SAO PAULO – Might it have been lost in the translation? Perhaps questions come off differently in Dutch than in English, or maybe it was the particular question I posed. Or maybe Louis van Gaal is about to get a serious education in how vicious the media can be when he completes his task of managing the Netherlands national team and moves to England to assume the position as Manchester United head coach.
Here is what I asked: “Louis, how much of the decision to take such a defensive posture was about the absence of Robin van Persie, and how much was due to the fact that a draw would have won the group?”
PHOTOS: USA vs. Portugal | U.S. fan reactions | Beautiful people in Brazil
Who knows what he heard? Perhaps in Dutch, the question came off as, “Louis, why are you such a stinking coward, and how can you possibly defend that miserable brand of football you presented today against the brave, eager Chileans?”
For Van Gaal to respond to my meager question with such extravagant anger, especially following a 2-0 win over Chile that was the third in a row for the Dutch at the 2014 World Cup and clinched first place in Group B, it must have been that a word got misplaced here or there.
At first he turned the question back to me: “Could you perhaps give a definition of attacking football? If you’re going to ask me questions, I’ll ask you questions.”
I was waiting for the translator and preparing to type his response into my computer when it became apparent this was going to be a dialogue. The press conference steward had to return the microphone so that I could respond.
“Well, for most of the game you had Dirk Kuyt essentially playing left back and you had a five-man back line,” I said. “I’m not criticizing, I’m just asking a question.”
That didn’t appease him. Again, wondering if the whole “not criticizing” thing was relayed to him. He now asked if I had not seen the same from Chile’s players.
“No, in fact, I did not, because Chile owned a 64-36 advantage in possession and spent so much time in your half of the field it looked as though they were playing with 10 strikers.”
OK, that last part I just made up. I thought of it on the way out of the press conference theater. That is the curse of being a writer; you almost always think of the best retorts when it’s time to type them into a computer.
It’s all true, though. Look at the official FIFA match document that records “actual formation” – the Netherlands is listed with a five-man back line in every 15-minute segment. Officially, Chile played a three-man defense the entire match. Even Chile’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, said when he met the press prior to Van Gaal, “We wanted to play, and they didn’t.”
Maybe anyone was doomed who asked a question after that was relayed to Van Gaal. He already was angry about referee Bakary Gassama assigning a 64th-minute yellow card to defender Daley Blind, which Van Gaal determined to be unwarranted.
He ought to have been happy. The Dutch entered this tournament supposedly as a fading power. Two of the team’s three name-brand stars – Van Persie and forward Arjen Robben – are on the wrong side of 30, and midfielder Wesley Sneijder will join them in September. The majority of the team spent the past year toiling in second-tier European leagues (Kuyt in Turkey -- as a winger -- and forward Jeremain Lens in the Ukraine) or on third-tier teams in elite leagues (defender Ron Vlaar of Aston Villa, sub midfielder Leroy Fer at Norwich City in England’s Premier League).
And yet Van Gaal took this team into a challenging group and won all three games, destroying once-mighty Spain and outscoring the opposition by a composite 10-3. Against Chile, he sent on midfielders Memphis DePay and Fer as substitutes, and they scored the team’s two second-half goals. If you walk into a press conference after all this and start duking it out with the media, well, you are not a happy man.
“You have to allow your squad to play according to the qualities you have,” Van Gaal said. “If I would have played 4-3-3 against Chile, Robben would have to run after his man, Lens would have to run after his man. They can’t keep that up for 90 minutes. I want to win, so I’m going to keep a system that’s going to help me win … It has nothing to do with the fact you play more offensive or defensive.”
Watching the Dutch approach, it was easy for an American to wonder if Germany might be tempted to follow the same course Thursday against the U.S. The one difference, of course, is both Netherlands and Chile were through to the next round before this game.
Entering with an advantage in goal differential, all the Netherlands had to do here was not lose. Van Persie was suspended because of yellow-card accumulation. So it was perfectly logical, though perhaps a bit dull, for the Dutch to play 90-plus minutes of you-shall-not-pass defense.
“Our intention was breaking down that hard defense, that hard wall of the Dutch defense,” Sampaoli said. “We couldn’t work it out.”
Winning this group was important for both teams because of the likelihood the loser would end up playing host country Brazil in the next round. Brazil had yet to play its final group game when this one kicked off, but seemed likely to take care of Cameroon and take Group A.
Van Gaal didn’t want to talk about that, either.
Nor did he care to handle an Englishman’s question about his move to Man U.
“I think Manchester United has nothing to do with this,” he said, “and if you look at my CV (resume), you will know I win a lot of matches. That is nothing new.”
On Van Gaal's way out of the press conference, it seemed as though he was staring me down. Well, the English media ask tougher questions than that one, tougher questions than I did, when covering the Premier League. It’s tempting to wonder if Van Gaal knows what he’s in for when he turns in his orange ties for some red ones.