No great expectations

Arjen Robben... a key figure-AP

“This is the challenge I have been waiting for.” Replacing Bert van Marwijk after Euro 2012 was evidently a major personal joy for Louis van Gaal. Although acknowledged as one of the shrewdest tacticians in recent times, van Gaal’s first stint as his country’s manager remains a blot on his CV.

It was under his watch that the Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. An assessment of the current squad and the draw for the Dutch suggests the side will not be able to significantly improve van Gaal’s record as an international manager. The coach himself reckons, “There are eight to 10 teams better than we are. The chances of reaching the quarterfinal are 20 per cent.”

The side has an obvious dependence on youth, especially in defence. Indeed, van Gaal’s decision to switch from the traditional 4-3-3 formation to 3-5-2 is rooted in the belief that his side requires additional defensive cover.

Ron Vlaar is the only experienced name likely to feature at the back, but even he has no World Cup experience. In fact, only seven of the 23 that won the runner-up medal in South Africa have made the squad this time.

To make matters worse, Kevin Strootman will miss the tournament due to an anterior cruciate ligament injury. The Roma midfielder was indispensable to the side in the 4-3-3 system employed by van Gaal during the qualifiers. The absence of an adequate replacement has also necessitated a change in the formation.

Strootman, though, believes the Netherlands have been underestimated by experts. “There is a lot of criticism that we’ve got many players from the domestic league. It’s so typically Dutch to disregard our own clubs and league. Why be so negative? Ajax has beaten Barcelona this season — that’s a huge effort and not many teams are capable of doing that,” the midfielder told the World Soccer magazine.

The so-called undervaluation of the side’s prospects has been aided by the World Cup draw. Placed alongside Spain, Chile and Australia, progress from the Group for the Netherlands would not be a stroll in the park.

Starting the campaign against Spain is not necessarily a good or bad prospect. The Spaniards lost to Switzerland in South Africa and drew with Italy in their opening match at the 2012 Euros. Yet, the disparity in quality between the two sides is conspicuous.

While Australia should not pose a serious problem in the second match, one feels that the final game against Chile would decide the Dutchmen’s fate. The South American side has clear high-pressing and offensive inclinations that could severely unsettle its youthful counterparts.

Hence, much would depend on the famed preparation orchestrated by van Gaal. He has been known to help sides punch above their weight thanks to immaculate training work, especially with youngsters. Back in 2001, van Gaal took the Netherlands to the under-20 World Cup quarterfinals with a side that had players a couple of years younger than their opponents — for example, Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart.

The current squad also boasts a few youngsters who won the under-17 Euro title three years ago. But the major responsibility within the side rests on the shoulders of the 2010 heroes — Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie.

There’s another slight issue that could harm the Dutch cause. With van Gaal set to assume managerial duties at Manchester United after the World Cup, there’s a danger that he may be distracted by another dream job. If it happens, it won’t be the first time that outside influence will wreak havoc in the Dutch camp.