’s own fluctuations in form and a tendency to be bullied physically.