The Netherlands have set the bar extraordinarily high at this World Cup.
Theirs wasn’t just a comfortable win, but a total, 5-1 destruction of a nation considered the best in the world and backed by three successive international trophies. There’s still a lot of mystery and intrigue about Brazil and a World Cup hosted by a South American nation. And had this tournament been based anywhere else in the world, Spain would have probably been favourites to retain their crown.
Louis van Gaal has been the architect of the most stunning win of this competition so far – and let’s be honest: some of the football was phenomenal. Though it would be more accurate to say van Gaal has been a co-architect, picking up on ideas of others and blending them with his own.
Have your pick: Arjen Robben or Robin van Persie. Both Dutch forwards scored sublime goals against Spain, as if a playful duel was taking place between two players who weren’t prepared to be bested by the other. Van Gaal lined up both at centre-forward, an unusual position for Robben to some but one that he’s become more and more accustomed to in recent seasons.
Robben, an inverted winger, is always going to look to come inside onto his favoured left foot. The Dutchman has at times been afforded the freedom to leave his right-wing post while playing for Bayern, and he’s been far more effective, making runs behind and unsettling opposition centre-backs.
His wasn’t a performance of a winger, but rather a striker liberated and seemingly improving with age. Robben has been one of the mainstays in Pep Guardiola’s Bayern team over the past 12 months, and it was no surprise to see the forward continue to perform to such a high standard under the similarly-minded van Gaal. It was a complete centre-forward performance.
And it’s not just in the performance, but the attitude too. Let’s not forget that these Dutch players – the senior figures at least – have a history of confrontation. Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder went to war with one another off the back of a previous international tournament, with the former going in heavy with a training ground challenge and the incident spiralling into childish petulance.
None of that was present in the celebrations on Friday night. This is a harmonious group, one with egos who are learning to live with one another. The squad haven’t been cooped up hotel rooms. They’ve been outdoors, taking to the beach, making use of the feel-good atmosphere and running through what appear to be lax training sessions.
It makes sense. Players who spend a lot of time on the road will form greater bonds, but being confined to colourless hotel rooms won’t help. The WAGS and kids are also part of the Dutch setup, and certainly further help in creating such a positive mood around the camp.
Credit to van Gaal. These players – the attacking trio of van Persie, Robben and Sneijder – are now the experienced heads in a squad full of newcomers and youngsters. Robben may have abandoned his post on the right wing, the other two look to have buried misunderstandings, but they’re taking on the role of leaders.
It’s all positive signs for Manchester United, who, having lost three veterans in Ryan Giggs, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, will need to identify the new band to lead the club over the next few seasons.
Van Gaal has once again displayed his trust in youth and the successful harnessing of young talent. United need an overhaul this summer; one of the fundamentals is bringing down that average squad age, with last season’s being 27.
But the quality of football at Old Trafford also needs to improve. Van Persie may have been saving himself for this World Cup, but there are other areas in need of addressing, like the situation with Wayne Rooney and the problem at No.10 created by the signing of Juan Mata.
Van Gaal already has a glittering past in the European game that has most at United encouraged for what’s to come. But by offering up the most impressive attacking display thus far at the World Cup, he’s continued to enhance his reputation as a serial winner.
Van Persie’s high-five celebration with van Gaal following his first goal will be a lasting memory from this World Cup. It rounded off his exquisite goal nicely, and United fans will be hoping it spills over into next season. Most should be expecting it to.