The Rio Report

With Van Gaal, Dutch are dangerous again

The Rio Report

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It had been billed, in boxing parlance, as a 're-match' of the World Cup final from four years ago but no-one expected the old champion to be staggering around the ring in the final round with their knees buckling.

And while many will wonder how a Spain team that has dominated international football for the past six years could collapse so dramatically, the other contenders in the tournament will be asking themselves how the Netherlands became the team that did the damage.

In 2010 a Dutch team that was effective and well organised but whose negativity had little in keeping with the country's tradition for flowing, attacking football, pushed Spain into extra-time before losing to an Andres Iniesta goal. Few cried any tears for them.

The country's tradition of producing attractive, attacking teams means they, like hosts Brazil, are expected to win but also to win with style.

They certainly did that against Spain.

If optimistic Dutch, four years ago, thought that coach Bert van Marwijk had at least built some solid foundations for the future, the plan was in tatters two year later when at Euro 2012, the Netherlands were eliminated after the group without a single point.

Friday's massacre of the Spanish was a performance that was unrecognisable from the dysfunctional disappointments mustered in Ukraine in defeats by Denmark, Germany and Portugal.

Coach Louis van Gaal, determined to make up for his failure to even qualify the Netherlands for the 2002 World Cup, has taken full opportunity of his second chance.

Nine wins from 10 qualifying games made the Dutch the first European team to qualify for Brazil and should have served as warning of what was to come - but after their Euro flop, there were few true believers.

Van Gaal has transformed the squad however, while crucially keeping core of players who were truly irreplacable - Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben and totally overhauling his defence.

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None of the defenders that played against Spain in Soccer City have made the trip to Brazil but experienced midfielders Nigel de Jong and Wesley Sneijder were wisely retained.

Van Persie and Robben showed exactly why they were spared from the cull with two- goals each, and wonderful individual displays, in Salvador.

And one of the younger players Van Gaal has trusted in, Daley Blind, son of assistant coach and former international Danny, was outstanding, creating two goals and delivering quality passing througout the game.

But arguably more important than the personnel decisions was the strategy Van Gaal adopted against Spain - injecting a strong pressing style in midfield and devastating counter-attack that was so in evidence against Spain.

Van Gaal had the courage to switch from the 4-3-3 formation that worked so well in qualification to a five-man midfield that restricted Spain's ability to dominate with their possession football.

"It was exactly what the technical staff had predicted. Their tactics worked like a dream. I can't wait to watch the highlights later on. Now it's time to enjoy this surreal win," said Van Persie.

The former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach who takes over Manchester United following the World Cup  has also used his famously blunt approach to deal with the dressing room disputes that plagued Van Marwijk's team two years ago.

The constant and corrosive debate over whether Van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should be the main striker - or indeed whether they could even play together -  has been ended with Van Gaal giving the Manchester United striker his full confidence.

It was confidence that was repaid with interest and in a manner that Spain's record-breaking generation will never forget.

Reuters

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