The Dutch internationals stumble over each other when they need to talk about the “vibe” in the squad. They’re all mates, they play games together, go on holidays together and in these modern times, players of Ajax are best buddies with players of Feyenoord… Gone are the times when Cruyff and Co sabotaged PSV goalie Van Beveren and playmaker Van der Kuylen… This unity doesn’t result in invincibility, as the Montenegronians (??) have experienced, but Norway has noticed that after one slip, the homogene character of the squad can be re-established swiftly.
Everything that went wrong in Podgorica went well in De Kuip. Wijnaldum told of text messages stating that he “should quickly forget about that dreadful match and move on” but Gini didn’t want to know about it. He was very happy with the focused and frugal performance of his team. Mature, he called it. Result before beauty.
Van Gaal made his entry into the squad some three months ago, knowing that the players initially didn’t want him. He decided to listen. To open up to the wishes of the players. What system did the players prefer? What positions do they want to play? That worked in his favour. Players felt heard. And after his first international weekend, Van Gaal did what he always does: he went his own way.
Bergwijn told Van Gaal he didn’t want to play on the right wing. Fine. But Van Gaal used him on the right versus Norway, and the Spurs forward was Man of the Match. Lang told Van Gaal he was able to play right winger but the Brussels star was tested and Van Gaal immediately added him back into the queue for the left wing.
Van Gaal knows that the players want 4-3-3 but the wily coach knows that Oranje isn’t good enough and additional securities are needed. Also, when you do have three top notch central defenders while doubting your forwards, the 5-3-2 is a logical go-to scenario.
Van Gaal introduced a new term (for the Dutch at least): “Provocative Pressing”. Which means: dropping back a little, allowing them a feel of comfort, give them some time on the ball, but when they get into a particular situation (for instance, an opponent gets a hospital ball, or is played in badly, or is isolated), the Dutch pounce on them like a pack of wolves. This as opposed to counter football (…) or the high press (Man City, Ajax, Liverpool).
Van Gaal believes that the result was key, in this qualification campaign. He started with a deficit, as Oranje lost under De Boer away in Turkey. “I will worry about the quality of the performances later, now it is all about results.”
Van Gaal did what he needed to do. Firstly, he got the confidence of the players. Secondly, he brought a bit of vibe back which seemed lost under De Boer. He did so by listening to the players and giving them initially what they wanted. Van Gaal will have seen however, that this Oranje struggles against weaker opponents (limited spaces) and plays well against stronger teams ( Italy in Bergamo, under De Boer or England in the nations league under Koeman). When there is space, we have the goods. We have speed and vision to work with that. But our world class is at the back, with Van Dijk, De Vrij, De Ligt and De Jong.
Van Gaal has a window in March and in June to play and work on his team. In March, it’s friendlies and in June it’s the new Nations League campaign. And before the Qatar WC, there is one week of prep. “I know exactly how I will use that time and I have already informed my players.”
So what to expect? When the Norwegians went looking for a goal at 1-0, Van Gaal switched to a 5-3-2 (bringing Ake) and immediately space opened up for Memphis and Bergwijn. Van Gaal can indeed gel two or three systems in the team. With the arrival of Gakpo and Danjuma, more options open up. We can play with forwards who want the ball to feet (Berghuis, Gakpo) or with forwards who will go deep (Bergwijn, Danjuma). With Memphis as #9 and Weghorst as pinch hitter, there are options.
Towards the World Cup, there are some decisions to be made.
The goalie. It seemed Bijlow was the #1 but with Cillesen becoming available and pinching the spot ahead of Flekken and Krul it is interesting to see how both rivals will fare in their upcoming matches.
Blind seems to be Van Gaal’s pick for the left back position but it seems Malacia and Wijndal will slug it out for the other opening.
On the right Dumfries is the main man, and Van Gaal used “inner circle” subs to replace any other candidates, leaving Rick Karsdorp out in the cold. That might well chance, depending on the development of Rensch.
In midfield, there will be a spot for Van de Beek should he return to weekly football as he does have something special. Klaassen seems to get closest to that particular profile but in my view, Donny is a tad better than Klaassen.
On the wings, as said before, Louis is able to match and mix a bit, with Lang and Malen also still options.
Do we see any other players now that are so remarkable that they should have a shot? Kenneth Taylor? Pascal Struijk? Bakker of Leverkusen? Geertruida as right back? Let me hear your thoughts…