I received the following tweet from @11tegen11 after Friday evening’s 2-0 victory for the
Netherlands against Turkey:
Making conclusions on the match purely from that scoreline would indeed be
scoreboard journalism for reasons better explained on 11tegen11’s excellent
tactics blog. However, I would like to come at this match and this campaign from a
different angle and look at whether Van Gaal’s luck may have changed in
comparison to the Dutch World Cup qualification series 12 years ago.
I don’t think anyone would refute the idea of ‘the luck of the draw’ even
with the attempts made to seed the groups and Van Gaal had his first piece of
bad luck before he even became the head coach of the Netherlands 12 years ago.
When the Dutch began their qualification campaign in September 2000 they were
ranked eighth on the FIFA World rankings but the draw in December 1999 had paired
them with the best team from pot 2 (Portugal) and the best from pot 3 (Ireland). By the time the qualification began, Portugal were ranked higher than the Netherlands in the FIFA World ranking in seventh place and group 2 was unsurprisingly the only qualification group containing two semi-finalists from Euro 2000. There was only one other – group 8 containing Italy and Romania – even containing two teams who had reached the knockout phase of Euro 2000. Only one of them managed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup too although Romania did finish second in group 8 but were knocked out in the play-offs.
Compare that to the draw for the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign in which
the Dutch have been paired with Turkey, the third weakest of the nine teams in
pot 2, and Hungary, the weakest in pot 3 when the draw was made. Turkey’s current
FIFA ranking of 30 is broadly similar to that of the Republic of Ireland 12
years ago who were ranked 39th when the two teams met in Amsterdam in September
2000. However, this time around there is no Portugal to make the group all the
more difficult. There is a stronger team than the Turks according to FIFA but
Tuesday’s opponents Hungary are currently ranked just two places above Turkey.
In 2000, the schedule for the Netherlands’ qualification campaign was, I thought,
very unusual in that the two most likely dangers for the Dutch were to
be played in the first two home matches. I had been in the Netherlands for a
few months at that time but I could see, even then, that this was fraught with
potential dangers. I would imagine that the ideal scenario would be to play one
of your main rivals at home early in qualification and the other late. However, the
Dutch were not the only top seed to have organised it this way. Both Romania and
Yugoslavia also played both of their main rivals in their first two home matches
and both also failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. Yugoslavia finished third in
their group and Romania went out to Slovenia in the play-offs after finishing second.
Looking at the nine UEFA qualification campaigns for the 2014 World Cup, we find
that every top seed plays the second or third seed in their group in one of their last two
home matches. Eight of the nine top seeds play their other major rival at home in one of
the first two qualification matches they host. Portugal is the exception here, not playing the first of their two biggest rivals, Russia, until their third home match.
Injuries and retirements
Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands went into their first match of the 2002 World Cup campaign
without nine players including injured regulars Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars,
Arthur Numan, Boudewijn Zenden and the retired Dennis Bergkamp. This meant that a tough opening fixture against the Republic of Ireland, albeit at home, had to be negotiated with players who were unaccustomed to playing international football. Captain Frank de Boer was joined in the centre of defence by Rangers’ Bert Konterman, starting only his second competitive international, the midfield was more or less completely new in comparison to Euro 2000, particularly Richard Witschge playing in a free role, and Wilfred Bouma was given his international debut on the left wing. Neither the new central defensive duo nor the restyled midfield worked and the Republic of Ireland controlled much of the match until they were two goals up. The Dutch recovered to draw 2-2 but a single point at home to the third best team of the group was a disastrous start. Things would only get worse with a 2-0 defeat at home to Portugal in the next home match.
In 2012, Van Gaal was able to select from a fully fit set of players, although he has again
set out to put his own mark on the squad. In 2000 this meant calling up Richard Witschge,
Jeffrey Talan, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Mark van Bommel, Wilfred Bouma, Arnold Bruggink and Anthony Lurling to his first international squad. Twelve years later, Van Gaal’s starting XI against Turkey included six Eredivisie players and seven players with less than 15 international caps. The team which started against Turkey was the youngest Dutch team in a competitive international for 17 years according to @infostradanl.
Looking at the chances created by Turkey on Friday evening, Van Gaal’s first competitive
international of his second spell ended in a fortunate scoreline but this only evens out the
incredible bad luck he endured at the beginning of his first spell. The home draw against
Ireland 12 years ago meant that the Netherlands would be up against it from the beginning
and Portugal’s presence in the very next home match only increased their problems with a
relatively simple 2-0 win. With three points from Friday under their belts and an away fixture against a dangerous rival rather than another home match, Van Gaal’s young side will perhaps grow from here in a way that his first team 12 years ago never really had the chance to.