The 70-year-old walks over to the 24-year-old and peers at what he is watching. His hands flick out in a shrug of incomprehension. “Are these cars racing now?” he asks, bewildered. “Do you really enjoy watching this? I don’t like it. It’s just, ‘Mieeeeuv, Mieeeuuv’ [the sound is majestically Dutch] all the time.” And so Frenkie de Jong’s love of Formula One is dismissed.
The 70-year-old shakes hands with the 20-year-old. “I’m vaccinated. You?” “Yeah, me too,” Jurriën Timber replies. “Thank goodness. Not a wappie.” Wappie is a Dutch word roughly equivalent to “nutjob” that tends to be used for conspiracy theorists.
The 70-year-old glares from behind the desk. “You have no idea at all,” he says to the 58-year-old Valentijn Driessen, who writes for De Telegraaf, wants the Netherlands to play 4-3-3 and has implied a back three is inherently defensive. “I’m sorry to say it, but you’re just a journalist. You want to implement your vision, but you have no vision in football. You have a vision for the newspaper, fantastic.”
Louis van Gaal’s third stint in charge of the Netherlands national team has only just entered its third month, but already there have been a series of moments of memorable directness. Could it be that Van Gaal is even more blunt than before, that age has made him even less tolerant of the failings of the rest of the world, that he cares even less for diplomacy?
The years since Van Gaal’s last spell ended with third place at the 2014 World Cup have been turbulent. Within 10 minutes of Guus Hiddink’s reign kicking off, the Dutch had conceded twice and had a man sent off; he was sacked after a year in which the Netherlands lost half their games. Defeats to Iceland, Turkey and the Czech Republic under Danny Blind completed the remarkable feat of failing to qualify for the expanded Euros in France. The Netherlands were then unable to negotiate a tough group that included France and Sweden to make it to the 2018 World Cup.
Blind was succeeded by Ronald Koeman, who oversaw a major improvement. It may not have been football to the 4-3-3 template so beloved of a certain strand of the Dutch footballing establishment, but he took the Netherlands to the final of the Nations League and secured qualification for Euro 2020.
The Barcelona job, though, was too enticing for Koeman to turn down and so by the time the Euros was played, Frank de Boer was in charge, with not entirely unexpected consequences. The capitulation against the Czech Republic after the dismissal of Matthijs de Ligt was dismal.
At which point re-enter Van Gaal, who had not worked since leading Manchester United to victory over Crystal Palace in the 2016 FA Cup final. He restored the 4-3-3 for his first two games in charge but, after a 1-1 draw away to Norway and a 4-0 win over Montenegro, opted for a back three against Turkey last month, which was what prompted Driessen’s criticism. Van Gaal suggested Driessen should read his book (his autobiography in Dutch comes in two volumes, one dealing with his life and the other his vision), to which Driessen replied that Van Gaal’s football no longer conformed to that blueprint.
A less self-confident and belligerent figure might at that point have accepted the point, but instead Van Gaal pressed on, insisting on the importance of evolution. Within the specifics of the debate, that was a setback, but the point is surely sound. Very few coaches endure at the highest level for more than a decade. To keep questioning what has worked for you before, to keep up with a rapidly changing game, is exhausting.
Yet Van Gaal’s willingness to embrace a back three – something he points out he first did at Barcelona two decades ago – suggests a laudable willingness to keep interrogating his own beliefs. Under De Boer, the Netherlands had lost 4-2 away to Turkey; six months later, with the supposedly defensive back three, they beat them 6-1. A 1-0 win in Latvia on Friday kept them top of the group.
There is no doubt that Van Gaal is a difficult man. He can be rude and stubborn and hold mystifying grudges. He has little time for social niceties. He must have the last word. I once spent an exhausting morning trying to interview him but repeatedly being quizzed in return. “Why did you switch to a back three for the 2014 World Cup?” “Who were my defenders?”
At the time I thought it was a power game, him forcing me, under pressure, to try to remember Ron Vlaar, Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij, and perhaps to an extent it was, but with hindsight I think, like the teacher he once was, he was trying to make me approach the problem as he had.
He also asked for a transcript of the interview. I agreed reluctantly, making clear I was not giving him copy approval. Within 24 hours he had returned it with, given they were his words, a bizarre complaint about the “tabloid” tone (and very few tabloids, even in the Netherlands, concern themselves overly with, say, the use of triangles to give the maximum possible coverage of the pitch).
When I opened the document, though, he had not, as I’d feared, deleted his robust comments about José Mourinho, Manchester United’s failing youth system, or the abilities of Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti. Rather the transcript was covered in annotations and clarifications, improving his English and offering additional evidence to back up his points.
And this perhaps is the fundamental fact about Van Gaal: he believes he is right, and is determined to explain that in as much detail as possible. That may make him irascible and certainly doesn’t make him easy company, but in a world of bluffers and spoofers, and those who fear revealing too much will give an advantage to their rivals, there is something admirable about that. He cares for the game, and the way it should be played, and in modern football that feels as rare and worthy of celebration as his integrity.