The Netherlands have worked hard since the 2014 World Cup. Louis van Gaal left after this tournament but is back to guide them out of the desert.
Louis van Gaal sat down in front of the media gathered at Camp Nou in the summer of 1997 and immediately made his mark. Its straightforward nature was not surprising. It was already his trademark. But given the context, his first statement as Barcelona boss was astounding.
“It’s Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona,” he said. No messing around, no laughs; just an established law. He was the boss and the past was in the past.
Only that was not the case. Not quite, anyway. His predecessor, Bobby Robson, sat behind the same table, impassive. Nothing really summed up the craziness of the situation, the two ended up in more than one sentence. It was not the first time that the Catalan giants wanted to have their cake and eat it too. Robson had only been named a year earlier and had won three trophies in his only season after replacing Johan Cruyff. It was as good a campaign as one would expect in a period of transition; his role was not only to take over from the club’s greatest legend and the man who implemented the basic philosophy they still live by today, but also, after a difficult end to his mandate, to take everything in a different direction.
But Van Gaal was the man they really wanted. He had won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995 and, although from the same football school as Cruyff, had his own ideas. Robson had signed a two-year contract – something he honored when his hometown club Newcastle United came to call him in January – but after one, when Van Gaal became available, he was dispatched upstairs to become what he called “the best paid scout in the world.” ”.
It wasn’t that Van Gaal lacked respect for Robson. This could hardly be further from the truth. But that was an example of his extreme confidence and bossy nature: he wasn’t going to let anyone interfere. It was the same story at Bayern Munich some fifteen years later, with so many former club icons in the boardroom and then at Manchester United, where Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow hangs over Old Trafford from his retired eight years ago.
Van Gaal shows Uli Hoeneß what he thinks of his handshake with a look pic.twitter.com/wGVU9uoeNS
– Robbie Dunne (@robbiejdunne) July 20, 2014
Last year the 70-year-old, who himself quit football after being sacked by the Red Devils in 2016, took over the Netherlands national team for the third time. When he left them after the 2014 World Cup in Brazil to move on to the Premier League, they had just finished third. Perhaps they had crossed the line, but his tactical ideas and unique approach to managing men had obtained every ounce of quality and pace of work from an aging team during their last collective hurray. They haven’t returned to that scene since, slipping into the kind of decline that can become familiar to great nations at the end of a cycle. The good players left the scene, less talented alternatives stepped up and they looked for the right person to lead them.
Euro 2016 was also a no-show. Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat each tried again, but couldn’t find a way to give back the soul to a country famous for the most iconic style of football ever. Ronald Koeman offered some hope, clinging to the talent pool that was finally emerging, helped in large part by Ajax’s run to the 2017 Europa League final and the Champions League semi-finals. two years later. Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt became kingpins and it was Koeman who did the legwork to reach Euro 2020, before leaving for Barcelona.
Frank de Boer was extremely lucky to get the job after bad spells at Internazionale, Crystal Palace and Atlanta United decimated his once-fledgling coaching reputation, and it perhaps epitomized the desperation felt here- above. He has never helped the team realize their potential, although it put them in a good position to reach Qatar next year before being sacked in June after a last 16 exit at Euro.
And so, this week, Van Gaal, in a wheelchair after an unfortunate bicycle accident, sealed his fate this week. His team in the decisive victory over Norway was balanced in age: Virgil van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay are in their prime, with the former pair in their 30s, but Ryan Gravenberch, 19-year-old Ajax midfielder Tyrell Malacia, one of the many talented young full-backs to come alongside Jurrien Timber and Owen Wijndal, and Feyenoord midfielder Teum Koopmeiners were among those next generation on the bench.
Perhaps his time at Manchester United suggested he was the man of yesterday. That was certainly how he was seen. But self-confidence has never been lacking with Van Gaal. Tactically he developed over time and despite the retirement age his blend of charm and straightforward cruelty resonated with different generations for a long time at the top. His tactical style is clear as day and adapts to the tools at his disposal.
But above all, since his departure, the Dutch side has lacked ownership and responsibility. It was the darkest era in their history, but that’s what Van Gaal does. There is something of a paradox: brutal and charming at the same time, but possessing the kind of arrogance that can ultimately make a difference.