Everything is dominated by the World Cup preparation, said Louis van Gaal about the international match that has just started. The first test against favorite Belgium has made it clear that his team is on the right track. In a sold-out King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels, Orange outclassed the opponent: 1-4.
It was madness, according to players and trainers, that the football calendar is so crammed that after a long and tiring season they still have to play four international matches. But there was no sign of fatigue or fear of injuries on Friday evening in Brussels, not at the Orange squad anyway. The Dutch national team played energetically and inspired against the Belgians, who, apart from the first 10 minutes, never really got a grip on the game.
After more than fifteen minutes, the Orange got its first big chance. Berghuis could only go after keeper Mignolet, who could change his shot just enough. From that moment on, the Dutch National Team dominated and got handful of opportunities. Belgium, with smart but slow defenders Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld in the back, had great difficulty with the mobility and position changes of Orange attackers Bergwijn, Depay, Berghuis and Klaassen. And the tireless Denzell Dumfries of course, who once again showed that the classic distinction between attackers and defenders is outdated.
Mobility is worth little without a declarant. Almost every Dutch attack started with Frenkie de Jong, for whom playing in Orange seems like a relief after a difficult season at FC Barcelona. Also the first goal, just before half time. De Jong gets the ball slightly over the halfway line, oversees the field, moves freely and plays Bergwijn between the lines. It turns and shoots hard and dry in the far corner.
New way of playing
The match against Belgium took place in the context of the Nations League, a glorified practice format that Orange has good memories of. The first edition in 2019, in which the Netherlands reached the final, would form the basis of a modest resurrection after years of bad football and wasted qualifying tournaments. National coach then: Ronald Koeman, the man who will take over from Van Gaal after ‘Qatar’.
Good memories or not, with the World Cup approaching, the result was secondary against the Belgians, just like during the next group matches against Poland and Wales (2x). The national coach wants to familiarize his players with a different system than the familiar 1-4-3-3, with three central defenders and with emerging players on the flanks. Van Gaal speaks of 1-3-4-3, others talk of 1-5-3-2, a variant of the – initially much criticized – playing style with which he led the Orange squad to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
Whatever you call the system, it all comes down to execution. Or more precisely: on how you put pressure on the opponent and how the team is positioned when the ball is lost. If players are out of step, hardly defensible spaces are created and the Orange becomes particularly vulnerable, as it turned out in the first half of the last international match, at home against Germany (1-1). First commandment: the lines must stay close to each other, in both attack and defense.
“We’ve been hammering on the 10-meter rule all week so that we can get more pressure on the ball and faster,” said captain Virgil van Dijk – ‘general of pressure’ in Van Gaal’s words – before the game. According to the national coach, that went “pretty good” at the training.
The Orange continued that line on Friday evening against an opponent that Louis van Gaal had given high praise for in advance. Rightly so. Belgium is second in the FIFA ranking, the world ranking of football countries. That is 8 places higher than the Netherlands. But it is also a cautious signal of decline after years in the first place. The golden generation of the Red Devils with stars such as Kevin de Bruyne (30), Eden Hazard (31) and Romelu Lukaku (29) – all three at kick-off on Friday evening – is getting older. The World Cup in Qatar is most likely the last chance for the biggest prize in global football. If that has not already been miscalculated, national coach Roberto Martínez has to think after the debacle against the Orange.
As soon as the Dutch National Team chased the Belgians or accelerated the pace, Martínez’s team looked awkward. For example, central defender Dedryck Boyata gave a hopeless ball under pressure shortly after the break, after which Berghuis was able to put Depay in front of the keeper with one smart pass. 0-2. Belgium then started to take more risks, only to be mercilessly punished by two counters by Orange. Goalscorers: Dumfries and Depay again. Only in the last fifteen minutes did Blegia get the upper hand, resulting in a goal in injury time.
Compared to the game against Germany, Van Gaal had changed his team in five places. Jasper Cillissen played instead of Mark Fleks, furthermore Jurriën Timber and Davy Klaassen were surprising names in the starting eleven. That says nothing about any preferences of the national coach, he made clear in advance. Rotation is necessary to avoid overloading after a long and tough season.
Still, he will be pleased with the newcomers in the squad, especially defenders Jurriën Timber and Nathan Aké. Van Gaal players must ‘imagine’ before every match. For Aké this meant that he had to imagine a top striker of 1.91 meters and more than 100 kilos. He has not panicked, it turned out in the first quarter of the match, in which Ake fought several fierce duels with Romelu Lukaku – and won. He also stood his ground against Leandro Trossard, Lukaku’s replacement, who had to leave the field injured.
There is not much time to enjoy the victory. Saturday is already the first training on the program, Wednesday awaits Wales. Captain Virgil van Dijk will not be there. He is allowed on holiday from Van Gaal after a tough season.