More so than any other, the Dutch national team has historically been expected by its country to not only win, but win in style.
“Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring,” Johan Cruyff once said.
He never tried to hide the fact that he valued good, entertaining football so highly that he thought the above options were equally bad, that an ugly win was no better than a beautiful defeat.
Many Netherlands fans share his view, with my dad for instance to this day saying he preferred our 2008 team that were knocked out in the quarter-finals of the Euros to our 2010 team that so nearly won the World Cup, because they played far more exciting football.
I’ve always strongly disagreed and have spent many hours of my life arguing with him, explaining that it’s quite frankly absurd to think that anything is more important than results in a competitive sport.
In those arguments, I’ve often brought up Louis van Gaal to back up my claims. LVG has always proudly been the antithesis of Cruyff, valuing discipline over expression, control over creativity and substance over style.
He’s always been out to prove that his approach is the right one and said as much when, at the start of his coaching career, he said he’d like to manage his nation one day.
“Even if it were just to prove my way is right, I would like to give it a try,” he said.
I must admit though, that so far in this World Cup, he’s been testing my faith in his way of doing things.
The Netherlands playing a more pragmatic brand of football isn’t a new thing by any means; we did so throughout the World Cup in 2010 and for the final four matches in 2014, not counting the third-place play-off.
I was fine with it on both occasions because it made sense to do so. We had bad defenders that we needed to ensure weren’t exposed and great forwards that were capable of providing a serious attacking threat on their own.
Nowadays though, things are the other way around, the great players are at the back and the weaknesses are at the front, and yet Van Gaal is taking the same approach as he did eight years ago, with far less enjoyable results thus far.
For one, playing in such a defensive way is quite frankly unnecessary given the obscene amount of talent we have at the back.
We have five objectively world-class centre-backs to choose from and have three of them on the pitch at the same time. Personally, I think they’re more than good enough to keep things steady in a more attacking system.
What’s more, the way we’re playing at the moment leaves us completely toothless going forward.
Back in 2014, we had one of the best forwards in the world in Arjen Robben, who was able to create chances on his own, while Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, although past their best, still had enough quality to cause defences problems too.
It’s impossible to overstate just how much our attacking play relied on one of these three producing a bit of magic – 10 of our goals on our run to the semi-final were scored or created by them.
Unfortunately, we simply don’t have a front line capable of consistently producing such magic this time around.
Sure, Cody Gakpo has scored in all three of our matches, but he’s been entirely incapable of causing the opposition any problems or creating anything for his team-mates asides from those three moments.
As for Memphis Depay, he’s good enough to create and score goals on his own when at his best, but he’s clearly not at his best right now having played next to no football in recent months.
The only other player in the squad that could consistently create something out of nothing is, in my opinion, Xavi Simons, and he hasn’t been taken off the bench yet.
Things have still worked out fine in terms of results thanks to our defensive solidity and Gakpo, but resting all of our hopes of scoring goals on the PSV man isn’t a sustainable strategy, especially given his tendency to go missing against top sides.
Van Gaal did at least start to address our attacking issues against Qatar, bringing Marten de Roon in to allow Frenkie de Jong to get further forward, and that worked well, but more is needed.
Specifically, Steven Berghuis (Xavi would be even better but let’s be realistic) and Jeremie Frimpong should come in for Davy Klaassen and Denzel Dumfries.
Our opponents have often focused on dealing with the left side of our team given that’s where our most creative players – Daley Blind, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay – are, leaving Dumfries and Klaassen completely free, but they haven’t had the ability to take advantage of the space afforded to them. Berghuis and Frimpong would.
Those changes alone would make us so much more dangerous, and I’m confident we’ll at least be able to beat USA if Van Gaal makes them.
If he doesn’t, we might still be able to grind out a win, but unless we’re unbelievable at penalty shoot-outs, I can’t see us getting any further.