After a disastrous David Moyes nine months-reign, most Manchester United fans welcomed the pre-World Cup news that the new manager in the Old Trafford hot seat would be the experienced and title-winning Dutch coach Louis van Gaal. Based on the results of Holland’s first three matches, all of those fans will still be wearing a smile on their faces. However, it may also be that quite a few of those smiling fans have been surprised by the way the Dutch team have approached their matches. It may even be that a certain share of those taken by surprise have become worried as to the future of Manchester United Football Club since Van Gaal has made his team play rather uncharacteristically in regard to Dutch traditions.
If United fans immediately came to think of speed, wingers, and possession when Van Gaal was appointed their club’s new manager, Holland’s three matches so far at the World Cup, resulting in three wins, have shown that the most appropriate way to characterize Van Gaal’s tactical approach and preferred formation is “extreme flexibility.” That is, if we put on our positive glasses. If we put on our negative glasses, we might instead use “lack of red thread” or “winning means everything” to describe Holland’s style.
From a tactical point of view, the match against Chile no doubt stands out as especially impressive since Van Gaal’s approach resulted in a complete neutralization of Chile’s most dangerous weapons, aggressive pressing and counter attacking. In this match, Van Gaal showed his Mourinho side. And back in Holland, Johan Cruyff was probably fuming because of Holland’s risk minimizing, non-possession football based on long balls and counter attack. It was un-Dutch, but highly effective, and it proved – yet again – to be a tactical masterclass from Van Gaal.
In the first game against the reigning world champions of Spain, Van Gaal’s approach was pretty similar – counter attack, solid and aggressive defending with five in the back, and cynical indifference as to possession – but whereas Chile never came close to winning, not to mention scoring a goal, against the Dutch, Spain missed a golden opportunity when leading with a goal just as Iker Casillas had his worst game ever. My point is that despite the devastating result – 5-1 – and despite a couple of world-class goals, the victory against Chile was in many ways more convincing, tactically speaking, than the demolition of Spain. If the approach (caution) and formation (5-3-2) were similar against Spain and Chile, Van Gaal reverted to the classic Dutch 4-3-3 formation with emphasis on wingers, speed, and possession in-between the two games against Spain and Chile, when his team were facing the underdogs and rather limited side from Australia. But the Dutch team was unconvincing against the Australians, only winning 3-2 after trailing 1-2.