Netherlands - Belgium: Third time the charm for Van Gaal as he hunts for World Cup glory?

Netherlands - Belgium: Third time the charm for Van Gaal as he hunts for World Cup glory?
Van Gaal is enjoying his third spell coaching the Dutch national team
Van Gaal is enjoying his third spell coaching the Dutch national team
When asked about the Netherlands job after taking over for his third spell, Louis van Gaal, without holding back, replied ‘’I’d have chosen me.’’ The familiar face had returned to redeem a national team he knew all too well.

“I have always done everything to help Dutch football and I think if I'd been in the position of the KNVB I'd also have chosen me,” he explained.

The fan favorite had returned after two previous spells in 2000 and 2012. He will be hoping to find the charm this time as he assured that his goal this time is to "be World Champions."

Looking back at the last decade for the Dutch, it was arguably only under Van Gaal that they have flourished. He led them through their qualification group for the 2014 World Cup with nine wins and a draw out of 10 matches before heading to Brazil to reach the semi-final of the 'Wereldbeker'.

The manager left shortly after winning third spot through a 3-0 victory against the hosts. Ever since then it has been nothing short of catastrophic, failing to appear in Euro 2016, the World Cup in 2018 and leaving the 2020 Euros early following a 2-0 defeat to the Czech Republic in the round of 16.

Granted, the bar was set low by previous manager Frank De Boer but Van Gaal installed a renewed spirit amongst the men in orange. Bringing back the operable ‘Total Football’ tactic, trust and confidence in players all while playing attractively and bringing positive results.

His side, along with Argentina - who are enjoying their longest unbeaten streak ever - are the only sides from the top 10 FIFA Rankings to be undefeated since his appointment.

And that did not happen overnight. This is a man who has won almost every title he was competing to collect - he even earned a Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau!

Inspired by the Dutch philosophy, Van Gaal has seen it all in the game and his football fingerprints can be found from Barcelona to Ajax. A vast part of the Total Football style from Jhan Cruyff and been pragmatically perfected by Dutch manager. This shadow has lingered over his career, from Barcelona to Ajax and now to the Dutch national side.

There is no doubt he is an expert on a wide range of footballing styles - is it now time for him to cement his legacy and finally step into the biggest spotlight.

Playing alongside him at Ajax before being in charge of the youth department while Cruyff handled the first team, of which Van Gaal succeeded him to. Before having a similar experience at Barcelona. In other words, he had always been trusted to bring similar results as the great Dutchman in a similar but no so much manner.

To put it differently, him and Cruyff grew to be less and less fond of each other after retiring and they had personal and tactics differences over the years. Cruyff once explained: “Van Gaal has a good vision of football but it is not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I want individuals to think for themselves.’’

However, this very approach might just be what helped Van Gaal reach his 12 competitve game unbeaten streak. With experimenting and a rise in confidence and comfortability for his squad.

This is a side with very similar players who were failing to even reach any of the big competitions, let alone lift a trophy.

Currently they are sitting at eighth in the FIFA rankings and have become a genuine dark horse of the upcoming World Cup in Qatar.

The difference can be seen in their last few contests, both of their victories against Wales came in the dying seconds of the matches, it was no surprise that Van Gaal gave himself a well-deserved pat on the back during his post-match press conference in Cardiff.

Players who were barely seen on club level or who have failed to reach expectations like Frenkie De Jong, Memphis Depay, Vincent Janssen and Steven Bergwijn have turned to superstars once they put on the Dutch colors.

His 3-5-2 or 4-3-3 systems rely on young players, and ones who don’t collect many appearances for their clubs. Van Gaal has been intentional in giving confidence to the youth of the side and players who were lacking it - Mathijs De Ligt, Nathan Ake, Tyrell Malacia, Noa Lang and Jurrien Timber are all names to remember. With an average age varying between 25 and 27 depending on the fielded XI

There is considerable dependence on Eredivise players as well, with at least four regular starting members of the Dutch league 

This Netherlands team is now filled with energy and intensity, always forcing the opponents to play on their own terms, high and relentless pressure to retrieve the ball and keep it.

When they do, almost everyone has what it takes to attack. A versatile, catchy and positive side that keeps an average of 65% of the ball possession. It doesn’t get any more Dutch than that.

It wouldn’t be surprising to also see the likes of Cody Gakpo, Timber and Lang exploiting the global stage in November to attract some big-league attention. Gakpo had a deadline day move to the Premier League and to Southampton all but sewn up, only to decide to stay with Feyenoord at the 11th hour. Expect that Premier League move to happen in January, except this time to a top-six club - Chelsea are already reported to be very interested in him. 

All of that is, of course, thanks to their skill, work and talent but Van Gaal has surely had an effect on them, which can be seen in how confident they are on the ball, from the back to the front.

An ambitious, resilient side that likes to take risks, they are playing eye-catching football. Watch back their 4-1 dominating victory against Belgium back in June and you will see them illustrate why they boast the most points in the Nations League Group A as well as the best attack with 13 goals.

Van Gaal has done all of this under challenging personal circumstances. He broke a hip in November 2021, even having to conduct training from a golf cart.

"The players and staff wanted me to stay, so I stayed," he said about attending training in the unusual fashion.

To add to that, he announced in April that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

‘’In each period during my time as manager of the National Team I had to leave in the night to go to the hospital without the players finding it out until now. 

‘’You don't die from prostate cancer, at least not in 90% of the cases’’

In response to the news, Dutch captain Virgil Van Dijk wanted to offer some comfort to his gaffer: “I was also in shock last night when I heard his interview. He’s getting his film out next week, so I was just wondering how he would promote it a little bit and speak about his life, and then obviously that was a big shock.

“I messaged him after the interview. It definitely says a lot about him. I said to him as well, he’s probably not that type of guy that needs a lot of sympathy, that’s how he is.

“But I told him as well that we are definitely going to be there for him as a group whenever he needs it, and hopefully we can also make it for him a World Cup to never forget.”

He might be seen as a strong character that fills every room he walks in but with that comes emotion, devotion, discipline, and a spirit that can only affect those around him positively when channeled into a common cause and this is one of the elements that were missing from the ever challenging, innovative and rebellious Dutch side known to history.

Van Gaal is the man that has all of this ingrained in his football DNA and has what it takes to bring some of the glory back.

Many might be sleeping on the Netherlands and undermining them and you can’t blame them considering the overall image they’ve shown from Brazil 2014 up until 2021, however, all the signs are revealing a potential Dutch charm under LVG.

The verdict will be coming shortly as they host Belgium in their last match on Sunday before heading to Qatar and playing on the biggest football stage against Senegal in November.