Louis van Gaal and the Netherlands’ unlikely lads

Van Gaal trying to win World Cup with just a sprinkle of stardust
Louis van Gaal and the Netherlands’ unlikely lads

Netherlands goalkeeper Andries Noppert clears the ball from USA's Haji Wright during the FIFA World Cup round of 16 match at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan, Qatar. Picture  Adam Davy/PA Wire. 

As Daley Blind set off on his goal celebration, every other player joined the chase. They started from the penalty area on a diagonal course across the pitch. Blind was first. He was sprinting towards the technical area where an older man — dark suit, orange tie, polished shoes — was waiting for him, arms outstretched.

That was a wonderful moment as Blind arrived at the side of the pitch and gripped hold of his father, Danny, right-hand man to Louis van Gaal. Very soon, it became a pile-on. Every Dutch player was welcome to intrude on this special father-son embrace. At least two members of the team appeared to be trying to crowd-surf.

It was also a slightly unusual scene if you took a freeze-frame from that celebration, just before the halfway point of a 3-1 victory against the U.S., and looked more closely at some of the players who helped the Netherlands become the first team to reach the World Cup quarter-finals.

Yes, there was Virgil van Dijk, football royalty with Liverpool and once the most expensive centre-half in the world. Nathan Ake is a Premier League winner with Manchester City. Cody Gakpo, the rising star of Dutch football, seems likely to join them in England’s top division.

But then there were the other guys who do not command the same attention and whose presence, if you are a follower of the Premier League, might cause a double-take.

There was Davy Klaassen, who cost Everton £23.6million but found himself on the fringes once Ronald Koeman was replaced and went almost six months without making a single Premier League appearance.

The big guy coming on for Gakpo in the final exchanges was Wout Weghorst and the mind went back to those days at Burnley last season when, without wishing to sound too cruel, he gave the impression sometimes that he could be as static as a windmill. Weghorst’s time at Burnley ended with him watching from the substitutes’ bench as the club fell into the Championship. Now he is getting minutes for a team that is two games away from a World Cup final.

Marten de Roon’s one season in England, with Middlesbrough, also ended in relegation before he impressed at Atalanta. He, too, is now a fundamental part of a team that, in Van Gaal’s words, scored “beautiful goals” to reach the last eight.

And then we come to the identity of their first two scorers and the struggles of Blind and Memphis Depay while they were Manchester United players.

Depay, in particular, will never be remembered with affection at Old Trafford after his erratic performances in United’s colours. For the Netherlands, though, his first-half goal against the USA makes him the second-highest scorer in the nation’s history. Depay has 43, more than Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Arjen Robben or any of the other greats of Dutch football.

What does all this tell us? Well, for starters, it helps to explain why Van Gaal has been unhappy about the criticisms in parts of the Dutch media relating to the team’s style of play and, specifically, whether it was all a bit dull.

One question that was put to him earlier in the week mentioned that Dutch fans were “grinding their teeth” watching his team. And, sure, who can think of it as Total Football when the Netherlands managed only 35 per cent possession, attempted 404 passes compared to the USA’s 572, committed twice as many fouls and ran four kilometres fewer than their opponents? 

“Our ball retention in the first half was unacceptable for a World Cup,” Van Gaal acknowledged.

Let’s not forget, though, that Van Gaal is trying to win this competition with only a sprinkling of stardust in his team. Their most important player is a centre-half. The rest is being moulded together by a coach who came out of retirement to take this job and, unbeknown to his players, was having treatment for cancer.

Taking everything into account, who can blame Van Gaal for responding to the accusation of “boring” football by saying that, in reality, the Dutch fans should be proud of what this team has done?

Just consider the story of the goalkeeper whose early save from Christian Pulisic set up the Netherlands to take control of this match.

Andries Noppert’s presence is actually one of the more endearing stories of the tournament if you consider that, at the age of 28, he was called up after playing only around 40 professional matches in his career and having never won a single cap.

Noppert’s career was trundling along so unspectacularly that in 2020 his parents suggested it was time for a talk and gently floated the idea that it might be worth trying something else. His wife wondered if a career in the police force might be a better idea, bearing in mind they had a young family to look after. Noppert had been at four clubs and barely played for any of them. He was giving serious thought to switching an orange shirt for blue sirens.

He made the Dutch squad because he managed to get into the Heerenveen side, the eighth-placed team in the Eredivisie, and because the nation that could once rely upon the great Edwin van der Sar does not tend to have many category-A goalkeepers on its modern-day production line. Noppert is being selected ahead of Justin Bijlow, who has spent 18 months as Feyenoord’s first-choice goalkeeper, and Ajax’s Remko Pasveer, who turned 39 last month. It is no wonder Noppert describes his career trajectory as “bizarre”.

The story of Xavi Simons is also worth telling given that he, too, had never played for the Netherlands before being named in Van Gaal’s squad. It was a call-up that took the Dutch media by complete surprise. Simons, a 19-year-old with PSV Eindhoven, replaced Depay for the last seven minutes of the U.S. match. Again, it is not usual for a player to make his international debut in these surroundings.

For now, though, it is working. Van Gaal gave Denzel Dumfries “a big fat kiss” in the post-match news conference, congratulating the Inter Milan wing-back for scoring one goal and setting up two others. There is Frenkie de Jong in midfield, Jurrien Timber at the back and Dumfries getting up and down the right flank. But this is not your usual story. Van Gaal’s assortment of elite performers and unlikely lads have Argentina, and Lionel Messi, next.

© 2022 The Athletic Media Company This article originally appeared in The Athletic

More in this section

Sport Push Notifications

By clicking on 'Sign Up' you will be the first to know about our latest and best sporting content on this browser.

Sign Up

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

Execution Time: 0.276 s