Thinker or Tinker, Mastermind or Meddler: Exploring Exactly How Peculiar Louis van Gaal’s Selection Choices Have Been for the Dutch National Team
Louis van Gaal is a divisive figure. He likes it that way. Perhaps the most decorated manager currently in international football, the 71 year old Dutchman made his name in Amsterdam as manager of 4 time European Champions Ajax Amsterdam. In those days Ajax were only 3 time European Champions — 20 years removed from the European Glory of Rinus Michels, Stefan Kovacs, and the almost godlike figure that was Johan Cruyff. For the footballing masses outside of the Netherlands, Van Gaal is often looked at as a continuation of this tradition, the next generation of the same console, who delivered Ajax back to the pinnacle of European sport by reviving the old way and giving new life to Totaalvoetbal.
The reality is quite different. Amongst noteworthy dissidents to this line of thought: Johan Cruyff himself. Cruyff butted heads with Van Gaal on a number of occasions, once saying of his managerial approach, “He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I want individuals to think for themselves.” To Johan, Van Gaal’s football was not Total Football — the players were shackled to their positions and their duties in a way that made them rigid, and robbed them of their self expression. In his eyes, Van Gaal was no more one of his disciples than John Lennon a devotee of Andrés Segovia — the two played the same instrument, but the notes they struck couldn’t have formed a more different tune.
For Van Gaal, this was on purpose. He wanted to carve a different legacy — distinct, controlled, and separate from Cruyff’s. He liked being the centre of attention, and he relished the conflict of ideology and personality that he had created. Dutch culture tends to promote strongly held opinions — whether well supported or not — and both Louis and his foil in Cruyff are two of the all time greats in that respect. Van Gaal ultimately left Ajax to the Church of Cruyff’s other holy site — the Camp Nou and F.C. Barcelona. He won more silverware and stepped on more toes there, as he continued a career that carried him from Barceloneta beach to Bavarian Bierhaus and further still until his club career met its rather inglorious end at Manchester United.
In between club managerial stints he moonlit as the Bondscoach of the third side that Johan Cruyff (nearly) lifted to glory — Oranje, the beloved Dutch national team. His first stint went horribly: Van Gaal managed a prodigiously talented Dutch side featuring the likes of Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, and Edgar Davids to… well, nothing. Van Gaal’s Oranje failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002. Before the deciding match, Van Gaal boasted that his side were so much more talented than the Ireland team they faced that even Irish fans would be rooting for them to go through. The Dutch lost, and so ended the reign of King Louis I.
The next time Louis returned to the national team, things were very different. The Dutch were coming off a dismal performance at the 2012 European Championship, wherein a squad full of stars like Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Robin van Persie had failed to register even a single point in the group stages. By the time Van Gaal took the reigns, however, said stars were aging. Key players like Mark van Bommel had retired, while other mainstays like Dirk Kuyt and Sneijder were firmly in the twilight of the careers. Robin van Persie, less than a year removed from a Premier League golden boot and league title, was in the midst of his final bout of injuries — the one that, this time, would spell the end of his time as a goalscoring threat at the top level.
To fill the gaps came a flood of untested, and, frankly, unspectacular young players — goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, left back Daley Blind, centrebacks Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij, midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and forward Memphis Depay. Some would go on to have successful top flight careers, but in 2014 none were top class footballers. Feeling there was a talent deficit in critical areas, Van Gaal controversially switched the Dutch system from the classic 433 of Dutch sides of yore in favor of a more conservative 352 setup on the eve of the tournament. In front of the world, the young group of Dutchmen (with the help of some not so subtle touches of class from the aforementioned Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie) thrashed the World and European Champions Spain 5–1 on their way to a surprise appearance in the semifinals. The people loved King Louis II, and though the Dutch did not win that year, many remember that run more fondly than the 2010 edition of the tournament wherein a more talented Oranje karate kicked their way to within a Castilian toe’s length of eternal glory.
Eight and a half long years later King Louis is back. Stronger in some ways, weaker in others — but inarguably better equipped to play the expansive football that Dutch teams are known for. In 2014, Van Gaal remarked that he’d consider it a success to make it out of the group stage. This time around, he set a much loftier goal:
You don’t need to watch that whole video. All you need to know is that, when asked whether his goal was to make the Quarterfinals, he responded rather wistfully with the following:
Ik wil wereldkampioen worden.
World Champion. I want to be World Champion.
It was a brazen and candid moment, even for Louis, who in the tradition of many great managers is a famous manager of expectations. Yet, despite his newfound lofty goals, Van Gaal has elected, in classic King Louis fashion, to make some very peculiar tactical and personnel selections. We all know Louis van Gaal is a bit wacky. But is there a method to the madness? Let’s take a look.
Odd Selection Number 1: Andries Noppert, Justin Bijlow, and Remko Pasveer selected over Jasper Cillessen and Mark Flekken
If you aren’t an avid follower of the Dutch national team you probably aren’t exceedingly impressed by the Dutch goalkeeping options. If you are an avid follower of the Dutch national team, you definitely aren’t impressed by the Dutch goalkeeping options. Though Maarten Stekelenburg did an impressive job at the 2010 World Cup (and less impressive ones at Euro 2012 and Euro 2020), there hasn’t been a truly dominant Dutch number 1 since Edwin van der Sar retired from international play almost 15 years ago. Jasper Cillessen is the closest thing the side has had to a top end goalkeeper since then, having played for Barcelona for a number of years. However, even Cillessen was quite limited at his peak — and his peak has long since passed him by.
As a result, the last few Oranje managers have taken to experimenting with the position. Ronald Koeman favored Cillessen in his relatively modest heyday, whereas Frank de Boer settled on Stekelenburg as his number 1. Upon taking over as head coach of the national team Van Gaal seemed to make his own choice: Justin Bijlow, perhaps the most talented young keeper to come through for Oranje in a generation, started the first 6 matches under the former AZ Alkmaar manager. Both Bijlow and Oranje started Van Gaal’s tenure in good form: the Dutch collected 17 of 21 possible points in World Cup qualification with Bijlow between the sticks. However, after a 2–2 draw in which the Dutch blew a 2–0 lead in no small part due to Bijlow’s errors, the Feyenoord keeper suffered a groin injury that kept him out of their final qualifier against Norway. In the gap between the November 2021 international break and the March 2022 international break he in turn suffered a serious foot injury that kept him out of action from March to May.
In the meantime, Freiburg’s Mark Flekken ‘broke into’ the side in his place. By the time Bijlow had returned from injury, Flekken and Cillessen were splitting time as starters with no space for his return. After starting this campaign in spotty form for his club, Bijlow failed to make the cut for the selection at all in September, with SC Heerenveen keeper Andries Noppert taking his place. When asked as to why Noppert was included, Van Gaal remarked, “Because he stops the ball. He’s a keeper, so you have to stop the ball.”
Van Gaal also says a few other interesting things in this clip: 1. That Bijlow wasn’t selected because he hadn’t played well enough this season to be one of the top four keepers and 2. That he wanted to avoid taking anyone in November that he hasn’t coached before.
In his final selection, Van Gaal ultimately reneged on both of these claims. Bijlow seems to have shot up to at least second in the goalkeeping pecking order after strong form for Feyenoord in the intervening months, and Van Gaal included two previously uncapped players in the squad he took to Qatar.
So, How Odd is This Selection Exactly?
On the one hand, Bijlow has objectively been a very spotty shot stopper for some time now. Statistically, of the five keepers in contention, he was the worst to start this season by a distance:
Translation of above:
“Goals prevented this season in [league] competition based on xGoT
Andries Noppert — 3.3
Mark Flekken — 2.6
Jasper Cillessen — 2.1
Remko Pasveer — 2.0
Justin Bijlow — -0.1"
However, Bijlow’s rebounded significantly since then (he now sits at +1.2), and it’s worth noting that shot stopping isn’t the only thing going into the equation here. Flekken, in particular, was exposed on the ball against Germany in March — his exclusion is likely down to his deficiency in that department. On the other hand, Andries Noppert’s inclusion, despite his fine form for SC Heerenveen this season, is almost certainly on account of his 6'8" (2.03 M) frame — Van Gaal has made it no secret that he intends to have a penalty specialist in his side ala 2014 hero Tim Krul, and the Frisian giant fits the bill.
None of this, however, explains why Jasper Cillessen was excluded from the side. Cillessen’s been in good form for NEC Nijmegen this season, and he was the favorite for the #1 spot as recently as a few weeks ago. In contrast, Remko Pasveer, who will be the Netherlands’ #1 in Qatar (literally, not figuratively— his squad number is #1, but that’s no guarantee he’ll start) has been in very poor form of late for a floundering Ajax side. One can only guess as to the cause for Cillessen’s exclusion, but the Dutch press has speculated that it was down to interpersonal issues he caused in the dressing room. When asked about how he selected the goalkeepers going to Qatar, Van Gaal said the selection process was no different from that of the outfield players before adding an arguably cryptic caveat: sometimes the best player isn’t necessarily the best player for the team when you’re going to be locked up together for 5 weeks in a foreign land (fair warning, I’m paraphrasing heavily here, but I promise the sentiment is the same).
Oddness Score: 2/5 — A Little Odd
Odd Selection Number 2: Nathan Aké and Jurriën Timber starting over Matthijs de Ligt, Stefan de Vrij, and Sven Botman
Matthijs de Ligt is the most expensive teenage defender in the history of football and a starter for Bayern Munich. Stefan de Vrij is a veteran of the Dutch national team, a top performer at both the 2014 World Cup and the 2020 European Championship, and highly experienced in the back 3 system that Van Gaal favors. Sven Botman is a widely highly regarded, young, left footed starter for a top half Premier League team, and he started almost every match for a Ligue 1 winning Lille side just over a year ago.
None of these 3 start for Van Gaal’s Oranje of 2022. Botman was not even selected in the 26 man squad. At first glance, this seems totally bizarre. Why exclude some of your best players from the side when you play a formation that demands at least 3 centrebacks play from the outset? Let’s talk about it.
So, How Odd is This Selection Exactly?
To understand this choice, you first have to understand why Oranje use a back 3. Van Gaal’s preference for flying in the face of tradition by opting for a 3–5–2 formation over the traditional Dutch 4–3–3 (4–2–3–1) has nothing to do with the side’s wealth of top centrebacks. When asked about his decision to move towards the formation in qualifiers, the 71 year old said that it was down to a dearth of talent on the wings.
Van Gaal isn’t looking to put his three best centrebacks in the team. He’s looking to put his best wide right centreback in the team, his best central centreback in the team, and his best left centreback in the team. There’s an inclination to view the centreback position as a monolith — all centrebacks are just centrebacks, and there’s minimal nuance in the execution of different roles when you play that far back on the pitch. This is not how Van Gaal views things.
By Van Gaal’s reckoning, neither Stefan de Vrij, nor Matthijs de Ligt, is suited to playing as a “wide centreback.” Van Gaal’s wide centrebacks (Nathan Aké, of Manchester City, and Jurriën Timber, of Ajax) are mobile, ball carrying centrebacks. They both have experience moonlighting as fullbacks and midfielders, and their best qualities are overwhelmingly with the ball in space and against the ball in space, rather than winning duels in the box. In contrast, while De Ligt and De Vrij are by no means slow, neither of them thrives with the increased spatial responsibility that comes with playing as the right most centreback in a back 3. There, Jurriën Timber is asked to push forward as an auxiliary midfielder for stretches during the match, and is often isolated both in and out of possession when wingback Denzel Dumfries goes on adventurous runs into the opposition penalty box. The same is true of Nathan Aké on the other side, where the left footed Sven Botman would presumably be his competition. Botman is slow on the turn, and not nearly the player on the ball that Aké is. To whatever extent De Ligt and De Vrij are out of place on the right, Botman would be even moreso in Aké’s role.
This leaves De Vrij, De Ligt, and Botman to compete for a spot in the middle of a back 3. Unfortunately for them, perhaps the greatest pure defender in the history of Dutch football plays there. However out of form Virgil van Dijk may be, he will not be dropped by Van Gaal, or any Dutch manager for that matter, as long as he plays at his usual level in Orange. This really isn’t a hard one to understand once you dig in.
Oddness Score: 1/5 — Not Odd
Odd Selection Number 3: Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind starting over Jeremie Frimpong and Tyrell Malacia
Jeremie Frimpong is one of two players in this Dutch side that is uncapped. A product of Manchester City’s youth setup, the Leverkusen fullback is one of the most technical players in the entire 26 man squad for the Dutch. Whether he starts is one thing, but it was frankly criminal that he’d not been capped sooner. He’s a fullback with the skill and tricks of a top end winger.
Tyrell Malacia was one of the best fullbacks in the Dutch top flight last season, and it earned him a move to Manchester United this past summer. There, Malacia has largely been rotation for England left back Luke Shaw — however, when he’s played he’s largely played well, albeit a bit conservatively.
While neither of these players is the finished product, there’s been a great deal of outcry for both of them to start for the Dutch national team over the current encumbents at wingback: Internazionale’s Denzel Dumfries and Ajax’s Daley Blind. This is largely because of the two starters respective limitations: Dumfries is no technician, and the Dutch struggle to build down their right flank due in part to do his limitations, while Blind has been caught out defensively over and over this season for Ajax due to his physical shortcomings.
So, How Odd is This Selection Exactly?
Before answering that question, let me take you back a year, to the 2021/22 season. Where…
Blind was a) the third most progressive player at the European Championship b) the most progressive passer in the Champions’ League group stages and c) passing into the final third more than any other player in Europe’s Top 7 Leagues by a factor of 1.5x.
Blind has started for every manager that’s ever coached him because he’s a generationally talented passer of the ball, with an elite game IQ with the ball at his feet. That truth has not changed in the year between the recording of the above stats and now. What has arguably changed is Blind’s viability, athletically, in a top flight football team. His mistakes have undoubtedly become more serious and more numerous, in particular this season, for his club side Ajax. The question ultimately becomes: does what Blind offers in possession outweigh what the side loses out of possession?
This is ultimately a judgement call, but I skew heavily towards the ‘yes’ side of things. Why is this? Perhaps it’s that the alternative, Tyrell Malacia, is not a particularly distinguished progressor of the ball. Or potentially it’s that Ajax have had systemic issues this season that have seen almost every player in the team exposed defensively at one time or another. Or maybe it’s just that Blind’s been athletically limited his entire career, and no manager worth their salt has seen fit to drop him yet. I jump between these explanations, amongst others, at will, because I see them all as salient in their own ways. Blind will start at this tournament because he’s been vitally important to every good side he’s ever played in. Perhaps it will be Oranje’s undoing — but I think it’s more likely he plays a big part in whatever success they do have in Qatar.
As for Dumfries — if one were to assess Dumfries on the things you’d expect of a traditional fullback, Dumfries would fail in almost every department. He’s limited technically, he isn’t a particularly good or high work-rate defender, and he can’t cross particularly well.
Despite this, Dumfries has been one of the most productive attacking wide players in Serie A since he joined Inter Milan last season. This is down to two traits of his: 1) physically, he’s a menace for opposition defenders, and 2) he’s one of the smartest box movers at fullback/wingback anywhere in world football.
It was Dumfries late runs and aerial presence that created chances over and over again for the Netherlands in the group stages of the European Championship in 2021. Especially now, with Van Gaal opting to play without a traditional striker, Dumfries is the physical box presence for the Dutch. While Frimpong might have him beat when it comes to doing things you expect a wingback to do, Dumfries comes out on top when it comes to doing things that the Dutch need their wingbacks to do. Blind and Dumfries will start for the Dutch in Qatar, and despite what some may suggest, it’s not out of favoritism that Van Gaal will select them.
Oddness Score: 1/5 — Not Odd
Odd Selection Number 4: Kenneth Taylor and Davy Klaassen selected over Ryan Gravenberch
Kenneth Taylor and Davy Klaassen have both been parts of Alfred Schreuder’s midfield rotation this season at Ajax. Taylor, in particular, has played a key role. Though the season has been a disappointing one thus far for Ajax fans, when things have gone well the Dutchman with the least Dutch name in the squad has generally been a part of it. Klaassen has as well, but he’s also had his role limited more: the 29 year old acts as a box threat from midfield for the Amsterdammers, and not much else.
Ryan Gravenberch is the player Kenneth Taylor replaced in Ajax’s lineup from last season, as the 20 year old moved from Ajax to Bayern Munich after a good, albeit slightly underwhelming season for the Dutch champions. At Bayern, Gravenberch has hardly played.
“If Taylor and Klaassen have played, and in moments produced, then why is this even an odd selection to begin with?” You may be asking. The answer to that question is based a bit more in conjecture than reality, but I’ll do my best to shed some light.
So, How Odd is This Selection Exactly?
Kenneth Taylor is a good football player. He probably has a future with the Dutch national team, purely from a talent perspective. Davy Klaassen is popular amongst the current players in the Dutch selection, he’s experienced, and he has scored some critical goals (albeit in low stakes matches) for the Dutch. All of that in mind, the reason many feel Ryan Gravenberch should be in this team over these two is basically this: Gravenberch is just better.
That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it does capture the sentiment — Gravenberch was arguably the most highly touted attack-minded player to come out of Ajax’s academy in more than a decade when he joined Ajax’s first team full time at 18 years old. He’s 6'3" (1.9M) and technically as sound as they come, he can breeze past just about anyone on the dribble, and he has excellent ball striking ability. Principally, what he has over Taylor, and Klaassen, and arguably every Dutch midfielder not named De Jong, is that he can break a game open all on his own in a way Dutch midfielders just haven’t been able to do for many many years. He created about 5 shots per match last season in the Eredivisie, almost a full shot and a half more than either Taylor or Klaassen is managing this year. There’s just a certain sense of recklessness that comes with leaving a player like that at home, simply because he’s not starting for one of the best sides in the world. It seems likely that there will come a match in Qatar where the Dutch have to chase the game — and the thinking goes that Gravenberch’s long legs will be missed in such a hunt. I have to say, this choice reads as pretty odd to me — even in the face of all the circumstantial rationale behind leaving Gravenberch at home.
Oddness Score: 4/5 — Quite Odd
Odd Selection Number 5: Vincent Janssen selected over Brian Brobbey and Arnaut Danjuma Groeneveld
In 2016 Vincent Janssen was a bright light in the dark for the Dutch national team. The Dutch had just failed to qualify for an expanded European Championship in embarrassing fashion, largely due to a dearth of top level talent. Janssen, however, was fresh off a 27 goal season for AZ Alkmaar, and the young striker had just gotten his big move to Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. The Dutch national team did, ultimately, recover from those dark days — but Janssen played no part in that resurgence. The AZ man flopped hard at Tottenham, before scoring a total of 8 goals in 3 seasons of Mexican top flight football. While the Dutch soared back to the top, Janssen plummeted to the depths.
That was until Louis van Gaal decided to surprise everyone and call up the man Monterrey fans had dubbed El Toro (the bull) in the midst of a one goal campaign for the Liga MX side. At the time it was a deeply curious selection — one that Van Gaal justified by saying in no plain terms that Janssen was selected because the Dutch simply did not have a striker. Louis saw something he liked, and decided to take a flyer.
Fast forward about six months, and now Vincent Janssen is flying high in the Belgian top flight. He has 9 goals and 3 assists in 13 starts for Royal Antwerp this campaign, and it’s earned him a spot on the plane to Qatar over Eredivisie young player of the month Brian Brobbey and Villareal gunman Arnaut Danjuma Groeneveld.
So, How Odd is This Selection Exactly?
This selection is completely nuts. 100% bonkers. Difficult to understand even after you’ve been hit multiple times over the head.
Let me start with Janssen.
Janssen’s goal and assist record this campaign in Belgium is highly deceptive. 4 of his 9 goals came from penalties, which, when excluded, drops his strike rate from the quite robust 0.69 goals per 90 minutes to the modest pace of 0.38 per 90 minutes. In contrast, Ajax’s Brian Brobbey is averaging 0.88 goals per 90 minutes in the more competitive Eredivisie — and none of his goals are penalties. Arnaut Danjuma’s numbers in Spain are far worse, to be fair to Janssen, but Danjuma’s just returned from injury, and last season posted a strike rate of 1 goal every two matches across league and champions league competition.
The obvious counterpoint here is that, clearly, Van Gaal didn’t make this decision solely on goalscoring merit. In support of this is the fact that Van Gaal indicated that Janssen would start Oranje’s opening match against Senegal were Memphis Depay unfit to play. Memphis Depay, albeit prolific for the Dutch national team, is principally in the side for his holdup and linkup play. If Janssen is viewed as Memphis’ replacement, it must be because Van Gaal sees some equivalent qualities. He would be right in this, to an extent. Hold up play is objectively a strength of Janssen’s. However, it’s also a strength of Brian Brobbey’s — the Toekomst product has improved his touch significantly over the last two years, and that coupled with his robust frame has rendered him a menace to defenders with his back to goal.
Janssen may play well at this tournament. If he does, good on him. But there really isn’t any way to work an argument here, with the evidence before us on November 15th, before a ball has been kicked, where one of Brobbey or Danjuma wouldn’t offer more to this side than the Royal Antwerp man. This is another instance where it seems likely the Dutch will find themselves chasing a game in Qatar and wishing they had the quality of those left behind to throw on the pitch over those in the squad.
Oddness Score: 5/5 — Really, Really Odd
Overall, Van Gaal has done an incredible job managing this Dutch side through the last 16 months. However quirky his choices may be, he’s earned the right to make them. This Dutch side play as a team, they play attractive football, and they have yet to lose under Louis during his third and final stint in orange. Time will tell whether King Louis’ idiosyncrasies will be the making or the undoing of the latest generation of Dutch talent in Qatar, but, for better or worse, what unfolds will undoubtedly be worth watching.