The Netherlands aren’t widely considered one of the favourites for the upcoming World Cup, but for a number of reasons, they really should be.
With the final international break before the start of the tournament done and dusted, the conversation of who will be the main contenders in Qatar will inevitably start to ramp up.
Most – from fans to bookies to journalists – consider Brazil the favourites, which is fair, and the Netherlands less likely to become World Champions than France, England, Spain and Germany, which isn’t.
In fact, a strong argument could be made for Louis van Gaal’s side being the best Europe has to offer at the moment.
For one, this is the strongest squad the Dutch have taken to a major tournament in a long, long time.
It may lack superstars further forward such as Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, but there’s much more quality and depth elsewhere on the pitch than there was in the teams those three led to the final and semi-final in 2010 and 2014 respectively.
Oranje have arguably never had a better backline. Nathan Ake is very good, Virgil van Dijk is one of the best in the world and Jurrien Timber, one of the biggest talents around, will be soon. The fact that Stefan de Vrij and Matthijs de Ligt will have to make do with places on the bench says it all, and those two aren’t bad backup options.
In front of them, they have one of the best midfielders in the world in Frenkie de Jong, a player who can dominate matches on his own on his day and who Van Gaal is getting the best out of. Who will play next to him is not yet certain, but Teun Koopmeiners and Steven Berghuis are good players who, with very different skill sets, offer Van Gaal different options.
One of the most exciting things about the side is that Cody Gakpo looks set to start as the number 10. The PSV is an enormous talent, is developing very quickly and was excellent in the role in the last two matches, scoring and creating an enormous amount with his pace and dribbling.
Up front are Memphis Depay and Steven Bergwijn, and while that may not be the most exciting forward line to those mainly familiar with their disappointing spells in the Premier League, both are doing far better now than they were in England, with Memphis on track to become his nation’s all-time top scorer thanks to consistently brilliant performances and Bergwijn impressing at Ajax.
And then there’s the side’s biggest asset of all, Louis van Gaal.
Since taking over after the Euros, the manager has transformed the side, implementing a 3-5-2 system that gets the best out of the players and not losing a single match.
It’s not like he’s had easy opponents either, with the Dutchman leading his team to big wins over Belgium and Denmark and to a draw against Germany that could well have been a win if not for a poor VAR call.
He’s built a team that is primarily extremely difficult to beat, being rock solid off the ball, and has the individual quality to score goals at the other end.
As was the case during his last spell in charge, he seems to have a plan for every scenario and a solution to every problem. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he’s not only the best manager present at the World Cup, but by quite some distance too.
Given that he took a squad nowhere near as strong as this one to the semi-finals in 2014, there’s good reason to believe he can do even better in his final tournament as a manager.
That’s especially the case because of how much some of the other big nations are struggling.
Italy haven’t qualified, Belgium were very much second best to the Netherlands in their Nations League group, England and France have been in terrible form while Spain and Germany have also had some really poor results. Brazil, Portugal and Argentina are the only top sides other than the Netherlands heading to Qatar in good shape.
The Netherlands’ task will be made considerably more difficult by the fact that, if the favourites all do as expected, they’ll face Argentina in the quarter-final and Brazil in the semi-final.
However, while they’d be underdogs in both matches, they have the quality, the chemistry and the manager to stand a real chance.
With Van Gaal fighting cancer and retiring at the end of the tournament, him leading his country to their first-ever World Cup triumph would be quite the story.
In fact, it almost sounds too good to be true, like something that only happens in Hollywood films, but there’s plenty of reason to believe that it could yet become a reality.