On a hot, humid June night in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv I leaned back into my seat with great satisfaction. Portugal had just beaten Netherlands to qualify for the last eight of EURO 2012.
As I replayed the moments of the match in my head I wondered how it was possible for a Dutch side brimming with talent to bow out of the tournament without registering a point.
The answer was partly down the conservatism of its former coach Bert van Marwijk, who restricted his side’s attacking intent.
I remember one analyst likening the central midfield duo of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel as two anchors holding the Oranje back.
Despite having recently re-signed Van Marwijk for four more years the Dutch federation decided enough was enough and cut his tenure short.
A drastic overhaul in the national team was needed and they had just the man in mind to do it.
They would have to swallow a fair dose of pride to go down this route however, for the man they wanted had criticised them immensely since being cast into the shadows of Dutch football after World Cup qualifying failure in 2001.
In fact the man they needed has such a lowly reputation among former players, as well as an ego that prevents any question of his authority, that the world’s top teams prefer to stay well away from him.
But the coach in question has a magnificent football brain and has proven many times over that he can get almost any team to play the famous “Dutch way”.
That coach is of course Louis van Gaal and after just two qualification games he’s already stirred the pot.
While Australia wrestles with how best to rejuvenate an ageing squad, Van Gaal wasted no time in drafting in the best and brightest young Dutch talent (the Netherlands coach does have the distinct advantage of the country’s best youngsters playing regularly at a high level), despite some of the old guard still having a good few years left.
In came Ajax’s Ricardo van Rhijn, the Feyenoord duo of Bruno Martins Indi and Jordy Clasie, as well as Luciano Narsingh, Jermain Lens and Kevin Strootman of PSV.
Lens is the oldest at 24 while none of the others are over the age of 22 and each of them started in the 4-1 victory over Hungary.
Aside from shaking up the squad Van Gaal also stamped his authority by changing the formation.
Van Marwijk’s conservative 4-2-3-1 is consigned to history.
It was as if Van Gaal took a leaf out of Mike Bassett’s play book and told his team that Netherlands would now be playing 4-3-f’ing-3 (it doesn’t have the same ring as 4-4-2 does it?).
The Dutch were far more proactive in their opening qualifiers than they have been since that ill-fated 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign.
A 2-0 win over Turkey and a 4-1 against Hungary – two of Netherlands’s three toughest group opponents – made it an excellent start to Van Gaal’s second and probably last bid for World Cup glory.
The sceptics that would have questioned changing so much so soon have been silenced, for now.
Trouble usually arises for Van Gaal when his personality clashes with players and directors, but since he’s not working in an everyday environment the Dutch boss might not have the time to encounter such problems.
From a neutral perspective it’s fantastic to have Netherlands playing the type of football that made it such a crowd favourite from the 1970s until the early 2000s.
My hope is that it lasts all the way to Brazil.
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