Alex Chick

On Reflection: Did Louis Van Gaal really have a great World Cup?

Alex Chick

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Louis van Gaal celebrates Netherlands' win over Brazil (Reuters)

Louis van Gaal leaves the Netherlands and heads for Manchester United with his considerable reputation much enhanced.

Not only did he guide a relatively unfancied Dutch side to third place, he pulled off a couple of tactical masterstrokes and plundered huge wins over the World Cup holders and the most successful team in the tournament’s history.

Much of the tournament has played out to "the sound of Louis van Gaal being right", particularly in a British media giddy at the prospect of Louis and his colossal cojones gracing the Premier League.

But did Van Gaal and the Dutch really have such a stellar tournament? Let’s take it game by game.

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Netherlands 5-1 Spain, Group B, Salvador

Good: A truly devastating display of incisive, counter-attacking football that left the World Cup holders utterly shell-shocked. Robin van Persie headed one of the goals of the tournament and followed it up with a high five that told us the ‘difficult’ Dutch were firmly behind Van Gaal.

Bad: We could point out that the Dutch were second-best for much of the first half, but that would be a bit like griping about cracks in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

10/10

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Robin van Persie high-fives Louis van Gaal after scoring against Spain (Reuters)

Netherlands 3-2 Australia, Group B, Porto Alegre

Good: Three more goals as the Dutch dug deep to overcome a gutsy Australian side and book their place in the last 16.

Bad: This was a magical game for neutrals, but a narrow win over Australia hardly represents the pinnacle of sporting achievement. The Netherlands’ defensive frailties nearly cost them the match. It was no surprise to see them play much deeper against Chile in their next game.

4/10

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Netherlands 2-0 Chile, Group B, Sao Paulo

Good: A far more patient, defensive approach paid off as late goals from Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay gave Holland maximum points from their group games.

Bad: Van Gaal faced media criticism of his defensive approach, to which he responded in typically combative fashion, asking journalists: “Could you give me a definition of attacking football?” Such an approach always plays well after a win but, as Jose Mourinho has discovered, bolshiness tends to prove less effective if you’ve lost the game.

7/10

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Louis van Gaal delivers a team-talk against Mexico (Reuters)

Netherlands 2-1 Mexico, Second round, Fortaleza

Good: Tactical masterstroke alert! Van Gaal used the first half drinks break in the scorching Fortaleza heat to switch from 5-3-2 to a back four. This was praised wildly because a) Van Gaal had the brass balls to instruct his players during the stoppage, which you’re not meant to do, and b) because it showed tremendous tactical flexibility, and the 4-3-3 eventually helped the Dutch turn things round with two late goals.

Bad: Hang on a minute. Talking to your players as they stand next to the dugout during a lengthy break in play is hardly genius – even David Moyes would have thought of that. As for the tactical switch, it is surely the intelligent Dutch players who deserve more credit for their ability to change formation mid-match. I’ll wait until he does the same thing with Phil Jones and Chris Smalling before assigning messiah status to Van Gaal. And all of this obscured a lacklustre display in which they were couple of minutes from going out - and the fact the Netherlands switched to 4-3-3 before conceding the opening goal.

5/10

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Van Gaal hugs Tim Krul after beating Costa Rica on penalties (Reuters)

Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica (4-3 pens), Quarter-final, Salvador

Good: Van Gaal’s decision to switch goalkeepers late in extra time, replacing Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul, paid off as Krul saved two Costa Rican spot kicks. The move demonstrated Van Gaal’s (and his coaching team’s) imagination, attention to detail and ability to make the right call under pressure.

Bad: Once again, a Van Gaal party piece distracted from a deeply unconvincing performance – two hours of miscues and missed chances. And once again, the avalanche of praise for the coach was totally out of proportion. Anyone who watched the 1996 Play-Off final can tell you the goalie sub is not a new tactic, and Cillessen’s later attempts to save penalties suggested you didn’t have to be a genius to know Krul was the pony to bet on. And in any case, it wasn’t even his idea.

4/10

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Netherlands 0-0 Argentina (2-4 pens), Semi-final, Sao Paulo

Good: The generous way to look at this performance is that a limited Dutch side did what was needed to stifle a far more talented group of Argentines. It was worth the risk of going to penalties again, and Van Gaal rather preposterously stated that the result allowed the Dutch to exit the tournament unbeaten.

Bad: That infamous 6-3-1 screen grab showed the sheer negativity of a Dutch side who started the World Cup so vibrantly and ended up playing 240 minutes of goalless football. And if you’re going to praise Van Gaal for the Costa Rica penalty win, you need to criticise him for cocking these up. By starting both Nigel De Jong and Robin van Persie – both of whom he knew would need to come off, Van Gaal gave him no room for manoeuvre if he wanted to bring Krul on again. So when Bruno Martins Indi’s persistent fouling meant he had to be subbed, the Krul option was effectively removed. So bad was Cillessen in the shootout that you have to wonder why – given he was playing for penalties anyway - Van Gaal didn’t just start with Krul.

3/10

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Netherlands 3-0 Brazil, Third place match, Brasilia

Good: A fine win, and one that could have been even more comprehensive had Thiago Silva been sent off in the second minute. The Netherlands rediscovered their appetite for goals against the beleaguered hosts.

Bad: Was this not akin to beating a 38-year-old Muhammad Ali? Brazil were a cruel parody of the teams that lifted five World Cups, mentally and physically shattered. Van Gaal’s side played well, but what were they up against?

8/10

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CONCLUSION

It’s hard to deny the Dutch had a good World Cup with a strangely unbalanced squad – in Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder they had possibly the best three-a-side team anywhere in the World Cup, but behind them the Netherlands were definitely limited.

Third place was a fine achievement for Van Gaal - but the praise for his 'tactical genius' has gone way over the top, and we must remember how close his team came to going out against both Mexico and Costa Rica.

We already knew Van Gaal was a good coach - what he now brings to Manchester United is a cocksuredness, and a Mourinho-like ability to attract praise (and blame) even when not necessarily warranted.

It doesn't really matter for United that Van Gaal's World Cup was overrated - the mere perception that they have landed a genius is enough to lift the mood. The Dutchman can bring the arrogance back to Old Trafford and make them a team to be feared.

World Cup rating: 7/10

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