Lucky Louis and the Unpredictable Orange
Back after an eight years absence, and fresh from an outright disappointing EURO 2020, the Dutch have refurbished themselves. In his third stint as national manager, Louis van Gaal has returned to a formation all too familiar from the 2014 edition that ended in a third place.
This tactical preview has been written by Sander IJtsma.
Eight years have passed since the Dutch were active at a World Cup. Eight years in which the height of the 2014 third place was followed by failures to qualify for both EURO 2016 and the 2018 World Cup and a painful tactical knockout by Czech Republic in EURO 2020. Eight years in which no less than eight different coaches – including two short interims – led our national team.
The last manager to have had a degree of success with the national team is now back at the wheel and he is the undisputed star of the show. Louis van Gaal is the key figure in this Dutch squad, pulling in attention to his person, like a living handbook of Mourinho’s lessons in dealing with the media. While the country is served a 128 mins documentary aired on prime time, where Van Gaal is followed in his personal life in the years leading up to this moment, all the rest of the team is allowed to operate out of the wind, in a perfectly orchestrated aura of calm amidst a footballing world in turbulence.
Van Gaal’s third entry as manager of the Dutch national team came in August 2021, with the team preparing for a high-pressure away game to Norway, after a 4-2 defeat in Turkey had put the pressure full on. After a 1-1 draw and winning all but one of the other qualifiers, The Netherlands topped the group and qualified for Qatar. A successful Nations League campaign followed over the 2022 summer, with five wins and a draw in an – admittedly not all that hard – Division A group.
A World Cup played out in the middle of a footballing season – at least for all major competitions – presents a weird situation. With competitive club football played until a few days ago, lots of focus in terms of player selection was placed on form. Ignoring the debate whether that even exists and how to measure it, Van Gaal stressed over and over that this was his prime selection criterion. However, always the pragmatist, he made an exception for a key player like Memphis, who is still returning from a long-standing injury.
The position that caught most media attention over the past week is probably that of the goalkeeper. Jasper Cillessen, who missed EURO 2020 after contacting corona, is missing out due to ‘a lack of form’, and the same holds true for SC Freiburg’s Mark Flekken. Of all three selected goalkeepers, it’s still a bit unclear who will get to start: Ajax’ Remko Pasveer, Feyenoord’s Justin Bijlow or SC Heerenveen’s Andries Noppert. All three have played a cumulative grand total of eight games for the national team.
The three-men central defense will be led by captain Virgil van Dijk, who was flanked by Jurriën Timber on the right side and Nathan Aké on the left side in the recent Nations League campaign. However, with Bayern Munich’s Matthijs de Ligt and Inter’s Stefan de Vrij, Van Gaal has some high level alternatives available for these spots.
There has been some concern over Denzel Dumfries’ fitness, after the surprise star of the EURO 2020 games left the pitch with a knee injury last weekend. It does look like he’ll return to fitness in time, which should mean we don’t get to see a national team debut at a World Cup for Beyer Leverkusen’s Jeremie Frimpong. On the left side, Daley Blind is in for his classic left wingback / playmaker role, with Tyrell Malacia as a more defensively stable stand-in option.
Assuming a 5-2-1-2 team setup, Frenkie de Jong will form a double pivot with – most likely – Teun Koopmeiners, which presents a setup clearly focused on ball retention and progression much more than out-of-possession play. Alternatively, Van Gaal could pick De Roon here for more defensive cover, but his selection policy over the qualification campaign and the Nations League games suggested otherwise. Also in for a role here, curiously enough, are Ajax’ offensive midfielders Steven Berghuis and Davy Klassen, who when paired with Frenkie de Jong would from a highly flexible trio of midfielders, throwing the idea of a formational notation mostly out of the window.
For the ‘10’ spot, Van Gaal doesn’t seem fully settled, with three options in Cody Gakpo [impressive for PSV, less so in the bigger games], Steven Berghuis [risky passer in a team reliant limited phases of out-of-possession play] and Davy Klaassen [hard worker, non existent on the ball other than box presence].
Up front, a dynamic duo of Memphis and Steven Bergwijn is expected, but many alternatives have been included in the squad, which holds seven attackers for these two spots. Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst have both been selected in a similar mould as rather traditional ‘plan B’ options when things need forcing. Vincent Janssen is included with the argument of form (yes…) and could feature in the first game when Memphis isn’t fully fit yet. Noa Lang provides dynamism and energy, but shouldn’t be expected to start, and the same holds true for Gakpo, who probably has better chances playing as the offensive midfielder.
This Dutch national team is one without a clear and outstanding star player, and is therefore – cliché alert – depending on the collective. Van Gaal put a lot of emphasis, as he has done throughout his whole career, on the fact that all of his decisions, from player selection to tactical setups, are only made from the viewpoint of the collective performance.
Avid followers of Barcelona will remember the downfall of Van Gaal’s Barcelona team when he failed to fulfil the request of the fresh Ballon d’Or winner to play him as the central offensive midfielder. Ultimately backfiring significantly, but a decision taken with the perspective of doing what’s best for the team. More than twenty years later, Van Gaal hasn’t dropped that principle at all.
In line with Dutch football history, the 2022 World Cup will see a starting XI that is highly reliant on ball possession. Hardly any players in the squad, let alone the presumed starting XI, have their better contributions in defensive turnovers or sustained out-of-possession spells. As such, there will be a reliance on domination possession and if Van Gaal’s track record is something to go by, this will be obtained more by conservative possession than by aggressive pressure. One caveat perhaps is the sudden switch to a highly reactive 5-3-2 formation for the 2014 World Cup, when the team had much more time to prepare.
There are a lot of ‘ifs’ in football, and in the short-term nature of international tournament football, the effect of these uncertainties are amplified. Potentially, there is no ceiling for a team captained by Virgil van Dijk, playing progressive passing from the back through Blind, Timber and Frenkie de Jong, using the scoring prowess of Memphis – 21 goals in 22 games over the past two years. However, any team winning the battle for possession could have a field day against this setup and the perennial man-marking dominant defensive setup.
The draw has been on the favourable side for ‘Lucky Louis’, putting The Netherlands in a group with Senegal, Qatar and Ecuador. Also, the winner of this group plays the second team from group B which would be Wales, USA or Iran if England live up to expectations. Betting markets put the Dutch in seventh place in terms of winning the tournament, with odds around seven percent.
The 2022 edition presents a very open World Cup tournament in the sense that there is no clear single favourite, or even a clearly separated small group of top favourites. Adding the fact that a tournament played bang in the middle of a busy schedule allows for a very short preparation time and the pressure cooker that international tournaments already are, and we’ve got everything lined up for some serious surprises.
The Dutch winning a World Cup would clearly be such a surprise. Deemed perennial runners up after the infamous 1974 and 1978 editions, and confirming that status for the next generation in 2010, the current status of the Dutch team is not reflective of a top candidate for the title. But shooting for the stars and missing the target may still get you to the moon. As such, after missing out in the 2018 World Cup and performing miserably in Euro 2020, any serious run to the quarter finals would already define a positive tournament.
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