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Imagine you are entering potentially the last 12 minutes of a 36-year-long career. Imagine that after all the stresses, all the anxieties, all the late nights and the time spent away from home, it looks like this is it. That’s all she wrote.
Imagine that you have an idea, though. Something that could stretch those 36 years a few days further, to put you within a few more days of a shot at what would be the greatest achievement of that long and difficult career. Imagine all of that and then imagine saying: “Wout, get your bib off.”
“Football isn’t played like it was in 1998 anymore,” Louis van Gaal had insisted before meeting Argentina, during his latest face-off with Dutch journalists who have been less than enamoured with the Netherlands’ style of play during his third stint in charge. He’s right, it’s not. Yet as midnight approached in Lusail and the clock on the scoreboards ticked into triple figures, it felt a lot like 1974.
Not the 1974 of Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels and the principles of total football that Van Gaal has attempted to drag forward half a century and update. Instead, the 1974 of just about everywhere in western Europe outside of Amsterdam – of kick and rush, of blood and thunder, of a strike partnership with a combined height of 12ft8in scrapping to get a toenail on every second ball.
There was a beautiful logic to it – that for all your tactical schools, for all your theorising and the grand philosophies, in a moment of sheer desperation, only lumping it to two big men made sense. And by following that logic, by totally rejecting just about everything that could remotely be described as ‘Cruyffian’, a Dutch coach who has always had a desire to do things slightly differently almost salvaged a place in another World Cup semi-final.
For the most part, watching from the vantage point of the Lusail’s press box, high up behind the dugouts, you would not have known that Van Gaal was even here.
While his counterpart perched on the edge of his own technical area, even earning a telling off from referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz at one point for attempting to direct his play as well as that of his players, the greater, more ebullient personality of the two managers contesting this World Cup quarter-final stayed seated and observed at a distance. Not that he especially needed to make his mark on the game for the majority of the first half. Van Gaal’s imprint was already all over it.
Until Argentina’s breakthrough, this was familiar Van Gaal territory: a purgatory of careful possession play without purpose, the type of football that has arguably held back one of the finest coaching minds of his generation.
Perhaps it was to be expected. For all the lore and prestige surrounding this fixture – the third-most common in World Cup history – the last two editions had both ended goalless. Midway through the first half, we passed the four-hour mark without a goal between these two storied nations at this tournament, the most recent having come back in 1998. Even Jack van Gelder, the commentator who celebrated Dennis Bergkamp’s famous last-minute goal by screaming his name incessantly, would have struggled to go for that long.
Not that Van Gaal cared, you suspected, hence why a man who is not exactly a stranger to touchline theatrics was instead keeping perfectly calm.
That changed with Argentina’s first or, to be precise, Lionel Messi’s pass. The anticipation, the vision, the obscene geometry of that pass for Nahuel Molina to breathe life into a staid game broke Netherlands. Messi’s genius forced Van Gaal and his players into a position that they were yet to experience at this tournament. They were behind. And exactly what a Netherlands side in this mould is meant to do when chasing a game is unclear.
It remained unclear as Messi doubled Argentina's lead from the spot, and right up until those final 12 minutes, when all those years of Van Gaal’s experience were reduced to the most basic approach of all.
At that point, his plan A had produced only one shot and even that was off target. Yet the next was from Weghorst, his final throw of the dice, attaching himself to a deep Steven Berghuis cross into the mixer in the 83rd minute, in the manner that only a former Burnley centre forward could. This was ‘hoofball’ but in a Dutch accent, which you imagine would sound faintly amusing.
And yet, it had brought Van Gaal’s side within one. In fairness, a moment of ingenuity brought parity, as Argentina expected Teun Koopmeniers’s free kick to be struck at goal, not rolled into a crowded penalty area. But it was still Weghorst’s strength holding off his marker, dropping him to the ground like a rag doll, to create the space for the turn and finish that gave his manager a chance of extending his career a little longer. It was not to be. It would last just another half-hour and 10 penalty kicks.
Farewell then, Louis, on what is perhaps your final bow. Perhaps. After all, it would not be entirely surprising if this was not the last act of an extraordinary managerial career, given how he was his full maverick self, subverting expectations until the last.