Netherlands riding the crest of a wave
Louis Van Gaal’s squad in confident mood for the game against Australia
Robin van Persie of the Netherlands celebrates his goal against Spain with coach Louis van Gaal at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador. Photo: Michael Dalder/Reuters
The Netherlands have a lovely problem on their hands. How on earth do you follow a 5-1 victory over Spain?
Australia are about to find out, although even if Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie run riot against the Socceroos in Porto Alegre today it is hard to imagine the Netherlands’ performance being talked about back home for a quarter of a century and more. Salvador, Friday 13 June 2014, was Dutch football’s JFK moment.
“It was an incredible result against Spain, you must see it as a wonder, in the same way as the goal that Marco van Basten scored in the European Championships in 1988,” says TV pundit René van der Gijp, a former Dutch international, who played alongside Louis van Gaal for Sparta Rotterdam.
“It’s like a miracle. That’s what I think, what the Dutch think . . . . I said on television that this is a game you will remember for 25 years and know where you were when it took place.”
As brilliant as the Netherlands were in the second half, it felt like a freakish scoreline in every sense, not just because it was against Spain.
The Dutch had produced nothing in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup finals to suggest that they were capable of putting five past Australia, let alone Vicente del Bosque’s all-conquering team.
Kevin Strootman’s injury had forced Van Gaal to abandon his favoured 4-3-3 system, and a defence made up predominantly of inexperienced domestic-based players, from a league considered to be in serious decline, looked like an accident waiting to happen.
At least that was the theory going into the Spain game. The reality was beyond any Dutch supporter’s wildest dreams.
From the moment that Van Persie, with a wonderful piece of improvisation, met Daley Blind’s diagonal ball with a glorious looping header to equalise on the stroke of half-time, Van Gaal’s players were transformed. What followed was not so much Total Football as Total Counterattacking as the Netherlands, set up in a 5-3-2 formation, ruthlessly, and quite brilliantly, picked Spain off, inspired by the outstanding Robben.
Van Gaal, it has transpired, has been getting things right off as well as on the pitch in Brazil, by creating a relaxed environment. Van Persie, remarkably, was playing pool with his children only four hours before the Spain game, after Van Gaal invited the players’ families to visit the team hotel. Other players have been spotted driving around with their girlfriends in Brazil and socialising outside of the training camp.
All of which suggests that Van Gaal has learned from 2002, when Holland failed to qualify for the World Cup finals under his watch and senior players complained that his regime was too intense.
These days the vibe within the Dutch squad is that they are playing for the manager as much as their country. Van Persie’s “high-five” celebration with Van Gaal, following the first of his two goals against Spain, was indicative of the strength of their own relationship and the wider sense of harmony within the group.
It all sounds too good to be a true for a country that has often pressed the self-destruct button at major tournaments.
One school of thought is that the Netherlands are benefiting from the fact that there are few egos that need massaging in the current group. Other than Van Persie, Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Nigel de Jong – all of whom started against Spain – the only other players in the Dutch squad who have won more than 25 caps for their country are Dirk Kuyt and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. It is not an all-star cast.
The backline has a callow feel to it. Jasper Cillessen, the goalkeeper (aged 25), Stefan de Vrij (22), Bruno Martins Indi (22), Daryl Janmaat (24) and Blind (24) all play their club football in the Eredivisie.
But the Dutch seem wary about getting carried away. At . Euro 2008, the Netherlands beat Italy 3-0 and France 4-1 in their first two matches, only to lose to Russia in the quarter-finals. On that occasion Van Basten was outwitted by Guus Hiddink. The difference this time is that nobody expects Van Gaal to lose a game on the tactics board.