The Dutch do not have a style. They have a desire.
No country has ever got so close to the World Cup title and fallen short so consistently. Those failures have corrupted their soccer soul. They don’t know who they are any more. The results of that psychic tension showed here.
In the 1978 final, with less than a minute remaining in regulation against Argentina, they were an empty net and a struck post from the world championship.
At the time, it seemed unfair. That team was one of the most unreasonably positive in the history of the game. Since then, it’s begun to seem like a sort of justice.
Over four decades, Dutch teams have been, by turns, groundbreaking, aspirational, heedless, bullying and – this time around – suicidally cautious.
They came to Sao Paulo on Wednesday not really intending to play Argentina. Instead, they hoped to bleed them over 120 minutes of grim, error-free football. They made no mistakes, because they took no chances.
They gambled on the crapshoot of penalties and rolled sevens. Four days ago, they subbed in goalkeeper Tim Krul and beat Costa Rica in similar fashion. The move seemed inspired then. On Wednesday, they were out of substitutions by the end of the game, and that now seemed like carelessness.
Instead, their undersized regular ’keeper, Jasper Cillessen, was overwhelmed by Argentina. He should’ve saved at least two. It was over by the time the South Americans had completed only four rounds. Argentina moves on.
On Tuesday, Brazil loses 7-1. On Wednesday, their bitter rivals book passage to a World Cup final at the Maracana. There are no games on Thursday, but if the current trend continues, Brazil should expect Biblical plagues.
Perhaps there are a few in the tactics gang who enjoyed watching this 0-0 chess match on grass (if, occasionally, the opponents rose from opposite sides of the table and walked around to give each other a good, hard kick). Not a single one of those could be Dutch.
This was soccer brinksmanship. It wasn’t 22 players playing. In the first half, Netherlands’ two remarkable forwards – Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben – had fewer touches of the ball than Argentina’s goalkeeper. This was was two coaches coaching.
Argentina manager Alejandro Sabella had nothing at his disposal aside from Lionel Messi, who was blanketed and buffeted throughout. Drawing the game out was his only choice.
But what was Dutch coach Louis van Gaal thinking?
He’s been as big a star here as any player. But over the course of a month, his constant fiddling eventually amounted to gross interference.
In their first game, the Netherlands routed Spain 5-1. That was a hallelujah moment. It should have been a mission statement. Instead, it was a tactical feint.
From that point on, the Dutch began disappearing inside themselves – scoring three, two, two, zero, and then zero again. Zero is not a sustainable number.
Nonetheless, van Gaal was sold as a savant. His decision to insert Krul into the quarter-final penalties was the bold stroke of a genius.
His ego has always been healthy. After being hired to his first head-coaching job, he began his introductory press conference with, “Congratulations on signing the best manager in the world.” He meant it.
He’s been saying it ever since at a succession of top clubs, never pausing to wonder why he’s always wearing out his welcome.
The cracks are inevitable in any van Gaal team, and too often at the crucial moment. In his postgame presser, he said two of his players refused to take the first penalty. He declined to name them, calling it “a humiliating question.” Humiliating for whom?
As it ended in tears – another World Cup opportunity squandered – one’s mind wandered back to a snippet from the autobiography of a more ambitious genius, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He and van Gaal worked together briefly at Ajax. It didn’t go well.
“Van Gaal liked to talk about playing systems,” Ibrahimovic sniffed. “He was one of those in the club who referred to the players as numbers. There was a lot of five goes here and six goes there, and I was glad when I could avoid him.”
There was the inevitable divorce. Ibrahimovic went elsewhere and become one of the best players alive. His final judgment on the coach: “a pompous ass.” Van Gaal stuck with his numbers.
Calling penalties “the most terrible scenario,” he seemed to round back on himself on Wednesday night.
“It’s simply a matter of luck and we did not lose today,” van Gaal shrugged. Well, half right.
What he managed to do here was show so much caution, it amounted to wild risk-taking. That’s some trick.
This was the failure of a single ego, rather than that of a team. Van Gaal convinced himself that he could think his way through the problem of Argentina. He forgot to include a crucial variable – that he doesn’t get to play.
If the Dutchman has a twinned opposite in soccer history, it’s the Irishman Brian Clough. Clough also won European championships and titles as a manager. He also came up from nothing. He was also a supreme egoist. But he never confused the drawing board with the field of play.
“Players lose you games, not tactics,” Clough once said. “There’s so much crap talked about tactics by people who barely know how to win at dominoes.”
In the end, van Gaal ended up rolling dice with himself. It would be easier to forgive if he’d been playing with his own money, instead of using Dutch pride as his currency.