There is always at least one selection in a World Cup squad that causes eyebrows to rise into hairlines. Often that player is deemed to reflect a wider weakness with the manager and becomes a lightning rod for criticism. 

Representing the Netherlands, step forward Daley Blind and Louis van Gaal… 

Despite having played a key role in van Gaal’s unbeaten start to his third reign in charge, in which the Oranje has won 7 of 9 matches, the selection of Blind for the World Cup has been met with general disapproval. He has had a poor season at club level and was recently dropped from a struggling Ajax side by the under-pressure Coach Alfred Schreuder, with fans citing him as one of the main causes of the Dutch champions’ demise this campaign domestically and in Europe. A shocking mistake against Napoli in the Champions League did not help the cloud of negativity forming around him. 

At international level, Blind has 94 caps for his country but is now increasingly perceived as a hindrance to the development of a young, vibrant squad. The building consensus is that he is too slow, not good enough in an attacking sense, and blocking the pathways of others. The fact that in-form youngsters such as Newcastle United’s Sven Botman and Micky van de Ven of Wolfsburg were overlooked has only added fuel to the fire. And, whilst the presence of his father Danny Blind on the Dutch coaching staff will not have influenced van Gaal’s decision, it has only fanned the flames of frustration for those who feel that van Gaal has an obvious blind spot or a degree of favouritism. when it comes to Blind Jr. For many, Blind is a conservative pick that raises concerns that van Gaal will seek caution ahead of expansiveness. 

Yet when the Oranje kick off their hunt for that elusive first World Cup, Blind will almost certainly be in the starting 11. The 32-year-old has not only been in every one of van Gaal’s squads since the grandfather of Dutch football returned in 2021 but has played every minute of the seven games in which he has been used. The other two were when he was rested. 

This then begs the question – why does one of the Netherland’s most successful coaches actually continue to pick him?

Balance to the system

Firstly, Blind slots ideally into the tactical systems van Gaal will likely follow in Qatar. Whether switching between a 3-5-2, 3-4-3 or 3-4-1-2 set-up, Blind acts as an ideal option on the left-hand side. During Netherlands matches, you will see Inter Milan’s Flying Dutchman Denzel Dumfries spending most of his time high on the right, effectively as a winger. This necessitates a more conservative approach on the opposite flank to prevent the defence from being exposed, with both flanks wide open. What’s more, Blind can both naturally tuck inside to provide an overload in central midfield and if necessary drop back to fill into the left-sided centre-back position. As someone who has never been blessed with pace, the former Manchester United man has needed to develop a high football IQ and positional nous, which van Gaal knows is key during games. 

An experienced head

It is easy to forget that, despite some of the star names in this Dutch squad, barely any of them have any World Cup experience. Indeed, after failing to qualify for the 2018 showpiece, there are only three individuals who played in 2014 when van Gaal led them to the Semi-Finals – Stefan de Vrij, Memphis Depay, and a certain Daley Blind. The latter played in every match, either as a wing-back or in central midfield, scoring in the third-place playoff win against Brazil and providing the perfect diagonal pass for that iconic Robin van Persie header during the thrashing of Spain. Even if he ends up just being a squad player, his leadership and know-how of what it takes to not only play but thrive in a World Cup is vitally important for this young squad. 

Value of versatility

In a tournament squad, having players who can play in multiple positions is hugely beneficial. It can enable a coach to load up on players in other areas, in van Gaal’s case in attack, whilst providing more flexibility during matches and useful cover if injuries strike, something which is always a risk due to the quick turnaround in matches. A coach might feel lucky if he has a player who can play in two positions. Realistically, Blind can do a job in six – full-back or wing-back on either flank, defensive midfield, or on the left of a defensive three. During World Cup qualification Blind played as an orthodox left-back, before spending all of the Nations League campaign as a wing-back. If the Oranje go deep in the tournament, this positional pliability will become increasingly valuable. 

Well-suited for international football

You simply do not play almost 100 times for your country if you are not good enough for international football. A lot of the criticisms of Blind are valid but they perhaps overlook how well he has done in orange since his debut in 2013. The international game is a lot slower than at club level, which suits Blind. In the heat of Qatar, that speed of play could be even slower, negating the issues over his lack of pace. 

His attacking stats are poor – his last goal for the Netherlands was in 2014 – but there have been recent signs of improvement in that regard, with well-timed forays forward from wing-back, providing an option at the back post in the box and stretching sides during switches of play. Recently he got two assists against Belgium and really should have scored against Poland. Aside from this, his calmness and vision on the ball, strong passing off both sides, and natural defensive qualities are assets for the team. What’s more, it is clear that Blind understands exactly what van Gaal requires of him in this balanced role. Trust is an underrated factor, particularly due to the lack of preparation time for this World Cup, and he has it in abundance from van Gaal. 

If international squads were picked purely on form, Daley Blind surely would not have boarded that plane to Qatar. Yet they are not. In his last dance as a coach, van Gaal has a clear idea of what he is getting from the oldest outfield player in his squad. And if the Netherlands does end up going far, it is highly likely that Blind will have had a significant role to play. 

Joe Baker (14 Posts)