United tradition alive in Van Gaal's Netherlands
Most coaches' final World Cup squads contained a shock or two when trimmed down to the requisite 23. Alvaro Negredo's losing out on a place for Spain to Fernando Torres, even given his scratchy form of recent months, could be considered as one. Marcel Schmelzer's missing out on a place in Germany's group was another, especially given his spot was taken by his junior Dortmund teammate Erik Durm.
Louis Van Gaal's eyebrow-raiser was a little less high-profile -- at left-back, where young Terence Kongolo of Feyenoord was surprisingly retained, notably at the expense of one of Vitesse's plethora of on-loan Chelsea players, Patrick van Aanholt.
That said, it was tame as surprises go, being very much in character for Van Gaal. His remit was always likely to be one of renewal after a disappointing Euro 2012. It had been quite a comedown. After reaching the 2010 World Cup final, the Netherlands were the biggest flop of their last major tournament, as they slipped out at the group stage with three straight defeats. The feeling was of a team gripped by acute inertia, having failed to build on its determined (if sometimes unrefined) play in South Africa under Bert van Marwijk.
One of the few bright spots of the wretched campaign in Poland and Ukraine was a youngster, and also a left-back -- the untried 18-year-old Jetro Willems, who acquitted himself well in difficult circumstances. Willems was the exception, however, rather than the rule. (Now at PSV Eindhoven, he is absent from Van Gaal's 23, incidentally.) Things have changed dramatically since, as many are about to discover. Those who haven't watched much of the Oranje since the last major tournament are in for something of a surprise.
Van Marwijk's cautious and (in the Netherlands, at least) controversial 4-2-3-1 is out, with Van Gaal respecting Dutch tradition with his favourite 4-3-3. Even when experimenting with a 3-5-2 in the recent friendly with Ecuador, the principle of width and specifically stretching the play was respected.
Yet the main tenet of the Van Gaal recipe is youth. Since he took over the Dutch national team for the second time in July 2012, an astonishing 31 players have made senior debuts. Many of those, such as goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen and defender Bruno Martins Indi, will play key roles this summer. Fourteen of the World Cup squad were given debuts by Van Gaal. If it is unrealistic to expect them to match or better 2010 in results -- even with the experience and quality of Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben -- it should be exciting.
It is this aspect of the Dutch challenge this summer, as much as Van Gaal's fervent commitment to attacking football, that should pique the interest of Manchester United fans eagerly awaiting the dawn of his tenure at Old Trafford. Anyone asking why will need to cast a glance a little further along the new manager's bench when the Premier League season starts. Ryan Giggs, along with the golden generation of Paul Scholes, Gary Neville, David Beckham and the rest, is an embodiment of exactly how important a young, homegrown core is to United.
Giggs himself knows it, having brought in James Wilson to make a goal-scoring debut toward the end of the last campaign against Hull City. Young players go hand-in-hand with the tempo at which one feels United should play, as well as retaining the club's sense of self -- or in this case, rediscovering it after a difficult campaign. Van Gaal believes in the collective ahead of everything and that if a player is good enough, he's old enough. Xavi and Carles Puyol both made their Barcelona first-team debuts under Van Gaal in his first spell at Camp Nou.
There is one recurrent and widely shared theory of why Van Gaal favours youth. In the narration of Dennis Bergkamp's excellent autobiography, "Stillness and Speed," the former Arsenal forward's co-author David Winner writes, "As Van Gaal showed in the mid-nineties at Ajax and a decade later at AZ Alkmaar, his forte is working with young players who still have everything to prove and teams who still have everything to win."
This is also a clue to why the Van Gaal method tends to work for a while and only for a while. Winner records how much of Van Gaal's failure in his first spell as national team coach can be put down to the growth of many of the 1995 Champions League winners that he had nurtured, with "the same players no longer willing to follow his orders blindly." This desire for total control is, in fact, startlingly similar to that of Sir Alex Ferguson, with the decision to sell Beckham taken when the manager felt he had lost full influence over the player.
It's all reliant on the quality being there to promote, but Van Gaal certainly has the nerve to do so. In fact, over and above that, he understands that even the strongest names in the game, be it the Netherlands or United, have a need to do so. In a tough group in Brazil, Van Gaal will show just how committed to youth he is.