Can Louis van Gaal emerge from ‘Man Utd warmup’ in Brazil unscathed?
Holland go into the World Cup this summer as a lowly 15th seeded nation, below the likes of Switzerland, the USA, and Greece. While FIFA rankings are far from being spot on (in fact, some are downright criminal), the Dutch have taken quite a fall in the last four years, with the 2010 World Cup runners-up now considered to be a diminished force, with soon-to-be Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal charged with eking the best out of a decidedly underwhelming squad of players.
Despite the Dutch traversing their World Cup qualification period with ease, on paper they pale in comparison with the likes of Germany, Brazil and Spain. Van Gaal certainly has his work cut out, with his side needing real inspiration from their veteran coach if they are to make an impact in South America.
It does not take a huge leap of imagination to see the similarities between Van Gaal’s Dutch task and the one facing him in the swirling cesspit of uneasiness that is currently Old Trafford. Both sides have been creaking under the weight of expectation; players from both sides have experienced difficult seasons; and both have/will be heavily reliant on one Robin van Persie up top.
The Dutch squad of South Africa 2010, while not in the very top bracket of stars, boasted players at the peak of their powers, and crucially, an able support cast to back up their more vibrant attacking outlets. Fast forward to now, and with the news that long-serving play-maker Rafael van der Vaart has been ruled out of the summer tournament with a calf strain, both Van Persie and Arjen Robben seem to have the weight of a nation on their shoulders.
This was mirrored rather vividly at Manchester United last season, with RVP and Rooney stranded for at least half of the campaign, and even when Juan Mata joined the throng, his impact was not team-altering.
There are some interesting youngsters in the Dutch squad, with Terence Kongolo and Jordy Clasie interesting new callups; with Adnan Januzaj a similarly raw quantity awaiting Van Gaal in Manchester.
The injury to Roma’s Kevin Strootman, one of Van Gaal’s most trusted Dutch midfield generals, was such a blow that the 62-year-old has started to move away from his trusted 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2 with only weeks until kick off in Brazil, reluctantly giving more responsibility to the previously out-of-favour Wesley Sneijder.
Salvaging the midfield at United will be one of Van Gaal’s biggest challenges next season at Old Trafford, but unlike the Dutch who are forced to be without Strootman, the Red Devils are truly devoid of any real standout performer in the middle of the park.
Responsibility had been afforded to the likes of Marouane Fellaini and Tom Cleverley, who came in for more criticism that any other Premier League pair last season. With Van Gaal reportedly turning his nose up at Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos, one wonders how the Dutchman plans effectively revamp the flailing United midfield this summer.
Not just in the midfield are United lacking in quality, as a whole of players have rather been found out in what was the first season without managerial legend Sir Alex Ferguson.
The likes of Rafael, Shinji Kagawa, Nani, Ashley Young, and the aforementioned Fellaini and Cleverley did little to enhance their reputations last time around, and they will all be looking to Van Gaal for the next step in their respective careers next season; with the Dutch squad to do just that this summer.
Peppered with a host of mid-table players from European leagues, Holland do not have depth like Italy, Spain or Germany, just to name a few.
English sides Swansea, Norwich, Aston Villa and Newcastle all have players in the provisional 30, with ex-Liverpool veteran Dirk Kuyt also present, as is failed Real Madrid front-man Klaas Jan-Huntelaar, while young Chelsea loanee Patrick van Aanholt, who has played two games in seven years for the Blues, roles in at the back.
Louis van Gaal’s task this summer in South America is sizable, and United fans will be assessing how well he does with a sleeping giant. It will be a tough ask to get out of Group B, with holders Spain, Chile and Australia to give the Dutch a run for their money.
No-one can say that a World Cup campaign is a dry-run for future endeavors, but if Van Gaal somehow guides Holland into the latter stages of the tournament, with the use of his finely tuned tactical nous and boundless experience, then United fans could be permitted to think that next season could herald a speedy rebirth for the deposed English champions.