Louis van Gaal deserves a pat on the back for his terrific work since returning to the Holland national team, and he got one on Wednesday – even if it was from himself.
The charismatic former Manchester United coach took the reins from Frank de Boer after his disappointing spell left a sour taste in the mouth, and his presence has given the team a real lift and an injection of personality to help them qualify for the World Cup in Qatar.
His influence on the group was summed up by a winner in the dying seconds in their Nations League tie against Wales thanks to Wout Weghorst’s winner, which saw Van Gaal congratulating himself to the hilarity of the journalists in the post-match press conference room.
Louis van Gaal has helped inject some character and personality back into the Dutch team
Holland have qualified for the World Cup this year after years of being stuck in the wilderness
The Dutchman had been chuffed with his own tactical intuition after deciding against bringing on substitute Memphis Depay and instead keeping Weghorst on the pitch, and the way his players have fought for him and stepped up shows how resolute they have become under his leadership.
This a group that has failed spectacularly in recent years. After Van Gaal guided them to the semi-finals at the 2014 World Cup, the team failed to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, before they were sent packing at the Euro 2020 Round of 16 by the Czech Republic.
That dismal result saw De Boer sacked as manager – with the former Crystal Palace boss admitting he had not ‘achieved his objective’ and left the squad with in an ‘unhealthy situation’.
Expectation is always sky high for Holland, and it always will be given their place in football’s heritage, their renowned style of play and the quality players they have historically been associated with.
The team failed to qualify for Euro 2016, World Cup 2018, and were dumped out of Euro 2020 by Czech Republic in the Round of 16
So Van Gaal has had his work cut out – and it hasn’t been all plain sailing for himself either – but his discipline and personality has rubbed off on the players and they look like more of a unit again.
He’s given his players freedom in a back three, and has given confidence to players who haven’t necessarily been in form at club level. Steven Bergwijn has been a real star on the international stage despite being frozen out by Tottenham, while he has also placed his faith in Nathan Ake having been sidelined at Man City.
Van Gaal is also breeding the next generation of talent, too. Rising centre-back Jurrien Timber has gone from strength to strength under his guidance and has Manchester United chasing him, while he has also given chances to Feyenoord youngster Tyrell Malacia.
The results have been impressive. Van Gaal is yet to taste defeat since returning as manager in his 11 games – winning eight of those – including a 4-1 romp against the world’s No 2 ranked side Belgium.
Van Gaal has brought discipline but has given his players freedom to express themselves
He helped reinvent out of form stars like Steven Bergwijn, with Holland unbeaten in 13 games
The team have also picked up draws against Germany and beaten Euro 2020 semi-finalists Denmark 4-2.
And it mustn’t be forgotten that the veteran coach has done all this despite his own personal struggles. He fractured his hip after falling off a bike – being forced to conduct training in a golf cart.
It was a source of hilarity for the players initially, but it was hardly convenient given it happened when they were preparing for a crucial game against Norway – where victory would seal their place at the World Cup.
Explaining the situation, Van Gaal showed the connection he had formed with his players as he began to become teary when revealing how the squad asked for him to continue training them despite his inability to walk.
‘The players and staff wanted me to stay [after his accident], so I stayed,’ he said, welling up with emotion.
Van Gaal broke his hip in a bike accident last year but showed his dedication by conducting training in a golf buggy
After a reporter noticed he was getting emotional, Van Gaal added: ‘Yes, I am an emotional man. When the players and staff tell you they want you to stay.’
To add to the personal problems affecting Van Gaal, earlier this year he revealed he was battling prostate cancer.
He has undergone extensive treatment to fight his disease after initially declining to go public about the illness and said he didn’t want it to overshadow the progress his players were making.
‘I think you don’t tell people you work with like that because it might influence their choices, their decisiveness, so I thought they shouldn’t know,’ he said.
‘It is usually other underlying diseases that kill you. But I had a pretty aggressive form, got irradiated 25 times. Then you have a lot of management to do in order to get through life.
Van Gaal revealed he has been battling cancer and hid his illness to keep his players focused
‘In each period during my time as manager of the National Team I had to leave in the night to go to the hospital without the players finding it out until now.
‘You don’t die from prostate cancer, at least not in 90 per cent of the cases.’
Van Gaal’s dedication is superb to see as he continued the job as usual despite his fight with a deadly disease – and after successful radiotherapy he has made progress.
After Holland continued their impressive run of form after beating Wales, Van Gaal was reluctant to discuss his condition and declared his pride in the group, saying he had never worked with a group like this before.
‘I think it’s not the moment to speak about my disease,’ he said. ‘But I can assure you I can manage because this group is like a present for me.
‘In my career, I have never coached such a group.’
The coach has formed a strong bond with his squad and they will be dark horses in Qatar
Holland’s new-found confidence and bond with Van Gaal will stand them in good stead when they head to Qatar for the World Cup later this year.
They wont be favourites in the slightest but given their strong form, as well as Van Gaal’s track record of taking the team far at the major tournament, they should be one of the dark horses in the competition.
Frenkie de Jong is excelling in midfield and will be key to how Holland play in Qatar, while he has a strong defence with quality players like Matthijs De Ligt and Virgil van Dijk – as well as rising stars such as Timber.
Up front Memphis Depay is always a handful while Weghorst showed his value to the team, and Arnaut Danjuma is coming off an outstanding season with Villarreal.
Van Gaal’s men are unified, focused and heading in the right direction – something we haven’t been able to say about the Dutch national side in a long while.