AL RAYYAN, Qatar — At 71 years old and after a coaching career spanning more than 30 years, Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal probably won’t feel the need for vindication but, if he did, he could quite easily point to the Dutch performance in their 3-1 round-of-16 win over the United States on Saturday.
Van Gaal has made it clear that his only aim in Qatar is to win the World Cup and that set alongside that goal, nothing else really matters. But after a week during which he has faced criticism for what has been termed “boring” football, his team scored three goals — including one wonderfully worked team move — and advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2014.
It was no surprise that in his post-match news conference, Van Gaal was in a playful mood, at one point leaning to his side to plant a kiss on the cheek of man-of-the-match Denzel Dumfries.
It was little wonder that Dumfries — the Inter Milan full-back named after Denzel Washington — was in his manager’s good books after scoring one goal and assisting on two others. But he also, perhaps inadvertently, ensured that further questioning of Van Gaal’s style will have to wait another day after revealing that the way in which the US were dismantled came straight from the training ground.
The Netherlands’ first goal involved a build-up of more than 20 passes that zig-zagged across the pitch before Dumfries, playing as a right wing-back in Van Gaal’s 3-5-2 system, was afforded the space out wide to cut the ball back into the penalty area for Memphis Depay to side-foot into the net.
“In that goal you see all the facets of the system we play,” said Dumfries. “We attack the spaces, change sides well and we also addressed that in training sessions. It was a fantastic team goal and this is where you see the core of the system being executed.”
Van Gaal 1, critics 0.
He has faced doubters before, most recently during his spell at Manchester United between 2014 and 2016, and what was clear, even then, is that he’s not going to change.
Over time, he says he’s become less concerned with playing attractive, expansive football and more focused on doing what it takes to win. At times that can be at odds with a Dutch desire for “total football,” but Van Gaal’s message since well before arriving in Qatar has been that his priority is to return home as world champions, not just win new fans. His opinion is that it’s much better to be preparing for a World Cup quarterfinal than to bow out early like Germany and Belgium.
“I know the media don’t always report in a positive way, that is a given, but top countries didn’t progress and we still have three matches,” said Van Gaal pointedly after victory over the United States. “I have been talking for a year that we can become world champions, not that we will, but we can.”
There’s a long way to go before a possible final on Dec. 18 but, for now, Van Gaal has at least quietened the noise.
After a drab 1-1 draw with Ecuador in the group stage, there were calls for Netherlands to include more attacking players like 19-year-old PSV Eindhoven midfielder Xavi Simons, but there will be no such questions ahead of the last eight. Van Gaal’s system worked so well against the US that two goals involved one wing-back assisting the other — first Dumfries for Daley Blind and then Blind for Dumfries.
“I am incredibly happy if my players score a goal, especially like tonight as they were fantastic,” said Van Gaal. He then added with a smile: “If the left wing-back gives a cross to the right wing-back and the other way around, it is marvellous and I am really proud.”
“Team USA didn’t adjust or adapt and we based a tactical plan on that and that probably allowed us to win,” said Van Gaal. “But I don’t expect France, Argentina or Spain are going to adapt to the Netherlands. I think we have big chances here.”
Van Gaal says he doesn’t mind the criticism — “I get enough appreciation from the people around me,” he said when asked about it — but he would be forgiven for affording himself a smile while he watches back the game at the team hotel on Sunday. He doesn’t need to be told he’s right — win or lose, he believes it steadfastly — but validation of his methods was there against the United States, whether he wants it or not.