The Plan | The Netherlands come into the World Cup on a small high having qualified for the Nations League finals, to be played on home turf, next year. They won their group after a 1-0 win over Belgium courtesy of a Virgil van Dijk header and look to have settled on a 5-3-2 system that has worked reasonably well in recent months. The new system was introduced in March. Well, it is not entirely new as that was, in fact, the system the coach, Louis van Gaal, played with as the Oranje finished third at the 2014 World Cup, having reached the semi-finals and beaten hosts Brazil 3-0 in the third-place play-off game.
Just like eight years ago the change of formation away from the quintessential Dutch 4-3-3 provoked criticism. Van Dijk, who is the captain, said openly that he did not like the change to 5-3-2 but added: “But the national coach does not [agree] and he has a very strong opinion about it. And you can see it is not entirely unjustified.” Van Gaal himself has been an ardent supporter of the 4-3-3 philosophy that has shaped the Dutch school of football but it is never too late to learn something new. “The longer I have been a coach the more I have learned to love the 5-3-2 system,” the 71-year-old said recently. “You can attack with it and you can defend with it. You can put the opponent under pressure everywhere and, if you play it well, there is less risk of the opponent breaking through on the counter-attack because you have three central defenders.” Van Gaal now feels that it outweighs having three attackers. “I felt that in a 4-3-3 system it was best to form triangles everywhere, but back then I didn’t have the ability to see the advantages of that other system. In the 5-3-2 system the balance in the team is better and it could possibly be done with a 3-4-3 too.”
Squad-wise Netherlands go into the World Cup in decent shape but are vulnerable to injuries to their main creative players, such as Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay who both, in fact, have had muscle problems this season. Van Gaal normally prefers to select players who are fully match fit but will make an exception for that pair. The squad is not as deep as it could be, which may become a problem if the Netherlands go far in Qatar.
The Coach | Louis van Gaal has the chance to become the Dutch national team coach with the most wins ever. At the moment he is tied with Dick Advocaat on 37, although the latter took four games more to reach that number. Earlier this year Van Gaal revealed that he has been suffering from an aggressive form of prostate cancer since 2020. He explained how he had been sneaking out from the Dutch training camps to have radiotherapy. He also said that he felt well enough to take the team to the World Cup and that the players give him energy.
Star Player | It is fair to say that three players could have had valid claims for this nomination but Virgil van Dijk edges it, partly because he is the captain but also because of his performance against Manchester City and Erling Haaland in October, when he tamed the powerful Norwegian. The Oranje used to have world-class strikers but these days it is the defence that makes the difference and Van Dijk is an exemplary captain and an inspiration. He also has a knack of scoring important goals for the national team.
Unsung Hero | For Cody Gakpo the World Cup is a chance to show the wider world what he is capable of and possible earn a transfer to a top European club. There were rumours he was about to leave PSV in the summer but in the end he stayed. The winger has always had the talent but now he has added consistency to his game as well and is regularly a match winner for his club. For the Netherlands he has three goals in nine caps going in to the World Cup. What will those figures be at the end of the tournament?
Probable Line-up | (5-3-2): Cillissen; Dumfries, Timber, De Vrij, Van Dijk, Aké; De Jong, Gakpo, Blind; Memphis, Bergwijn.
Qatar Stance | Before a game against Latvia in March 2021 the players wore warm-up shorts with the text: “Football supports change” and the captain’s armband had the same words on it, the players wanting to make a statement against Qatar’s human rights’ record. The players are united in their thinking, as is the coach, Van Gaal, who has spoken out against the fact that the World Cup will take place in Qatar. “Everyone knows that I think it is ridiculous that the games will be played there,” he said once and has repeated that sentiment since then. Last year the Dutch government said it would not send a delegation to Qatar but a change of power may still see a few politicians and the King, Willem Alexander, travel. That gas supplies from Qatar may be too important to antagonise the World Cup hosts is seemingly the thinking.
National Anthem | It is one of the oldest national anthems in the world, written around 1570 at the beginning of the Eighty Years’ War. The lyrics are written in the words of William of Orange and were used in the battle against the Spanish king. It is not known who wrote the lyrics but, having fallen out of the national consciousness for a few hundred years, it was rediscovered and, in 1932, was made national anthem. It became very popular during the second world war. The song consists of 15 verses and the first letters of each of those form the name William of Nassau. The anthem is popular among Oranje fans, although usually only the first verse is sung.
Cult Hero | Johan Cruyff is the great hero of Dutch football and his name is famous around the world. In 1974 he led the Oranje to the World Cup final. Four years later they also reached the last game of the tournament but he had refused to travel to Argentina. It was not just a political statement, he had been stung by the “swimming pool scandal” from the tournament in west Germany. A true legend, the Cruyff foundation means that his name lives on, setting up football pitches in residential areas so that everyone can have the opportunity to play football. Its work has carried on since the death of Cruyff in 2016.