The Van Gaal effect: Why dancing Netherlands' manager's philosophy is perfectly suited to the World Cup stage
''In Louis we trust'' - the Netherlands’ simple response to NBA legend Charles Barkley’s claims that the United States would ''open a can of whoop-*ss'' on them in the last 16 of the World Cup spoke volumes over the mood of optimism in the Dutch camp.
Louis van Gaal’s troops did not let him down as they put on a counter-attacking football clinic to seal a 3-1 victory over the U.S. and book a huge quarter-final tie against Argentina. The Oranje will be underdogs against a Lionel Messi-inspired Albiceleste, but if anyone can mastermind their downfall, it’s Van Gaal.
The 71-year-old was drafted back in for a third spell in charge of the Netherlands after their hugely disappointing Euro 2020 campaign under Frank de Boer, and has steadied the ship in a typically assured fashion.
His team have gone 19 matches without defeat since Van Gaal’s return, and after the win over the U.S., he is now unbeaten in 11 World Cup games as a manager - the second-best record in the competition’s entire history.
Despite those results, Van Gaal’s approach has received a lot of criticism in his homeland. Indeed, with his side 2-0 up against the U.S at half-time, Dutch legend Marco van Basten was scathing in his assessment of the manager’s set-up.
''We did nothing at all,'' he said to the NOS. ''Nothing happened at all, except for the two moments that led to goals. No initiative, nothing at all."
Van Gaal is well known for his pragmatic style of play, which delivered multiple domestic titles and the Champions League across his stints with Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
His reputation suffered a blow due to his failure at Manchester United in one of the few instances when his philosophy did not reap rich rewards, but the World Cup is tailor-made for him.
This current Netherlands squad does not boast the star power of ones previously coached by Van Gaal, when the likes of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, and Wesley Sneijder were on hand to make the difference through moments of individual brilliance.
Van Gaal has instead maximised the potential of his current crop by getting them to stick to the core values underpinning the success he’s enjoyed throughout his 30-year career. They are perfectly set up to win one-off matches, no matter how tough the standard of opposition might be.
Patience in possession and discipline out of it are the key principles, as evidenced in their 2-0 final group stage win against hosts Qatar. However, one reporter sharing similar concerns to Van Basten claimed their performance was like ''grinding teeth'', which did not go down well with Van Gaal.
"I think you have a different perspective to me, why don’t you write down it’s terribly boring?'' he snapped back at the journalist in question. "If you think it’s boring, why don’t you go home?''
Van Gaal’s exchanges with the media have been a great source of entertainment throughout the tournament, from his "naked players'' revelation when making final squad call-ups over FaceTime to the moment he propositioned his wife on camera during a training session.
Denzel Dumfries even received a "big fat kiss'' from his manager at a post-United States press conference as a reward for recording two assists before rounding off the scoring.
The clearest example of how much Van Gaal has endeared himself to neutral fans and his players came when the squad arrived back at their hotel after the last-16 triumph.
Memphis Depay, Virgil van Dijk and Dumfries were among those to dance through the entrance to the backdrop of Shakira’s 2010 anthem ‘Waka Waka’ before Van Gaal, who then strutted in with a huge smile on his face and recorded the occasion while embracing the Qatari welcoming party.
QUARTER-FINAL VIBES! 😍🎉— OnsOranje (@OnsOranje) December 3, 2022
Wait for the coach! 😆🧡#NothingLikeOranje #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/GY2vFLxLnU
Van Gaal, one of football’s last great eccentrics, doesn’t give a damn about his detractors. He is giving us a swansong to remember and won’t change his ways for anyone. The fact that he is still in recovery after battling prostate cancer has made Oranje’s resurgence all the more remarkable.
The squad was kept in the dark over his treatment for the illness during their qualifying campaign, but Van Gaal revealed all in April as he confirmed that 25 sessions of radiation therapy had "done its job''.
Daley Blind has spoken of how the coach’s diagnosis has impacted the dressing room: ''He did everything he could to keep it from us. He was even going to the hospital during the nights, so as not to show the team what he was going through.
"We have so much respect for how he is coping with this disease at the moment. But he is as sharp as usual. He is Louis van Gaal and he will never change. He is a great personality and we are very happy that he is with us.
''He always knows how to inspire players. It’s in the back of our heads but we don’t need any extra motivation. We want to win every game, we want to play for our coach and we want to go as far as we can.''
Van Gaal will have a fully united squad behind him when he aims to exact revenge over Argentina on Friday, having suffered semi-final penalty shootout heartbreak at the hands of the South Americans back in 2014.
If his players can execute his game plan to full effect once again, a major upset could be on the cards. Even Messi may struggle to find a way through the disciplined Dutch defence, while Memphis Depay, Cody Gakpo and Frenkie de Jong will be like sharks smelling blood as they seek to capitalise on any quick turnovers in possession.
After conquering the U.S., Van Gaal’s message was clear: "I have been talking for a year that we can become world champions, not that we will, but we can."
The Netherlands might not always be easy on the eye, but they are built in Van Gaal’s image, and that makes them serious contenders.