Louis van Gaal to work his Dutch magic against Spain

Netherlands coach failed to qualify his side for the World Cup back in 2002 and has his chance to right that wrong

The headline writers had Wesley Sneiijder and his Dutch team-mates plotting a revenge mission against Spain in Salvador tonight which might well have had the Vicente del Bosque's players sweating a little had 2010 boss Bert Van Marwijk still been dictating the tactics.

The truth, like the Dutch these days, was a little tamer with the Galatasaray player merely suggesting that his side could do with taking something from this evening’s re-enactment of the 2010 final. With Chile also entitled to see themselves as firm contenders to progress from the group, he probably has a point.

Much has changed in the Oranje camp since 2010, not least the replacement of then coach Van Marwijk with current one Van Gaal, with the former Barca and Bayern Munich boss’s return heralding what many would regard as a welcome victory for the nation’s traditional footballing values.

Van Marwijk must have bristled when in the wake of the final in Johannesburg, where his side has such a close encounter with the world title, he was pilloried by Johan Cruyff and his disciples as "anti-football" and at that stage he could at least point to the huge crowds that turned out to welcome the squad home from South Africa.


Two years later, though, he had few complaints as he was ushered towards the door, accepting one presumes, that while you might just get away in that job with sacrificing style for success, you won’t survive for long without either.

The Netherland’s dismal showing at the European Championships, though, made it inevitable that there would be a change of approach, not just a new coach, and the manner in which the federation turned came with a pretty big brush.

Van Gaal was available after a spell at Bayern that, while successful, was jam packed with his usual bridge-burning. He was and as we have seen still is highly marketable on the club front but had, he reckoned, some unfinished business with the national team having failed, rather memorably, to get it to the 2002 in World Cup when the Dutch finished third in their qualifying group behind Portugal and Ireland.

The job was, he said, “the challenge I have been waiting for” and he has set about it with some determination, dismantling the defensive element of the side that so upset people four years ago but still came within a whisker of becoming World champions.

Back five

None of the back five that featured in Soccer City have made the plane to Brazil this time and while retirements and serious decline made much of the change inevitable, a good deal of it has been at his behest.

Even del Bosque, who knows his rival well from their spells in charge of Spain’s two major club powers, sounded a little surprised yesterday at the scale of the overhaul.

“It’s true that he has changed a lot – 17 of 23 I think since 2010 while we have done the reverse. We have a stable group but he is a good coach and has maintained the essence of Dutch football with some of the players that played in South Africa,” said the Spanish coach.

It is the ones he has changed that prompt most of the questions about this Dutch squad’s prospects, with young players lacking the experience of stronger leagues, which not the sort of profile that would be expected to provide the basis for success at this level.

Van Gaal plays down the side’s chances himself, arguing that there are perhaps 10 teams here in Brazil better than his own. It is natural enough for a manager to try to take the pressure off his players but the problem in this instance is he might well be right.

The creative/attacking end of things is still in place, though, with Sneijder likely to be joined again by Arjen Robben and the man who has replaced him as captain, Robin Van Persie, while the team is still anchored in midfield by the formidable physical presence of Nigel de Jong.

Age is starting to become an issue for them all although injuries have long been a greater concern where Robben and Van Persie are concerned and the striker is again struggling slightly as he gears up for this tournament.

At the back, though, the most experienced player by some distance is Aston Villa's Ron Vlaar, a strong and capable but a rather run-of-the-mill centre back.

And it also remains to be seen how players like Daley (son of Danny) Blind, Dary Janmaat and Bruno Martins Indi manage to step up to this sort of level after what was an impressive but clearly a far less challenging qualification campaign. More interesting still would be how their even less experienced cover would cope in the event that they have to be thrown into the action.

Excessive loyalty

Del Bosque, by contrast, will be accused of excessive loyalty to a team still built around its older stars if it runs out of steam during the weeks ahead.

It is, he insisted at the pre-match press conference, "mature" rather than old and those "few" players over 30 are there "not because of what they did in the past," he insisted, "but because of what they can do at this World Cup. "

Still, the 63-year-old can be under no illusions about the need for Xavi and Andre Iniesta to produce more here than they generally did for their club this season if the Spanish are to make more history.

At the back, the team has been reshaped a little and Carles Puyol may still be missed during the next few weeks but the foundation on which the team's success was built remains solid and the Spanish, having struggled to score at times during the qualifiers, go into tonight's game off the back of three straight clean sheets in warm-up matches.

Up front, things are more interesting. The growing difficulty the side has experienced in opening opponents up left Del Bosque looking around for new solutions and the availability of Diego Costa provides the opportunity to field a fearsome striker again, one whose role won't require too much explanation or justification.

On paper, Spain’s potential problems should lie further down the road at this tournament while the threat to Holland is apparent from the off, but on this particular occasion at least Van Gaal brings something other than his renowned tactical know-how and relentless faith in youth to the party; he also has a particular insight into what makes the World champions tick.

While at Barcelona he gave both Xavi and Iniesta their club debuts and the former admitted yesterday that the soon-to-be Manchester United boss remains a special figure for him. He played a peculiarly personal role in the development of younger players like Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique too and will know their weaknesses after having helped to build their strengths.

If Van Gaal can engineer a surprise tonight then the Dutch will at least move on from Salvador with their sights still firmly fixed on the knockout stages and that should do them well enough for now.

For Spain the stakes are ultimately higher even if the urgency is perhaps not so great, for they look the better equipped of the two to come back, as they did four years ago, from an opening-game defeat.

“This is a big week but it’s only one game,” insisted Sneijder. But oh what a game it could be.