In a way, this was a victory for the man but not the idea. This was not your typical Louis van Gaal performance. For the first time at this World Cup and for only the second since Van Gaal accepted a third stint in charge, the Netherlands ended a game without dominating the ball. Even when they had a lead to protect against a competitive and combative United States in the first last-16 tie of this World Cup they struggled to hold onto what they had and safely see the game out in the manner Van Gaal watchers have become accustomed to.
And yet in another way, it was the idea that got the man into that position. And once he had got there, he seemed pretty comfortable with it. The Netherlands took a lead that they never relinquished through the best team goal this tournament has seen to date - the goal that, you might say, the 36 year-long coaching career of Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal has always been threatening. Then, they always stayed one step ahead of Gregg Berhalter’s side with a game plan that could hardly have been more different.
First to that goal, though. Eleven minutes in, here it was: starting in their own penalty area with Frenkie de Jong dropping between his centre-halves, taking the ball off his goalkeeper, laying it off to his team-mates nearby, offering himself up in space if they came under the slightest bit of trouble. It is the role that this most indefinable of midfielders believes he is best in, because it is from that most unsuspecting of positions that he can lay the groundwork for things of beauty. How else to describe the opener?
It started slowly but built into a crescendo once De Jong’s conducting of the build-up play allowed the ball to break wide left. The pace quickened, from Blind to Memphis to Marten De Roon to Davy Klaasen, this burst of exchanges eliminating a United States midfield that had exceeded expectations at this tournament up until that point. Cody Gakpo, still some 45 yards out from goal, briefly looked tempted to try and score for the fourth consecutive game running but when the Netherlands are midway through a move like this, any individual urge is quashed for the good of the collective.
If you needed any further evidence that this was not simply 11 of the best Dutch players thrown together at random but one whirring, fizzing orange hivemind at work, then witness Denzel Dumfries not crossing into the penalty area but to the edge of it, where Memphis had intelligently held his run to emerge unmarked and in space. He knew he would be there. The entire move, starting at the rim of one penalty box and ending at the other, consisted of 21 expertly-timed, perfectly-weighted passes.
Now, the Netherlands were able to show another side to their game, one that may carry them further in Qatar than the total football principles of old. With the threat of Memphis’ off-ball movement and Gakpo’s running in behind, Van Gaal showed off his counter-attacking chops. That pair combined on one quick transition at the end of the first half, Gakpo dominating Walker Zimmerman then narrowly failing to find Memphis. From the resulting Dutch throw-in deep in American territory, Daley Blind added the second.
This fast, fluid style of Van Gaal’s is not entirely new, to be fair - and not a dissimilar set-up to the one employed during the 2014 finals, on the way to the semi-finals. Yet there were times, particularly towards the end of the first half, when you had to remind yourself which of these two teams was a Van Gaal side. The States excelled at long spells of safe, pedestrian possession without any inkling of how to use it once they entered the final third. As they pressed for a route back into this contest, it was telling that their goal did not come from any deliberate, coordinated sequence of play but a Christian Pulisic cross deflecting in off Haji Wright’s heel. That brief hope of a comeback lasted five minutes, extinguished by Dumfries’ clincher.
Berhalter will come away from this tournament with more positives than many predicted after making hard work of qualification. Their defence, up until this point, had been solid. Tyler Adams has been one of the tournament’s more impressive holding midfielders. Their greatest weakness - a lack of firepower - is at least as clear as day and can potentially be fixed before 2026, especially if Barron Trump’s budding career as a hulking great No 9 with a good touch for a big man amounts to anything before then. The Americans are coming but first, they have to go home, thanks to a Van Gaal side capable of new tricks and old.