Dutch exceed expectations under LVG
The Netherlands far exceeded expectation in finishing third at the World Cup in Brazil, tearing up not only up the formbook but their own rules on how best to play the game as their coach provided a talismanic touch.
They also set a new record for themselves by going through the entire tournament without losing a match in regulation time.
A relatively young and inexperienced squad was given little chance of emulating the achievement of four years ago when they reached the final in South Africa.
But with the canny coaching of Louis van Gaal they came mighty close once again, missing out after a semifinal penalty shootout defeat by Argentina and comfortably beating hosts Brazil 3-0 in the third-place playoff.
“It was a big honour for us to be here and a once in a lifetime experience,” Dutch winger Arjen Robben said.
“Today’s match I think for us was the best way to end this tournament. We also fully deserved this third place the way we played. Nobody expected us to be in the last four.”
Van Gaal raised the wrath of footballing purists in the home of “total football” when he said he was dispensing with the 4-3-3 formation which had taken the Dutch successfully through qualification for a more conservative approach, with an emphasis on quick counter-attacks.
The reason, Van Gaal insisted, was that he had lost the balance in his midfield because of the long-term injury suffered by hard man Kevin Strootman a few months before the tournament.
It was a virtually untested approach which looked set to backfire in the opening half of their first game against Spain in Salvador.
The Dutch were trailing 1-0 and struggling until a swift counter led to wingback Daley Blind hitting a long cross from the left which Robin van Persie leapt salmon-like to head home the equaliser.
The delight shared by coach and captain in a sideline high-five spoke volumes of the satisfaction of a plan coming together.
The subsequent mauling of the defending champions left the Dutch oozing with confidence and they topped their first-round group, although not in a very fluent style.
Van Gaal proved the talisman on several more occasions with tactical switches that kept the Dutch on a winning path.
The Manchester United-bound coach brought on 20-year-old Memphis Depay to score the come-from-behind winner against Australia.
Leroy Fer broke the deadlock with his first touch in their last group game against Chile and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made one goal and scored the next after coming on for the last 10 minutes when the Netherlands snatched a late last-16 win over Mexico.
Switching goalkeepers just before the penalty shootout against Costa Rica in the quarterfinal in Salvador proved the ultimate masterstroke as Tim Krul came on in place of Jasper Cillessen to make two saves.
Van Gaal had only told Krul of his plan a few hours before The game and a clearly irritated Cillessen had known nothing about it.
Robben emerged as the pick of the Dutch players with his powerful running and mazy dribbling, although he continued to sully his reputation with a predilection for diving in the opposing penalty area.
The unsung heroes of the team proved to be defenders Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij whose profiles were greatly enhanced by effectively snuffling out the threat of Lionel Messi in the semifinal.
Apart from the versatile and tireless Dirk Kuyt, new Dutch coach Guus Hiddink will have the same team to pick from for September’s start of the Euro 2016 qualifiers.
In two years time, the Dutch will have a very different set of expectations.