This is LVG’s third stint. 8 years ago, we celebrated a tremendous win over World Cup holders Spain, with the 1-5 in Brazil, while earlier on – during his first stint – Louis was tarred and feathered.
How does Louis deal with lessons learned?
It was a rare situation, back in 2001. The players came out of the change rooms after the match and had to ask the journalists whether they knew what the plans of Van Gaal were, with his weird substitutions. Irish midfielder Jason McAteer had just scored for the hosts and Van Gaal took man of the match Marc Overmars off and put Gio van Bronckhorst on. Central striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was already on the pitch, but this time as a winger. No one could understand it, and the players the least! What was Louis thinking?
Overmars himself wondered… “Do you know why was subbed?” Patrick Kluivert actively asked several jounalists. “Do you know what Van Gaal was wanting? I have no clue!” Jaap Stam asked whether Van Gaal had had his press conference already. And Frank Stapleton, former striker for Man United, Ajax and the Irish National Team said: “We want to thank the Netherlands for the substitutions made by coach Van Gaal”.
In 1998 and 2000, Oranje was kicked out of the tournaments due to bad penalty series. The golden generation of Kluivert, Davids, Seedorf, Overmars and Stam was keen to get some revenge. The qualification series started in a positive way. The buoyancy was palpable with the former success coach of Ajax and Barca at the helm.
Under Rijkaard, Oranje beat Yugoslavia 6-1. According to Van Gaal, that match was going to be the norm for Oranje. But under Van Gaal, the Oranje stars never reached that level. While they did manage to get to the semi finals with a similar squad in 2004, under Dick Advocaat.
The dramatic first LVG stint was all the fault of the players, so said Van Gaal. The lads were not open to LVG’s serious, professional and intense approach. Which puzzled him, as he worked with most of them at Ajax and Barcelona before. The players used this exact stance as the reason why it didn’t work. The youngsters from 1995 had grown, developed. They won trophies and went from talents to leaders on the pitch. Players like Stam, Van Bronckhorst, Overmars, Davids had a different status. None of them were going to accept the police man’s approach by Van Gaal. No fines when the laces weren’t done properly. No reprimandes needed for when a player didn’t tuck his shirt in. The players were used to the friendly vibe of Hiddink and the laissez-fair mentality of Frank Rijkaard. These coaches could crack the whip alright, but only when they really needed to. Van Gaal approached the NT role as a club coach, with a key role for fysio Raymond Verheijen.
The players first shared their misgiving informally and off the record. Captain Frank de Boer went into dialogue with Van Gaal and the latter was flabbergasted. “They have a different idea about professional sports and management. That is disappointing. I want to rule out coincidences. I do not believe in a loose approach! When Frank tells me the players just want to be playing football volley or tennis and have a nice time, I am completely flabbergasted and dumbfounded. If that is the new norm… pff…. I expect my players to be hungry, to have ambition!”
“I expect to go back to being a club coach. I have more control and can work with my players daily.”
Louis does self-reflect and will always evaluate himself. This means, the man will develop and change over time. In 2000 and 2001, the key was attacking, dominant posession based football. But in 2012, he decided that that generation of players was not able to bring that type of football. Robben, Sneijder and Van Persie could, but they were getting older. The group of players in the mid 20s lacked the absolute world class of the generation before them. We went from Ronald de Boer, Davids, Seedorf, Cocu to De Guzman, Fer and Nigel de Jong.
When he starts in the second stint, in 2012, he starts with a group session. All players are invited to speak and deal with the issues they encountered under Van Marwijk at the Euros. Van Gaal listens and observes. He wants to see who are the rotten apples, and which players demonstrate leadership. Dirk Kuyt, Wes Sneijder, Nigel de Jong and Arjen Robben speak up. Substitutes should not be able to impact the vibe in the group. Players who can’t deal with not playing need to stay home. Sneijder: “I do not want some guy to ruin five weeks of my life again.”
“When Wesley Sneijder wins the ball in midfield, you need to cheer like this!”
After the meeting, the Brazil manifest is made up. All players sign it. Oranje wins every match in the qualification series, but Van Gaal gets a fright when playing France in a friendly, 3 months before the World Cup. Oranje loses 0-2 but worse: it cannot force their plans onto the opponent. Van Gaal instructs his analytical right hand man Danny Blind to analyse the way Juve and the Italian NT play, with 3 or 5 at the back. Van Gaal prefers to call it the 1-3-1-4-2, it sounds less defensive.
Van Gaal has a couple of big meetings planned. He needs to convince Van Persie and Robben of his plans. The former is quickly convinced, when he sees Feyenoord win in Eindhoven versus PSV as Koeman uses the 5-3-2 with success. The second big job is to get Sneijder fit. The life loving playmaker loves life a bit too much and is not longer as fit as he was in 2010. Life in Turkey is easier than life in Milan or Madrid. Van Gaal has a go at Sneijder publically and he takes the captains band from the midfielder. Sneijder is furious and starts a training program under Henk ten Cate on Ibiza. When Sneijder arrives at the prep trainings camp, his tests seem unreal. There must be a technical glitch. They want him to do the tests again with calibrated machinery. The same results. Van Gaal is gobsmacked, but in a good way!
Wesley Sneijder is considered not fit enough. When the journo asks Van Gaal what he will do when Sneijder is fit enough to tackle and win the ball, the narcissistic coach yells: “I will CHEER for him. CHEER!!!”
Sneijder: “He is a genius, but a crazy one. He annoyed me every couple of days with his antics, also during the tournament, but he did so to spice me up and it worked.”
“When will you win the ball for us?”
Van Gaal has exactly 22 days from start of prep to the first match v Spain. In those days, he’s sculpting his team into something new: the provocative press. Meaning, not too high on the pitch. But enough for the opponent to want to attack Oranje, and when that occurs, space will open up for the likes of Robben or Memphis to use. The distance between players can never be more than 15 yards. Whenever this doesn’t work out, LSV switches back to 4-3-3, he would do this a number of times during the tournament.
“Bloody ‘ell mate, win a ball for us!!”
Memphis Depay is a bit player in Oranje. He is seen as a potential game changer, like Noa Lang is now. But when the mercurial forward tricks Van Persie at a closed off practice session, the Man United star doesn’t stand for it and tackles the youngster hard from behind. When he’s writhing on the pitch, Van Persie also gives him an earful. Memphis is so angry and hurt, that he starts crying after the practice session and Patick Kluivert does what he can to calm the PSV player down. Later that night, Robin van Persie goes to Memphis’ room to apologise and hug it all out. A line in the sand.
As Van Gaal has been quite clear to his players: there is only one goal: achieving success! No man is bigger than the team!
“I am not asking again!! Win possession back!!”
The former Antwerp player didn’t just change his tactics, he also relaxed his overall management style. Van Gaal notices on the day before the Spain match that the players are tense, nervous. So on the morning of the Spain match, he proclaims that they’ll have a quiet day and he invited the wives and kids to come to the players hotel to spend half the day with the whole family.
All the players will later also explain how Van Gaal and Danny Blind have been able to give the squad a details run-down of all scenarios they can encounter in a given game. And practically everything they experience in the matches have been prepped and discussed before hand. The only secret Van Gaal and Blind have, is what they’ll do in case of penalty shoot outs. Keeper coach Frans Hoek has convinced Louis that in case of penalties, Cillesen needs to make way for Tim Krul. The Valencia goalie does not have great stats in this, while Krul has a reputation of being a penalty killer.
Tim Krul is in the know, though. And in the players’ bus, the then Newcastle goalie reserves two seats for himself. The players think he needs to stretch his legs. But he actually analyses the penalty kickers of the opponents, without the other players noticing.
Later in the tournament, Krul is the hero when he stops to pens versus Costa Rica.
Oranje has to shoot penalties in the semi finals versus Argentina as well. By then, the third sub has been used. In hindsight, Van Gaal regrets having subbed Van Persie for Huntelaar as Cillesen can’t stop a single pen and Ron Vlaar and Wesley Sneijder miss for Holland. In an exciting losers finals, Oranje beats Brazil (goals by Van Persie, Blind, Wijnaldum ) and takes home the bronze.
“Ok, so you score a goal. Fine. But I will only cheer for winning the ball back.”
Louis has demonstrated that he is able to be flexible. It does take a time span of 20 years to see this. He went from a strict drill sergeant in 2000 to the flexible and opportunistic coach in 2014 and the warm and friendly uncle in 2022.