If the modest Dutch team that face Leo Messi’s Argentina in Friday’s World Cup quarter-final have an emblematic player, it is goalkeeper Andries Noppert.
In early 2020, when Noppert was a reserve at a lower-division club aged 25, his dad advised him to quit football. This year Noppert became Heerenveen’s starting keeper in the Dutch top division. After Dutch coach Louis van Gaal surprised everyone by picking him for Qatar, Noppert half-joked to a friend: “They’ve all fallen for it!”
His Doha hotel room is so vast that he initially could not find the bathroom. Then came the next surprise: Van Gaal made him starting goalkeeper, explaining: “He stops balls.” In four games here, Noppert has conceded just two goals. Admittedly he passes poorly, but then Van Gaal has ditched the Dutch tradition of footballing keepers. Noppert embodies a new Netherlands: little pedigree, better at stopping than creating, but unbeatable in regular play in the last World Cup and so far in Qatar.
When I was growing up an Oranje fan in the Netherlands in the 1970s, Dutch football had a moral mission. Defending was evil, so the Dutch attacked. The style fitted the wealthy Netherlands’ 1970s’ self-image as a moral superpower, a “guide land” to less evolved countries. Beauty trumped winning. For a small country to reach World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978 was enough. Oranje did not need to win to feel superior.
When Van Gaal became a manager in the 1990s, he was a football moralist. Now 71 — but still looking “like a god,” he joked — he has been speaking frankly in Qatar, perhaps influenced by his prostate cancer, and admitted: “I used to think you always had to attack. I have evolved to focusing more on winning. At Barcelona we were once leading Valencia 3-0 at half-time, and lost 3-4. Those are moments when you ask yourself: is this so sensible? You see that at this World Cup.”
Coaching Barcelona around the millennium, he had two disciples who would become great coaches: midfielder Pep Guardiola, and assistant coach José Mourinho. Broadly, Van Gaal has switched from Guardiolaesque attack to Mourinhoesque game plans that subvert opponents’ intentions. Modern football “is no longer an open game”, he said.
But the shift was also his response to a generational draining of Dutch talent. A country of 17.5mn people cannot consistently produce world-class players. In the 2010 World Cup final, Oranje repeatedly fouled more talented Spain. Under Van Gaal at the 2014 World Cup, they finished third by counter-attacking through their last great forward, Arjen Robben. Today’s team has only two world-class players: central defender Virgil van Dijk and midfielder Frenkie de Jong. Most of the others would never be picked for sides like France or England.
A mediocre team cannot dominate possession. Instead the Dutch strategy — revolutionary, given the national tradition — is to let the opposition have the ball. Oranje aim to strike through counter-attacks. Even Brazil play that way, argued Van Gaal, albeit with better players. De Jong spends matches chasing opponents. Van Gaal devises a different game plan for each match, sometimes for each half, tailored to the opponents’ weaknesses. Every player follows his plan, he noted. “Not every group wants that,” he added, recalling having to weed out dissidents from past teams.
His players can execute complex game plans because the last remnant of the Dutch tradition is footballing intelligence. “Football is played with the brain,” said Van Gaal. It is working: the Dutch are unbeaten in 19 games, and unbeaten in regular play in 11 World Cup matches under Van Gaal since 2014, although they lost on penalties to Argentina in that year’s semi-final.
He forecasts that because more gifted teams like Argentina will no adapt to the Dutch tactics, “then we have a big chance after all”.
The Argentines have weaknesses to exploit: Messi does not defend, the team runs relatively small distances, and some players are substandard. Van Gaal will not reveal his game plan but will follow some traditional Dutch tenets. For example, rather than trying to stop the genius, you cut the passing lines from the guys who supply the genius. For Argentina, that means Enzo Fernández and Rodrigo De Paul.
The rare Dutch attacks are hyper-efficient, particularly the 20-pass move for Memphis Depay’s opening goal against the US in the round of 16 match. It was a flashback, a moment of cheer for Dutch romantics yearning for lost beauty, as if even this Oranje generation carry the tradition somewhere deep in their bones.
Memphis — who prefers using his first name — is a reserve for his club Barcelona, but as Van Gaal said, he is “top scorer and assist king” for Oranje. “I kiss him on the mouth,” the coach joked fondly. Supporting Memphis is Cody Gakpo, 23, still with his hometown club PSV Eindhoven, but the Dutch revelation here. A precise curler of shots, Gakpo scored three goals in the group games — with his right foot, his left and his head, from just four attempts from unpromising positions. His Togolese dad and Dutch mum cheer him from the stands, like proud parents at a school play.
Gakpo is a rare light in an ugly side. But for Van Gaal now, winning trumps beauty.