Van Gaal guides Netherlands and half-fit Depay past Mane-less Senegal

Louis van Gaal, the 71-year-old coaching great at – only maybe, he says – his last World Cup, knows what he's talking about.

On the eve of the Netherlands' meeting with Senegal in Group A, he called how the match would play out – not that it was a particularly outlandish prediction.

The Netherlands were without Memphis Depay – ruled out by Van Gaal but appearing on the bench – while Senegal's Sadio Mane will miss the entire tournament. The team that adjusted better to the absence of their talisman would come out on top.

That was "the idea of the match", according to the Oranje coach.

And so it proved, although for long periods of the 2-0 win Van Gaal eventually masterminded, neither side fared particularly well in that regard.

The former Barcelona and Manchester United boss would have backed himself. Later in the same pre-match news conference, Van Gaal had suggested his incredible experience could be key to Dutch hopes in Qatar.

"I think we could become world champion, but there are squads that are in my view of a higher level than my squad," he said. "The thing is how the squad deals with that, and there I think I may be able to benefit from a head start."

The travelling Netherlands fans – a smaller contingent than usual in a half-empty Al Thumama Stadium – appeared to have a similar level of faith in their head coach. The roar that greeted his name ahead of kick-off rivalled that of any player.

Van Gaal's fix for the Depay-shaped hole in his attack was to stick with Vincent Janssen alongside Steven Bergwijn and, as he had hinted, rely on the incoming Cody Gakpo to carry the creative burden in support.

Senegal's unorthodox solution saw Cheikhou Kouyate introduced to the midfield, with Idrissa Gueye, the Everton holding midfielder, at least initially pushed forward into the position Mane had occupied in the team's final pre-tournament friendly against Iran.

The contrasting approaches looked to be similarly ineffective in an incident-free first half. "All coaches build their team around the best player," Senegal boss Aliou Cisse had acknowledged, meaning two relatively toothless teams remained.

Senegal v Netherlands first half
Senegal v Netherlands first half

Andries Noppert, the Netherlands' 6ft 8in debutant goalkeeper, was steady enough to ensure he did not deliver the same unintentional entertainment as his Qatar and Iran counterparts in the first two matches of the World Cup, although the third and fourth new faces from Van Gaal's previous line-up – in a Nations League decider against Belgium – were occasionally hapless enough to keep those in attendance from lying across the many unoccupied stadium seats for an early evening snooze.

Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong each almost played Senegal in on the edge of the Netherlands box, while the latter's dallying in front of goal at the end kept the game goalless.

Depay "had a different programme, a different schedule than the schedule of a player who is preparing for a match", Van Gaal said, but the Barca man was sent out to warm up early in the second half and appeared on the touchline in his Oranje kit on the hour mark, soon joining the fray as his team-mates continued to toil.

This still did not look to be quite the same Depay who had led European qualifying with 18 goal involvements (12 goals, six assists), but his introduction at least gave Senegal something different to think about.

And after Gueye had fittingly aimed perhaps their best chance too close to Noppert, perhaps the Senegal defenders were pondering Depay's next move as Gakpo was allowed to dart undetected between two white shirts and nod in De Jong's deep cross.

It was a breakthrough goal the Netherlands scarcely merited but justified Van Gaal's choice of Gakpo ahead of Davy Klaassen – a decision he explained at length on Sunday, having initially been reluctant to detail his line-up in advance.

Van Gaal's remarkable record as Netherlands coach shows the extent of his influence: he has lost only four of 59 matches outside of penalty shoot-outs, none since 2014 and none in a competitive environment since 2001 – and he, unlike Cisse, will also be boosted by the return to full fitness of his key attacker.

There was a smile and a high five for Gakpo when he made way. Still, when Depay is fit enough to start, there is no guarantee the goal hero keeps his place. "I always look for a balance in the squad," said Van Gaal, with Klaassen trusted more behind the maverick Dutch number 10. Indeed, in the ninth minute of stoppage time, when Depay ran through and shot tamely, Klaassen pounced on a rebound to tuck in the second.

Van Gaal is now the World Cup's third-oldest coach of all time – he will overtake Oscar Tabarez in second place if the Netherlands go all the way, as he believes they can – and such difficult calls are nothing new. As so often, he got it right on Monday.

With Qatar still to play, the Netherlands are already on course for the knockout stage, led by their main man: Van Gaal, not Depay.