Daley Blind has said the Netherlands are drawing inspiration at the World Cup from Louis van Gaal’s recovery from cancer.
The Netherlands head coach revealed in April that he had received 25 radiation treatments for an aggressive form of prostate cancer, having kept the diagnosis from his players during their World Cup qualifying campaign. They had been unaware Van Gaal was wearing a catheter beneath his tracksuit during training sessions or that he was spending nights after matches in hospital.
Van Gaal has said the treatment “had done its job”, enabling him to lead the Netherlands into the quarter‑finals of the World Cup in what could be his final role in football. Blind said the 71-year-old’s illness, and how he handled the situation, is on the players’ minds in Qatar.
“Of course it is in the back of our heads,” the Ajax defender said. “From the first moment we didn’t know about it. He did everything he could to keep it from us. He was even going to the hospital during the nights, so as not to show the team what he was going through.
“We have so much respect for how he is coping with this disease at the moment. But he is as sharp as usual. He is Louis van Gaal and he will never change. What you see is what you get. He is a great personality and we are very happy that he is with us.
“He always knows how to inspire players. It’s in the back of our heads but we don’t need any extra motivation. We want to win every game, we want to play for our coach and we want to go as far as we can.”
Blind’s father, Danny, is Van Gaal’s assistant at the World Cup and the pair shared an emotional embrace after the former Manchester United player scored the Netherlands’ second goal in their last-16 victory against the USA on Saturday.
Blind Jr said: “I can’t remember what he said to me – he just grabbed me! It was just a moment between father and son. We will talk about it again when we drink a coffee in the morning and in the evening when we drink a glass of red wine.
“It is crazy having this experience together. I’m just proud we can share it. This is what kids dream about: scoring in a World Cup or even being able to play in a World Cup. What can you say? There is a lot of joy, a lot of emotion and happiness. This is what we are here for.”
Andries Noppert (GK) Was brave to deny Tim Ream three minutes into the second half and made a couple of decent first-half saves. 7/10
Jurriën Timber (CB) A decent night’s work for the 21-year-old Ajax defender. Unruffled but never truly tested. 6
Virgil van Dijk (CB) Arguably started the move for Depay’s slick opener inside his own 18-yard box. Will surely face a tougher test in the quarter-finals. 6
Nathan Aké (CB) Made a couple of typically smart interventions, including a sprawling headed clearance when under the cosh early on. 7
Denzel Dumfries (RWB) The most dangerous player on the pitch. Was alert to sniff danger and set up two goals before volleying in. 9
Marten De Roon (CM) Quietly efficient without doing anything remarkable as the Netherlands coasted into a two-goal lead. Withdrawn at the break. 7
Frenkie De Jong (CM) His poise calmed things down after a nervy start and his class soon told. Was at the heart of everything for the Dutch. 8
Daley Blind (LWB) The 32-year-old arrived on cue at the penalty spot to convert Dumfries’s cross and register his first Netherlands goal since 2014. 7
Davy Klaassen (AM) Involved in the first two goals; in the intricate passing for Depay’s opener and slipped in Dumfries in buildup to the second. 7
Cody Gakpo (ST) Showed a couple of neat touches and slid the ball through Ream’s legs in search of Depay. Is having a superb tournament. 7
Memphis Depay (ST) Fine first-time finish to sweep home Dumfries’s cross was his first goal in Qatar and 43rd for his country. Only Robin van Persie has more. 8
Substitutes: Steven Bergwijn Missed chance to open up a three-goal advantage; 6. Teun Koopmeiners Booked for chopping down Pulisic; 5. Xavi Simons PSV teenager entered for his World Cup debut; 5. Wout Weghorst On too late to make a difference; 5. Matthijs de Ligt Another late replacement; 5.
Matt Turner (GK) Had no chance with the goals but twice superbly denied Depay. More than creditable display by Arsenal’s backup goalkeeper. 7
Sergiño Dest (RB) Born in the Netherlands, the full-back was busy down the flank. Roamed into the opposition box but his shot lacked conviction. 6
Walker Zimmerman (CB) It had all been going so well. These goals were the first USA had conceded from open play at the tournament. 5
Tim Ream (CB) Had a rare sight of goal at a corner but at the other end was fortunate a trio of stray passes went unpunished. 5
Antonee Robinson (LB) Spent a lot of time in the Dutch half when marauding forward but Dumfries had plenty of joy up against him. 5
Tyler Adams (CM) The captain was bypassed for Depay’s 10th-minute opener and never stamped his authority on the game. Disappointing. 5
Weston McKennie (CM) Powered a shot over the bar in the second half but was outclassed by a superior Dutch midfield. Replaced by goalscorer. 5
Yunus Musah (CM) Perhaps the brightest of the USA’s midfield three, the 20-year-old was positive and industrious without much reward. 6
Timothy Weah (RW) Quiet until stinging the palms of Noppert with a smacked shot from outside of the box. Replaced in the second half. 5
Jesús Ferreira (CF) Given his World Cup debut as a false nine, the 21-year-old Major League Soccer young player of the year failed to shine. 5
Christian Pulisic (LW) All of the USA’s good work went through the Chelsea forward. Failed to beat Noppert one-on-one after three minutes. 7
Substitutes: Gio Reyna Failed to make a meaningful impact; 5. Brenden Aaronson Provided a welcome thrust; 5. Haji Wright Fortuitous finish earned USA an unlikely lifeline on 76 minutes; 5. DeAndre Yedlin Unable to help find an equaliser; 5. Jordan Morris On too late to make a difference; 5.
Louis van Gaal claimed the Netherlands have “big chances” of winning the World Cup after swatting aside the USA to advance to the quarter-finals. Van Gaal, who led his country to the semi-finals of the tournament in Brazil in 2014, must now prepare his team to face the winners of Saturday night’s Argentina v Australia game on Friday.
“I think we have big chances here,” said the 71-year-old, in his third spell in charge of his country. “We still have three matches to go. I’ve been talking about this for a year. We can become world champions – not that we will – but we can. I am talking about team-bonding, how we can build the strongest possible team and I derive pleasure from the group of players and, of course, performances and results.”
Denzel Dumfries, who set up the first two goals for Memphis Depay and Daley Blind then capped the scoring with a fine volley, was named the man of the match. When Van Gaal, sitting alongside Dumfries, was asked how highly he regards the 26-year-old, the Netherlands manager proceeded to kiss his defender on the cheek. “Denzel knows that full well,” Van Gaal said. “Yesterday or the day before yesterday, I gave him a big fat kiss. I’m going to give him another big fat kiss [now] so that everyone can see.”
Gregg Berhalter, the USA head coach since 2018, sent on Haji Wright with a quarter of the game to go and saw him pull a goal back via a freak deflection in the 76th minute after meeting Christian Pulisic’s cross, five minutes before Dumfries restored the Dutch’s two-goal margin. Pulisic had missed a chance to give the USA a third-minute lead.Berhalter, out of contract at the end of the year, was noncommittal about his future but said the tournament was a partial success. “I do feel that we have made progress,” he said. “We set out with a goal to show the rest of the world we can play soccer and I think we partially achieved that, although we fell short of our goals.”
Berhalter added: “We are a very young group at the beginning of their careers. We are going to catch up to that. We don’t have a Memphis Depay right now who is scoring in the Champions League and playing for Barcelona. That stuff is going to come. Regarding me personally, for the last month and a half I’ve been only focused on the World Cup and achieving things with this group, and in the next couple of weeks I’ll sit down and think about what is next.”
Argentinian television is calling it La Copa de Batacazos: a World Cup of bumps, surprises and the unforeseeable. They’ve come thick and fast on this tiny Gulf peninsula over the past two weeks, with a record seven teams ranked in the top 20 of Fifa’s world rankings, including Germany, crashing out at the group stage.
The United States entered Saturday night’s knockout match with the Netherlands confident they could deliver the latest plot twist in a competition where outsiders have consistently punched above their weight. Instead, their dream is over in disappointingly predictable fashion thanks to shortcomings that have become all too familiar.
It was the same old story for the Americans, who finished with more shots (17 to 11), more shots on target (eight to six), more passes (564 to 412) and a greater share of possession (58% to 42%), but lacked the ruthlessness and professional edge of the Dutch, who improved to 19 matches unbeaten since Louis van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship.
The Americans’ profligacy from promising attacking positions, their imprecision in building chances from possession and their consistently poor set-pieces all came under a harsh glare on the world stage after persisting through an often-rocky World Cup qualifying campaign. For three matches in Qatar they were able to make up the difference with closely knit team play fueled by boundless energy in midfield. But when the reserves ran dry on Saturday night, their defects finally caught up with them.
The controlled and efficient presence of the Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie-Yunus Musah midfield that embodied the Americans’ biggest strength and source of optimism against the favored Dutch was badly misfiring. Any concerns that they had left it all on the field during the group stage were confirmed in the first quarter-hour. Adams was nowhere near Memphis Depay on the first goal, McKennie was replaced before the hour mark and Musah looked spent from the word go, making poor giveaways that led to a number of Dutch chances. Physical and mental fatigue were working hand in hand.
That troubling collaboration was in full view early on, when the Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong dropped in between two center-backs to collect the ball before starting a sequence of 20 uninterrupted passes over 114 seconds, leaving the American press in ribbons before Depay finished crisply from a Denzel Dumfries cross to punctuate a pass-and-move masterclass.
Suddenly the only team to not concede from open play in the group stage was trailing for the first time in their tournament. At times they looked tactically overwhelmed against a Dutch side pressing insanely high, daring the Americans to make them pay.
“When you look at the difference between the two teams, to me, there was some offensive finishing quality that Holland had that we’re lacking a little bit,” Berhalter said. “We have a very young group. We have players that are beginning their careers and they’re going to catch up to that. They’re going to get the same thing.”
The Americans did well to get their feet under them. But when Daley Blind found acres of space at the post after eluding Sergiño Dest, the Ajax midfielder scored to effectively close the show against opponents who have wanted mightily for goals against world-class sides. The US didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes on Saturday. But when they did, the Netherlands punished them.
“The first half was a great indication of the game being about moments. We were on top for a lot of the first half and two moments come and all of a sudden we’re 2-0 down. The message was soccer can be cruel sometimes,” said Berhalter. “It’s just moments that the players were [switched] off a little bit here and there and it ends up in the back of the net. When you play at this level, against high quality opponents, that’s what happens. It’s unfortunate that it happens in the knockout game, but it did and we’ve got to learn from it.”
Now for the good news. At a time when more young US players than ever before are spending their teenage years in Europe, more than half of Berhalter’s 26-man squad compete in the world’s top five leagues, including Pulisic (Chelsea), Dest (Milan), McKennie (Juventus) and Adams (Leeds United), who departs as one of the revelations of the tournament. Nineteen of them made their World Cup debuts over the past fortnight – a record for a US team by some distance – and all of them got a taste of the knockout cauldron.
They started three of the youngest starting XIs in this tournament and four of the youngest five. Eight of Berhalter’s choices for the Netherlands match were 25 or younger.
For once the breathless chatter over an American golden generation doesn’t feel like promotional bluster. And the next time they play a World Cup match will be on home soil.
Even though Berhalter resisted the notion that his youth movement was designed at least in part with 2026 in mind, the fact remains that today’s core players will be in their presumptive primes when the US will be co-hosts.
“I think this group is closer,” Berhalter said. “Can we win against top teams? Can we perform well against top teams well enough to win? Today is a strange type of outcome in a game like this when we perform really well, especially in the first half. But to be fielding the youngest lineups in the World Cup four times in a row and still be able to play the way we are, the American public should be optimistic.”
If this is boring football then give Louis van Gaal more. The Netherlands’ head coach has bristled at claims he has created a tedious team but they had far too much class and intelligence for the USA as they comfortably advanced into the quarter-finals in Qatar.
The Internazionale defender Denzel Dumfries was the architect of the US’ demise with two assists and a fine third goal that extinguished any chance of a comeback by Gregg Berhalter’s side. The Netherlands now have five days’ rest before facing the winner of Argentina v Australia on Friday, while the co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup have four years to digest the painful lesson they were handed at the Khalifa International Stadium.
The Netherlands’ formation offered the US the opportunity to get behind their wing-backs and stretch a three-man central defence. In theory, at least. In practice, the Netherlands gave their opponents nothing to exploit. Van Gaal’s team were content to let the US bring the ball out from the back before compressing the space in midfield, seizing possession and striking on the counter. The ploy worked to perfection when they took an early lead from their first meaningful attack.
It was a beautifully worked breakthrough that started in their own half and prised the US apart in seven pristine passes. Memphis Depay was involved at the outset and at the conclusion. Having carved open the US midfield with a series of one-touch passes Cody Gakpo surged forward and released Dumfries on the right. The defender pulled back an intelligent cross towards the penalty spot where the unmarked Depay converted into the bottom corner. So much for the boring football that Van Gaal’s team have been accused of playing: they lured the US into a trap and punished them in flowing, polished style.
The complexion of the first knockout tie could have been so much different had Christian Pulisic converted a one-on-one after three minutes. Pulisic, cleared to play after sustaining a pelvic injury when scoring the crucial winner against Iran on Tuesday, found himself free inside the area from a Tyler Adams flick. He was denied by the outstretched leg of Andries Noppert and Berhalter’s team rarely troubled the goalkeeper again for the remainder of the first half. The US were too safe, too pedestrian. They looked short of ideas on how to recover from falling behind for first time at this tournament. On the few occasions they did find gaps in the Dutch defence, hopes of an equaliser were invariably ruined by a poor final touch.
All hope appeared lost for the US when the Netherlands doubled their lead in first-half stoppage time. It was almost a carbon copy of the opener. Dumfries escaped down the right once again, latching on to a deft touch from Davy Klaassen, and played an identical cross to the first goal. This time Daley Blind arrived in space to tuck away a neat finish into the same corner that Depay found. Blind, who had earlier skied a similar invitation from Dumfries, sprinted over to the Netherlands’ technical area to celebrate with his father, Danny, who is also Van Gaal’s assistant.
The US, to their credit, did not let the deficit or the timing of the second goal deflate them. A much-improved second half display almost brought an early response when Pulisic’s corner dropped to Tim Ream, whose awkward touch took the ball beyond Noppert. Gakpo was perfectly placed to clear off the line, however.
The substitute Haji Wright injected much-needed menace into the US attack and he was also denied on the goalline after pouncing on a careless back-pass from Depay and rounding the Netherlands keeper. Dumfries came to his team’s rescue on that occasion. But a minute later Wright had his goal and the US had a route back. Depay was culpable again with a loose touch that DeAndre Yedlin turned on to Pulisic. The Chelsea forward crossed low from the right and Wright, falling in front of Virgil van Dijk, somehow managed to flick the ball over Noppert with his heel. Dumfries was unable to intervene at the back post this time, but the hugely influential defender had another part to play in the US’s downfall.
Five minutes after the US were back in the game, they were out again. Blind delivered an inch-perfect cross to the back post for his fellow wing-back to steer an unstoppable left-footed volley into the far corner, ensuring the Netherlands comfortably booked their place in the last eight.
Three games into their World Cup campaign, 11 games into 2022, 79 games into Gareth Southgate’s reign, the question remains unanswered: are England actually any good?
To which there are probably two answers. The first is simple: yes, reasonably. They finished top of their group. They were joint top-scorers alongside Spain. They kept two clean sheets. The second is a weary sigh as any discussion of England is immediately submerged by hackneyed debates about arrogance and expectation, set against a backdrop of implausible ideals of breezy attacking perfection. What even is good?
Belgium, their golden generation well and truly past it, were dreadful at this World Cup. They scored one goal, were outplayed in two of their three games and looked utterly fed up in the third. As Roberto Martínez tearfully announced he would not be staying on as manager, batting away questions from the media that ranged from gently disappointed to nakedly antagonistic, the temptation for an outsider was to wonder just what people expect.
At the 2018 World Cup, Belgium played superbly to beat Brazil in the quarter-final before losing to the eventual champions, France. At Euro 2020, with Kevin De Bruyne struggling with injury, they lost their quarter-final to the eventual champions, Italy. If that is failure, very few people in any walk of life have ever been anything else. This may have been an extraordinarily gifted generation, but other countries have good players too.
For Southgate, then, is anything short of winning the World Cup failure? Perhaps not even that would be enough. Although Alf Ramsey, the one England manager to win something, was hailed in the moment, it wasn’t long before he was being blamed for ushering in a culture of negativity, the radicalism of his approach overlooked or unrecognised; reticent and repressed he may have been, but Ramsey was a revolutionary nonetheless.
Southgate’s record far outstrips every England coach since. He has taken England to two of the six semi-finals they have reached. He is responsible for five of their 14 victories in knockout games at major tournaments. Yet still the mood since the Euros final has been grouchy. He’s too negative. He has to take the handbrake off. He has to unleash this great glut of forwards. Why, oh why, oh why is there no place for [insert name of Premier League creator du jour here]? History will look back and ask why [delete as appropriate: Phil Foden/Marcus Rashford/Jack Grealish/Mason Mount/Bukayo Saka] was left on the bench.
It’s all nonsense, of course. Major tournaments are short. Freakish things happen. Far too much is read into individual games. For years Germany got to semis and beyond largely by dint of being German. Then, 20 years ago, they decided they actually wanted to be good at football as well. They created the dominant way of thinking about the game and yet have gone out in the group stage in the last two tournaments.
In Qatar they were so befuddled their hopes came down to Niclas Füllkrug, a journeyman striker apparently selected because he was the nearest thing anybody could find in the modern Bundesliga to Horst Hrubesch. It’s not ill luck, Hansi Flick said, it’s inability. Well, perhaps, but it was also ill luck. Should the whole Reboot be rethought for the sake of eight minutes of weirdness against Japan – in which they conceded twice – that ended up mattering only because Spain had three minutes of weirdness against Japan in which they conceded twice?
It is often asked before tournaments what would represent success. A semi-final? A quarter-final? But that’s an inadequate metric. A team can play appallingly and go deep thanks to good fortune and a kind draw. Or a team can play brilliantly, delight the world, yet be defeated early in a classic against another great side, or be undone by bad luck, or implode. Denmark of 1986, all mullets and attacking vigour, linger in the consciousness as one of the great World Cup sides; the England of 2006, a sad gloop of barely distinguishable games overshadowed by the hedonism of Baden-Baden, do not: yet that England went further in the competition.
Yet after the penalty shootout defeats of 1990, 1996 and 1998, there has been a sense that England were done with heroic failure. Give us a trophy and never mind how. In that context ‘good’ is probably too vague a term. Do England look like they could win the tournament? Perhaps, but these things are best judged in retrospect. There are exceptions – Spain in 2010, despite their opening defeat, or West Germany in 1990, maybe Brazil in 2002 if only because of the haste with which rivals fell away – but few World Cup winners have looked like champions all the way.
Four years ago, France needed their wobble against Argentina; four years before that, it took the near loss against Algeria and Jogi Löw’s contemplative run along the beach in Rio to set Germany on the path to glory; in 2006, Italy only seemed credible contenders after their two extra-time goals against Germany in the semi-final.
Groups are for getting through but, for what it’s worth, England had a better group-stage record than any winner since Brazil 20 years ago. There are positive signs. Harry Maguire may have become a term of ridicule in the Ghanaian parliament but his partnership with John Stones has looked a lot more secure than was feared. Southgate has often failed to made decisive changes during games but against the USA and Wales his tweaks had a positive impact. England have often been over-reliant on Harry Kane to score goals but in Qatar they have had six different scorers, none of them Kane – who has nonetheless played a key role with three assists.
Brazil, Spain and France have all produced periods of football that seem beyond anything England are capable of, but they have all had dips as well. Argentina, fuelled almost entirely by the Lionel Messi narrative, have spluttered, only really getting going against a supine Poland. The Netherlands seem still to be waiting for Memphis Depay to recover fitness. Portugal plod on in the unmoving shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo’s ego, aided by a couple of odd penalties. Croatia, by their manager Zlatko Dalic’s assessment after the 0-0 draw against Belgium, are finally “exhausted”.
But the truth is that any of the sides in the last 16 could beat England, and England could beat any of the sides in the last 16. Given Southgate’s preference for a back three when he envisages a battle for possession, England probably haven’t even yet played the shape they will use against the best opponents.
Are they any good? It’s far too early to tell – and may be for some time.
Louis van Gaal says he doesn’t recall the last time he faced Gregg Berhalter in a competitive match.
Berhalter, whose United States team will play Van Gaal’s Netherlands on Saturday in the last 16 of the World Cup, doesn’t believe him for a second.
The date was 4 May 1997. Berhalter was a fresh-faced 23-year-old center-back for a mid-table Sparta Rotterdam side that beat Van Gaal’s Ajax team – who had played in the Champions League semi-finals only 11 days earlier – thanks to an 88th-minute winner.
“I think he remembers,” Berhalter said on Friday with a smile. “Being that competitive, he has to remember that game.”
Twenty-five years later, the US manager will take on the underdog role once again when the Americans meet a favored Dutch side that have yet to taste defeat in 18 matches since Van Gaal took over after last year’s European Championship, conceding only 14 times in that span. Should they buck the odds against the Oranje, the Americans would go through to the last eight of a World Cup for the first time since 2002, when Berhalter’s left foot nearly sent the US into the semi-finals at Germany’s expense.
That the biggest game of his three-and-a-half-year tenure will come against the Netherlands carries added meaning for Berhalter, who has become the first man to play for and manage an American side at a World Cup. After leaving the University of North Carolina after his junior season, he cut his teeth with a number of Dutch clubs at the outset of a decade-and-a-half playing career in Europe, signing with Zwolle in 1994, then with Sparta in 1996 and Cambuur Leeuwarden in 1998.
It’s no surprise that Dutch football has deeply informed his coaching philosophy.
“I learned so much in Holland,” Berhalter said. “It’s almost like, what concepts haven’t I taken from Dutch football? It was a great experience being there.
“After every training session, you have a debate with your players about it. After every game, you have a talk with people about the game. People love to discuss soccer and you really learn a lot.
“I went to Holland just out of university, totally unprepared for professional-level soccer. If I wasn’t in Holland, I don’t think I would have had that background that really helped shape my ideas.”
Berhalter described how his experience in the Netherlands was an awakening to the nuances of the game that weren’t a part of his development back home.
“Just about spacing and the positional game, third man, triangles,” he said. “There was a striker, an old striker that I played with when I first got there. His name was Remco Boere. He would yell at me for giving him the ball with too much spin. He wanted balls that came at him straight that I had to hit with my laces. And I wasn’t good enough hitting with my laces, so I had to practice, practice, practice so I could play him a ball that he wanted.
“If you ever laid a ball off to someone and you put it to their wrong foot, they would start yelling at you. How crisp you play passes. There were a lot of details that I was missing that I learned in Holland.”
Berhalter is not the only figure in the US camp with deep ties to the Netherlands. US Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart, who captained the national team in the famous win over Portugal that launched their 2002 World Cup run, was born in the southern Dutch town of Veghel.
Meanwhile US right-back Sergiño Dest, the son of a Dutch mother and Surinamese-American father, grew up in Almere and came up through Ajax’s vaunted youth academy. When he was deciding whether to represent the US or the Netherlands at the international level, it was Berhalter’s connection with Dest defender that helped tip the balance.
“As he transitioned to the professional level, there came some attention from the Dutch side and our side,” Berhalter said. “And basically it was about me just making a connection with him, talking to him about what we thought his role could be for us, what the plans are for this group over the next eight years, and then introducing him to his teammates and getting him into our environment.”
Said the 22-year-old Dest: “It’s going to be a pretty fun one, playing against the country I was born in. I know almost every single guy over there.”
The most pressing question in the US camp ahead of Saturday’s match surrounded the fitness of Christian Pulisic, who suffered a pelvic contusion while scoring the winner in Tuesday’s win-or-go-home match with Iran that sealed the Americans’ progress to the knockouts for the fifth time since 1994.
One day after the Chelsea winger said he was taking it day-to-day with the injury before a training session at the team’s Al Rayyan headquarters but “doing everything in my power to be able to be out there on the field Saturday”, Berhalter offered a slightly rosier assessment.
“We’re going to see him on the training field today,” the manager said. “What I think is it looks pretty good, so we’ll have to see him today on the pitch to get confirmation of that.”
Berhalter was less optimistic about the availability of Josh Sargent, the Norwich City striker who went off with a right ankle injury in the 77th minute of the Iran match.
“He’s another one we’re going to test in training, to see where he’s at,” Berhalter said. “… He’s going to test. At this stage, it’s go time. If you can push through it, you do.”
The United States’ have done little to assuage long-running concerns over their ability to produce goals during their time in Qatar, scoring just twice in three matches so far. But they have yet to concede from open play – and Berhalter is confident the closely knit team play that has seen the Americans go this far will be enough to close what’s an undeniable gap in individual skill.
“It’s tough,” he said. “[The Dutch] have talent. I can see them playing with two strikers, one behind the striker. It could be any combination of who they’ve been playing, but they have some real top-end talent with Memphis Depay and [Cody] Gakpo and if [Steven] Bergwijn plays.
“But for us it’s about the collective. The back four has done a great job. The goalkeeper has done a great job. It’s about team defending, working as a unit, moving collectively. And when we do that, we put the opponent in difficult positions where they can’t access the spaces they want to access. And I think that’s been what we’ve been good at in this tournament so far.”
Louis van Gaal insists he is not looking past the World Cup before the Netherlands’ clash with the USA in the last 16, but he did little on Friday to shoot down the possibility of a switch to Belgium after the tournament.
“We want to become world champions so we’ve got another four matches ahead of us and then we’ll see whether there are any offers on the table,” Van Gaal said through a translator. “If we become world champions, everybody is so opportunistic in this football world that there will be offers. I know that full well.
“But for the moment we are not world champions. And if I have to believe the Dutch media, we will never become world champions.”
Van Gaal further acknowledged the rumblings that have linked him with the vacancy, saying: “Belgium is a wonderful country with really friendly people – [Knokke-Heist] is a wonderful beach town – so yes I’ve thought about it.”
Pressed to expand on what it would take for him to take the job, Van Gaal said that Belgium’s Football Association needed to persuade his wife, Truus, in order to close the deal.
“You have to convince Truus,” Van Gaal said. “Joking aside, I am always at liberty to take decisions myself but there are certain countries that I won’t move to, and my wife, Truus, will certainly not move to.”
The speculation did not end with Belgium. Asked whether taking the reins of an African side would pass muster with his wife, Van Gaal again left the door open: “I don’t think so, but you’ve got to keep your options open.”
The team are 18 games unbeaten since then, having conceded only 14 times, making him an in-demand figure, with Ronald Koeman confirmed as his successor. But despite all the chatter on Friday over his future, Van Gaal insisted his eyes were fixed on the present.
“USA has demonstrated that it has an excellent team, I would say even one of the best teams,” Van Gaal said. “It’s going to be a very tough match but it’s nothing we can’t overcome. We also have a good team.”
What is cute game management and what is boring football? This has become the existential question of Louis van Gaal’s third Netherlands tenure as he plots a route to the World Cup final.
It was the narrative before and after Tuesday’s 2-0 victory over Qatar that sealed a serene passage to Saturday’s last-16 showdown with the USA and, frankly, it is annoying him. When one inquisitor wondered if fans deserved more sparkling fare the man known as the Iron Tulip showed his metal. “Why don’t you write it’s boring? I don’t think things are as bad as you say,” he countered.
Are they? Pertinent here is the fact that Van Gaal has previous with plodding teams, including his Manchester United side of 2014-16. The discourse of fans and the cognoscenti at the time ran: how could a side that contained Wayne Rooney, Memphis Depay, Ángel Di María, Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Juan Mata, and Marcus Rashford be so sideways and pedestrian, so dull and uninventive?
On a consistent basis, that is. Because there were flashes of what might have been for Van Gaal’s United in, say, the 3-0 shellacking of Tottenham at Old Trafford in March 2015 that was an exhibition of high-octane, synchronised play that offered a throwback to the Sir Alex Ferguson golden years. But type was always reverted to and a similar pattern emerges at Qatar 2022 where Van Gaal’s Oranje are yet to dazzle for a full 90 minutes.
At this tournament Van Gaal can call on Depay, Frenkie de Jong and Cody Gakpo in advanced areas, order Denzel Dumfries to be the flying wingback who lit up Euro 2020 under Frank de Boer, and allow Virgil van Dijk to be a classic play-building centre-back of the Ajax/Netherlands school. Except, no. By the Persian Gulf, Dumfries is channelling his inner Aaron Wan-Bissaka not Trent Alexander-Arnold, De Jong’s pretty patterns are yet to be the team focal point and Depay began not game-fit (not Van Gaal’s fault). Gakpo has been the only man putting the fantasy into the Dutch football.
The Netherlands can turn it on, though, and when they do there is a glimpse of how scintillating they can still be. For that to happen Van Gaal will have to switch to anti-Van Gaal mode but he does have the ingredients. Watch again, for example, how Gakpo drifts on to a floating De Jong diagonal for his header against Senegal after the former had also been involved in textbook geometric pass-and-move to engineer space. Or see Gakpo against Qatar feature in a sequence that has him back-heeling a Depay pass – who had received the ball from Daley Blind – into Davy Klaassen whose return to the PSV man is hammered home.
The 23-year-old Gakpo has three goals in three outings and with Depay able to start for a first time against Qatar and De Jong’s confidence boosted by his first World Cup goal, Van Gaal can be optimistic there will be improvement. But will this be within the paradigm of his preferred style or a more expansive one which those enthused by the total football of the teams created by Rinus Michels hope to see?
A clue to the answer was found when this writer spoke with Van Gaal at an Amsterdam hotel in 2019 and he explained why United had been sluggish under him. “We did not have too many creative players to increase the tempo of the ball and to use more vertical passes,” he said, a declaration that came despite the United players mentioned above – five of whom he signed or gave debuts to – and so suggests it is the workman not his tools which is the deciding factor in how the 71-year-old likes to play.
After the win against Qatar he said: “Sometimes there is not enough space and we have to go past a player, which is why I have [the forward Steven] Berghuis and [midfielder Teun] Koopmeiners because they’re used to going past players and against the opponents’ backline I felt we moved the ball quicker. That gives me hope for the future.”
There is still work to be done when the opponent has the ball, though. “We were a bit better than the last game [in that area] but when you lose the ball you have to exercise pressure and make sure everything is organised as quickly as possible. That can be improved.”
There is an acceptance he has become more pragmatic: “As a coach I had Ajax DNA – all about attacking and over the years I evaluated and applied the lessons, and slowly but surely this evolved into a less attacking style and winning more matches.” In the knockout stages of the World Cup, this is the bottom line.
The first time I realized that soccer was the world’s game was in 1978. I came home one day from playing soccer and I saw my father standing on the living room table and screaming at the television. He was wearing an orange shirt, drinking a bottle of something and eating what looked like herring in a jar. I realized he was watching the World Cup final, Argentina against his beloved Netherlands (we have Dutch roots). My father wasn’t a big drinker, but he was intoxicated both with what he was drinking and watching. My mother was in the other room shaking her head, as if to say, “I can’t condone this.”
In the course of the game, my father’s demeanor went from elation to sorrow to depression to “get away from me.” It wasn’t until a month later at dinner that my mother finally slammed her hand down on the table and said to my father: “David, talk to your son”, meaning my brother. See, the problem was my brother’s name is Brandt. And Ernie Brandts was the Dutch center-back responsible for one of Argentina’s goals. My father has not spoken to my brother for the entirety of that summer until my mother finally begged him. My brother smiled, my father realized his behavior was completely outlandish, he hugged my brother and it was over. But in that moment, I realized that this sport can touch people deeply, beyond reason and comprehension.
I also bring up the 1978 World Cup because it was held in Argentina for all the wrong reasons – it was a reinvention of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Watching the tournament today in Qatar, our sport takes on all of the world’s problems during the tournament because it’s one of the few times the world comes together. The World Cup is a celebration of a sport that we love, but it’s also a constant reminder of the things that we hate in this world. As much as I’d like to see the headlines be about who scored and who assisted, unfortunately it’s also about who has intervened in a politically charged issue that has nothing to do with the play on the field.
After all that, the US have beaten Iran and will compete against the only other team I love, the Netherlands. This will be a World Cup that I will always remember not for what has transpired off the field, but because I think the US can go further than we ever have before. I’m predicting a victory against the Netherlands.
For all their flaws, the United States still have all the right energy and all the right weapons to win games. In Matt Turner we have one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament. We have what could be the best defense, only conceding one goal, and none from the run of play. We’ve taken on two of our greatest historical adversaries and have not lost. We have a captain in Tyler Adams who has made us more proud to be American than I could’ve ever imagined. I don’t know what I’m more proud of, his press conference or his play.
And we have Christian Pulisic, who has been punished for being an exceptional American player. He’s been scrutinized by the press so much that it’s hard to trust my eyes anymore when I watch him because the expectations were way too high – yet he still delivered the crucial goal that allows this team to chase destiny.
Preparing for the knockout stage can be a different experience. Every single player in the squad wants to be on the field. I didn’t get the chance in 1994, when we reached the second round. I was taken out of the starting lineup. That was the worst day of my life. Not just my professional career – my life. To be told that I was not going to play Brazil in the World Cup, on the Fourth of July, in Palo Alto, was crushing. Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about Gio Reyna getting on the field: I lived it myself.
As this team moves forward, my advice is, don’t kill the vibe. Just be positive every day. Smile. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
This is a team that can reel someone back in if he steps out of line when he’s having a bad day, and remind him what the ultimate objective is. They’re brothers out there. Gregg Berhalter has done such a great job building the culture of the US team, which is sorely needed. And he built this culture in the midst of the pandemic. They couldn’t be together, but he kept them together. That was really, really smart. In Qatar, we’ve finally been seeing the results of that.
Taking in all the beauty and pageantry of the World Cup and trying to focus on what’s really important on the field will be their challenge. America has always been regarded as the land of opportunity. This is our chance to take an opportunity that’s been given to us. I finally think this is a worthy team that’s up for the challenge. Later in life, I learned that the herring my father was eating as he watched the World Cup is a Dutch tradition to bring good luck. The US won’t need luck on Saturday – we just need to play, believe, and always remember the last line of our anthem: “home of the brave.”
OK, a little luck wouldn’t hurt. But I’m not going to eat that herring.