AMSTERDAM (AP) — Eight years after taking the Netherlands to the semifinals in Brazil, Louis van Gaal is back for another shot at bringing home his nation’s first World Cup title.
Van Gaal’s tactical ability and leadership will be essential for a team that failed to reach the quarterfinals at last year’s European Championship under his predecessor, Frank de Boer.
The Netherlands, three times a World Cup runner-up, is in Group A with host Qatar, Ecuador and Senegal.
The team is unbeaten in 15 matches since the 71-year-old Van Gaal took over for the third time after De Boer quit, twice beating Belgium on its way to qualifying for the Final Four of the Nations League.
Van Gaal’s success in steering the Dutch team out of the doldrums comes despite him revealing in April that he was being treated for an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
The 71-year-old coach brings a wealth of experience, having led a young Ajax team to Champions League victory in 1995 and managed major clubs including Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
The defining moment of Van Gaal’s storied coaching career was his call to bring on reserve goalkeeper Tim Krul in the last minute of extra time in the 2014 World Cup quarterfinals against Costa Rica with the score at 0-0.
Krul saved two penalties in a 4-3 shootout victory that sent the Netherlands to the semifinals. The Dutch team then lost to Argentina on penalties in the next match, with Jasper Cillessen in goal.
Van Gaal has been outspoken in criticizing Qatar as host of the tournament, calling it a “ridiculous” decision motivated by commercial interests.
Despite his 2014 heroics, Krul isn’t expected to make the cut for Qatar. But the 33-year-old Cillessen, now playing for Dutch club NEC Nijmegen after spells with Ajax, Barcelona and Valencia, will likely be in the squad.
While Van Gaal appears to have the contours of his starting team largely worked out, it remains unclear who his starting goalkeeper will be.
Other options include 38-year-old Ajax keeper Remko Pasveer, Feyenoord’s Justin Bijlow and Freiburg’s Mark Flekken.
The debate rages among Dutch fans at every major tournament about whether or not the Netherlands will play their preferred formation of four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards.
Abandoning that 4-3-3 setup was part of the reason that De Boer fell out of favor at Euro 2020, but don’t expect Van Gaal to immediately jump back to the system that is drummed into Dutch soccer players from the youngest youth squads right up to the Ajax team.
Van Gaal has been training this year a system with three defenders, four midfielders, two forwards and a player floating just behind the forwards. He says it means “that an opponent always has to adapt.”
But Van Gaal will keep opposing teams guessing in Qatar and is always prepared to change the way his team sets up — even during matches.
What system he uses on any given day “depends on the qualities of the opponent,” he told Dutch broadcaster NOS.
Memphis Depay was one of the break-out stars of the World Cup in Brazil. These days, he’s most often seen on Barcelona’s bench watching Robert Lewandowski at work.
Van Gaal has in the past said he only selects players who are playing regular club soccer. He will make an exception for Depay, who is well on his way to becoming the Netherlands’ all-time top scorer.
Depay’s last goal, against Wales in June, took his international tally to 42, level in second place on the list with Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Robin van Persie is alone on top with 50 goals.
“It’s always important to play … and I’ve done a lot less of that recently,” Depay told NOS in September.
But the ever-confident striker said he is in no doubt he will be ready in time for the Netherlands’ first match against Senegal on Nov. 21.
“I give everything in training to show that I belong here,” Depay said, “and can be important for my country.”
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