The Netherlands squad selection has sparked debate in the build-up to the World Cup in Qatar. It is an eclectic mix that could only have come from the mind of Louis van Gaal. The mistake would be to think this means it is not going to work.
“Louis has a very clear opinion of how he wants his team to play and the system that he wants to play,” Frans Hoek tells Sky Sports. “He had been watching the national team from a distance and had a very good view of what was available and what was not available.”
Much like Van Gaal, there is an insistent tone to Hoek’s voice, a manner that makes you believe that something others would consider outlandish is in fact entirely logical. Much like Van Gaal, his long-time goalkeeper coach has the credentials to back it up.
Hoek’s reputation in the game has few equals. He is the godfather of goalkeeping, the man who wrote the book on it – quite literally. He was still playing when he did his thesis on goalkeeping and just 28 when Johan Cruyff made him a coach at Ajax in 1985.
“It is clear that all of us in Holland are influenced by the philosophy of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff,” says Hoek. “That is the same for Louis. But while Johan is more from the street side, the intuition side, Louis is more from the street side and the academic side.”
Hoek was at Ajax when Van Gaal took over in 1991. They won the Champions League in ’95, in part thanks to his innovative approach to coping with the back-pass rule. They have since worked together at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
This, however, might just be their last stand, the chance to do what nobody else has managed to do and win the World Cup for the Netherlands. They came close in 2014, reaching the semi-final in Brazil with a modest squad. Now they will go for it once more.
The two had gone their separate ways after Manchester United. Van Gaal did not take another managerial job for five years. Hoek went to Galatasaray before pursuing projects in America and Japan. But there was always an awareness that the call might come again.
“There was like an agreement with Louis. Louis always said, ‘Listen, if I want to do something again are you available?’ I always explained to Louis what I was going to do and why. He always said that when something came up he would let me know and he did.”
Along with Danny Blind, captain of that great ’95 team, they stepped in last year when Frank de Boer left in the wake of defeat to the Czech Republic at Euro 2020. The assignment was to take over for the World Cup but qualification was far from inevitable at that stage.
“The moment the call came there were quite some discussions because I did not want to leave the projects I was working on. The possibility that we did not qualify meant that within 10 days we would have been out of a job already.
“It worked out pretty well, actually.”
That is an understatement.
Defeat in Turkey under De Boer left little margin for error but they won the reverse fixture 6-1. In fact, they were unbeaten in their remaining qualifiers and topped their Nations League group. Fifteen games without defeat under Van Gaal.
Any suggestion of outdated ideas, of a man out of time, has been thoroughly debunked. Hoek himself was part of the working group analysing Euro 2020. “We are up to date,” he says. “We take into account the generation of today.” The rhythm soon returned.
“One day into the new job and it is as if you have never been away. That is amazing. From that moment on, you focus immediately, you zoom in on what you need to zoom in on, and you start to analyse and prepare, doing the things that you have to do.”
The old master Van Gaal, at 71 years old, and after undergoing extensive radiation treatment for prostate cancer, still knows this game better than most. He has brought cohesion and clarity. The players know the plan and the part that they need to play in it.
Hoek is at his most passionate when defending the reputation of his old friend. “Nobody is ever discussing his qualities as a coach. Nobody. It is mostly the outside world, the appearance that some players are having difficulties dealing with him, which is farcical.
“He is so good in the content of his job – and by content I mean reading the game, developing a game plan, how are we going to play against the opponent, knowing the qualities of his own players, the strengths and weaknesses of teams and individuals.
“Louis has a certain image to the outside world. That image is from press conferences. The inside world is different. It is a pity we cannot put a camera in there so you could see how the connection with the players really is. That would be really interesting.
“Because, for the players, there is always that connection. They recognise quality coaching. They recognise Louis’ qualities and that they can all still learn as individuals and as a team. That is, of course, an incredibly strong weapon because players want to win.
“They want to win games and win trophies so the moment they recognise that the coach can help them reach their aims they embrace it. They see that he is very clear to the players, he tells them what is good and what is not so good, what they need to improve.
“He gives them perspective. The moment you do that, players recognise it and they like it because it makes them better. That is what you see happening now.”
Once the team had qualified for the World Cup, Van Gaal reverted to a 3-4-1-2 formation, beating Denmark and drawing with Germany. They have since beaten Belgium home and away with the system, topping their Nations League group. It has come together.
“Louis is very clear in the way of playing. Very clear in what type of players need to be in what position and why. And very clear about what is required from the individuals within each unit. That gives a lot of clarity to the players. There is no doubt about it.”
Many of the more questionable selection decisions can be more easily explained in this context. Goalkeeper Mark Flekken, part of a successful Freiburg side, is less comfortable than others with the ball at his feet – a prerequisite for the role under Van Gaal.
Sven Botman is thriving at Newcastle but with Virgil van Dijk certain to play at the heart of the defence, there is a demand for the wide centre-backs to carry the ball out from the back. Nathan Ake of Manchester City is deemed more suited to that specific task.
Other omissions are trickier to explain. Ryan Gravenberch of Bayern Munich is a huge talent. He has been excluded. Vincent Janssen is a more modest player who was recalled during a season in which he scored three goals in 27 games in Mexico. He is in the squad.
The selections might seem a little random but those making them insist they are anything but. For Van Gaal, the blend is everything. He sees Janssen as a hold-up player who can bring the best out in others around him. Wout Weghorst is included too.
Netherlands squad for the World Cup
Andries Noppert (Heerenveen), Remko Pasveer (Ajax), Justin Bijlow (Feyenoord), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Nathan Ake (Manchester City), Daley Blind (Ajax), Stefan de Vrij (Inter), Denzel Dumfries (Inter), Tyrell Malacia (Manchester United), Jurrien Timber (Ajax), Jeremie Frimpong (Bayer Leverkusen), Matthijs de Ligt (Bayern Munich), Steven Berghuis (Ajax), Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona), Davy Klaassen (Ajax), Marten de Roon (Atalanta), Teun Koopmeiners (Atalanta), Kenneth Taylor (Ajax), Xavi Simons (PSV), Luuk de Jong (PSV), Noa Lang (Club Brugge), Steven Bergwijn (Ajax), Memphis Depay (Barcelona), Wout Weghorst (Besiktas), Cody Gakpo (PSV), Vincent Janssen (Royal Antwerp).
“It is based on Louis, his way of playing, his way of thinking. The scouting has to be prepared for that because if you want to play in a certain way, you need certain types of players.” Much is likely to depend on that 3-4-1-2 system. Hoek explains the methodology.
“The whole process started from the moment we qualified. The preparation began. We have been playing with different groups of players who have all had the chance, the possibility to show what they are capable of at the national team level.
“Some of them you know personally because you have worked with them before. Quite a few of them you don’t know because you didn’t work with them yet, so you invite them for the national team, see how they are as a person and within the group.”
With so little time to prepare the players for the tournament, the form that the Netherlands have shown, the certainty that Van Gaal provides, might just make all the difference. “Most of the players know already how we want to play and what we expect from them.”
What Van Gaal expects might surprise. Typically bold, he has already said he intends to hand over to his successor Ronald Koeman having turned this team into world champions. If that happens, it would be one of the sensational World Cup stories.
Perhaps even the perfect ending to one of the great careers.
One of the great partnerships.
“With Louis, it was clear that the way to say goodbye to Manchester United was not the nicest way, let’s put it like that. This is a different way of maybe saying goodbye to active coaching. You never know in football but, being realistic, it will be the last tournament.
“You can expect one thing and that is that we will do everything in our power to get the best results possible. That is the way that we have always worked. We all know from 2014 that anything is possible. We are very much looking forward to it.”