For a moment, it all seemed typically, wonderfully, Dutch. The Netherlands national team had ignited the World Cup by beating reigning champion Spain on Day 2; not just winning but destroying it 5-1, with three of the goals -- Robin van Persie's flying header and two strikes of individual brilliance from Arjen Robben -- utterly sensational.
But then, early in the second half of its second game, the Netherlands found itself trailing 2-1 to Australia, the team ranked lowest in the FIFA rankings among all in Brazil. It couldn't slip up like this, could it? Actually no. Coach Louis van Gaal made a tactical change in the second half, switching to 4-3-3 and bringing on Memphis Depay, who scored the winning goal.
The Dutch then made it three out of three, beating Chile with a classic sucker-punch to top Group B and avoid Brazil in the round of 16. And while Van Persie and Robben rightly took credit after the Spain win, the result against Australia, and even more so Chile, was as much down to Van Gaal as well.
Suddenly Manchester United's decision to appoint the Dutchman as coach for next season (it reportedly made an approach to Spain's Vicente del Bosque too) looks like a smart one. So how has Van Gaal gotten this team, which was expected to flop in Brazil, performing so well? Dutch journalist Michiel De Hoog explained in his column for De Correspondent some the key factors that make the former physical education teacher the coach he is.
1. He knows he only has limited influence
When he left the Holland job in his first incarnation as coach, after failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, Van Gaal said that his best quality was that he could improve a player by 10 percent. But when it comes off, as it does regularly with Van Persie under him (he has scored 17 of Holland's 57 in the Van Gaal era, 30 percent), that extra 10 percent can be decisive.
To wield his influence, though, Van Gaal wants control. Total control. "He wants to know about any feedback the player gets, whether it's from family, friends or journalists," his video analyst Max Reckers told De Hoog. "It's so he can decide what images and story that player has [of himself]. The encouragement he gives has to be unique." Van Gaal knows his influence is limited, but tries to maximize it as much as he can.
2. His love of the collective is about love of the individual
When Van Gaal was appointed United coach, there were two stories about his management style that became gospel. One, he is wedded to a 4-3-3 system. Not true, as against Spain, Holland, in the absence of Kevin Strootman, played 3-5-2. His favorite word is also meant to be "collectief," that everything is done for the team. In 2012, he told Dutch FA magazine Ons Oranje: "A pass from A to B is not just that pass, a technical move, but there is a human being behind [the pass]. Each player is influenced by the mind."
Van Gaal worked with consultant Leo van der Burg to devise a three-tiered player analysis: intellectually-oriented players were blue, emotional players green and creative players red. Each color, according to the two men, differs in the way they process information and therefore Van Gaal's approach changes for each of them. Van Gaal is always keen to show his players their best moments, convinced that positive images help. His approach is also to improve players' strengths rather than focus on their weaknesses.
"The universally acknowledged truth is that he doesn't care about the individual at all," De Hoog told SI.com. "And he has changed in that respect; I don't think that he would have let the structure of his teams depend on any one player until relatively recently."
3. It's not all about the result
Scoring five goals against the reigning world champion would have obviously pleased Van Gaal, but after every game, the Dutchman is not sidetracked by the result. Instead, he looks at whether his players have fulfilled their tasks as he asked them. In his 2009 autobiography, Vision, he writes: "It's not even about the result. It is about the quality of the game from the team ... with the ultimate aim to achieve improvements in the quality of the game again and again."
Van Gaal is always keen to embrace new methods and in preparations for Brazil, the coaching staff used a virtual reality headset called Oculus Rift to allow players to relive simulations of a game or training situations so they can look back at specific actions and experience them from a different perspective. One of the first things the players will have wanted to do is put themselves in Van Persie's shoes for his flying header against Spain.
Despite his disciplinarian demeanor, Van Gaal will surely have allowed them that pleasure.
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