For a fan, tournament football can be a complex and conflicting beast. If your team has the potential to go a long way, maybe even all the way, the main priority is surely to just keep progressing forwards, no matter how it is done. At the same time, with a World Cup – and all the excitement, tension and anticipation it brings – only arriving every four years, we don’t just want our teams to win but to do so in a way that satisfies us. 

In an era where an abundance of stimulating clipped video highlights and intriguing statistical analysis is all at our fingertips, we’ve become harder to please than ever before. The beautiful game has always evoked strong emotions but for right or wrong, how a team achieves its success is now often as significant as the success itself. It’s football with vibes, not simply results.

And that brings us to Louis van Gaal. The 72 year-old is, based on wins, the most successful Netherlands coach ever. He is managing in a third international tournament. In 2014, the last World Cup the Dutch competed in, only penalties denied him taking them to the final. He is currently on an unbeaten 18 match run. And, crucially, his side have just finished top of Group A at this World Cup whilst only conceding once. Considering that Belgium, Denmark, Mexico and now most surprisingly Germany have all failed to get past that first hurdle, this shouldn’t be sniffed at. 

So then why is there a building sense of frustration around van Gaal amongst the Oranje fanbase? Why a growing shadow of discontent, rather than a warm glow of positivity ahead of a winnable second-round match against the United States?

In the group stage, negativity about the team performances, tactics and substitutions coalesced to create concerns about the Oranje’s prospects. Fans of the team want to get excited but there is something holding them back. It’s like feeling compelled to carry on a boring conversation at the bar when all you want to do is join your mates on the dancefloor. You know there is something special out there to get you bouncing on your feet. You just don’t know when, or if, you’ll get to experience it. 

The win against Senegal was passable by falling into the ‘good side winning when playing badly category’. Yet worries grew following a lucky point against Ecuador, involving a disjointed performance with the only Dutch shot on target being the excellent Cody Gakpo’s early goal. And even though it was mission accomplished getting three points against Qatar, the win was expected and there was much confusion about van Gaal’s stubbornness in his substitutions. Why was Xavi Simons not given a run out? What about Noa Lang? Or Jeremie Frimpong? Pretty much the same supporting cast arrived in the second half when the group had already been won and provided little impact. There was also puzzlement at him not at least testing a more attacking plan B, perhaps with a back four and an extra attacker, against such a weak side. Therefore the overriding feeling at the end was of flatness, not elation. 

However, much like with England fans’ trigger-happy criticism of Gareth Southgate, the Oranje fan base should remind themselves that a tournament is a marathon, not a sprint. And that Louis van Gaal, having admitted pre-tournament that he has his eyes set firmly on the ultimate prize, may just know what he is doing. For him, the group stage is a mere irritant that his team has to navigate on its journey deep into the tournament. A way to polish his chess pieces and get them correctly placed to take on the opposition in the knock-out stages. That’s what he is solely focused on, no matter the outside noise and criticism.

There is validity in this approach. The Dutch have hardly been flying but they do have momentum from being undefeated and the confidence that they can still improve. We may not all agree on the system and the personnel but each player clearly understands their role and what is expected of them. This is so important with such little time on the training field between matches and effectively no preparation time for this mid-season tournament. Mixing things up can sometimes leave a dodgy aftertaste. 

Furthermore, unlike many teams van Gaal pretty much now knows exactly what his first choice 11 is, using the group matches to fine-tune certain areas. For example, who partners Frenkie de Jong in midfield, the make-up of his back three, and where best to maximize the attacking potential of Gakpo. This knowledge includes who to bring off the bench. One couldn’t help but think, watching the game against Qatar, that van Gaal was giving final auditions for the players he is most likely to turn to if necessary in the next rounds, be it for an extra target man up front (Wout Weghorst), further spark in the final third (Steven Berghuis) or more control in midfield (Teun Koopmeiners and Kenneth Taylor). 

Finally, for all the scrutiny van Gaal is receiving, it’s worth highlighting the positive impact his decisions have made thus far. He has enabled Memphis Depay to gradually ease his way back to full sharpness, has gotten de Jong playing in full midfield-domination mode, emboldened a back three that looks very solid, and has clearly made the right decision in choosing Andries Noppert as his number-one. Plus there’s the small matter of how well Gakpo is playing under his stewardship despite his relative lack of international experience. 

How many times have we seen teams struggle in the group stage before clicking gloriously into life? In 2014, Germany drew with Ghana and struggled past the USA. And in 2018, France needed an own goal to beat Australia, scraped past Peru, and drew with Denmark. Both went on to win the tournament. 

Admittedly, it does seem a real long shot to imagine the Netherlands lifting the trophy on December 18th. Yet that is not really the point. Right now, Louis van Gaal has his team moving in the right direction. They are still standing. And if they do end up reaching that ultimate end goal, will fans really care about how they felt along the way? 

Joe Baker (14 Posts)