The names may have changed but the outcome is the same: just like in 2010, the Netherlands are the first European nation, alongside Italy, to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Having succeeded Bert van Marwijk last summer, Louis van Gaal has managed to re-establish competition for places and bring down the average age in a team that, with two qualifying matches still to go, has booked its ticket for Brazil 2014 without registering a single defeat.
The Oranje’s superb record of seven victories and one draw, during which 24 goals were scored and just four conceded, has vindicated the Amsterdam-born coach, who is back in charge of the national team ten years after a disappointing first spell at the helm between 2000 and '02.
The impressive figures summon up memories of the Netherlands’ statistically historic qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010, but this time around there is a lot more to their triumph than the remarkable defensive solidity they exhibited four years ago. FIFA.com takes a close look at three crucial factors in the Dutch success story.
On the bench
A father figure prone to losing his temper and an advocate of discipline and teamwork, Van Gaal promptly removed the captain's armband from Wesley Sneijder, conferring it upon Robin van Persie instead.
He then dropped Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Joris Mathijsen, John Heitinga, Rafael van der Vaart and Nigel de Jong, bringing in the tough-tackling Kevin Strootman and the hard-working Stijn Schaars.
Van Gaal set about reducing the team’s age, paying particular attention to the back four, where he favoured Daryl Janmaat, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Jetro Willems, whose average age is 21. He also handed PSV prodigy Adam Maher an international debut.
The former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss claimed to have no need for “classy gentlemen who walk about the pitch”, preferring players willing to fight for the jersey. To this end, he has been known to take his players’ egos to task, even going as far as to set them against each other. It is a method that has worked up to now, but for how long can such a risky tactic endure?
The bench is not only the location from which he directs team affairs, it is also one of his greatest weapons. In a friendly match against Italy in February, in an attempt to encourage competition, Van Gaal fielded ten players who had not been part of the starting XI at the beginning of UEFA EURO 2012 (only Van Persie retained his place). In doing so, Van Gaal demonstrated his ambition of being able to count on an expanded squad of 30 players.
A golden rule was established that all players must do their utmost in their domestic leagues at the weekend to stand a chance of being picked for the national team.
By placing trust in Daley Blind, Ricardo van Rhijn, Marco van Ginkel, Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Jonathan de Guzman, Van Gaal and his two high-profile assistants, Patrick Kluivert and Danny Blind, have simply drawn on the incredible assembly line of Dutch talent.
On the blackboard
During their eight matches played so far, the Netherlands have never failed to score fewer than two goals. Romania and Estonia conceded eight and five respectively to the Dutch over two games, while Hungary let in four at home over 90 minutes.
Under Van Gaal’s guidance, the Oranje have manifested a more daring, direct and attacking brand of football. The careful days of Bert van Marwijk, who believed in protecting a result and encouraged a defensive mindset and tactical discipline, appear to be consigned to the past.
The new man in charge has resurrected the concept of ‘total football’. He appears untroubled by the sight of his versatile defenders venturing forward, even if it means that the team shows occasional signs of vulnerability at the back.
The Netherlands’ relative defensive difficulties are counterbalanced by a goal threat that remains very much intact, despite the changes. Jeremain Lens and his four goals symbolise the new guard that has blended so well with stalwarts such as Van Persie, Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt.
On the pitch
Appointed skipper ahead of Sneijder by Van Gaal, Van Persie has been able to carry over the imperious form he has shown with Manchester United to the international arena. The 30-year-old’s outstanding record of eight goals in eight qualifiers is a far cry from his time under Van Marwijk, with whom he often had fundamental disagreements. The former Arsenal player has pinpointed his new coach as the key factor behind his purple patch, during which his increased energy and effectiveness have been highly evident:
“Van Gaal always has a clear idea of what he wants to achieve," said Van Persie. "I’m very happy about the way he’s been managing the national team. He’s very straightforward and honest - it’s a good strategy and he explains everything he does. I understand the choices he makes.”
Spearheading the Dutch attack in a 4-3-3 formation, last year’s English Premier League top scorer is currently enjoying the most productive spell of his international career.
But Van Persie is not the only player to benefit from Van Gaal’s fatherly confidence: Kevin Strootman has taken advantage of his favoured status to flourish on the international stage. Indeed, it was after listening to advice from his coach that he left PSV to sign for Roma.
“Van Gaal gave me a real confidence boost when I talked to him about a possible move to Roma," revealed the 23-year-old midfielder. "He told me that I was the kind of player who needs a change of scenery after one or two seasons."
Now one of the first names on the Dutch team-sheet, the Sparta Rotterdam academy graduate has even worn the captain’s armband on a handful of occasions.