There is a hoary old truism about the effects of a spectacular World Cup, a suggestion that after each tournament in the Americas a portion of that summer’s newborns will be named after one of the stars – hence all the Müllers, Diegos, Bonieks, Stevehodges and all the rest currently wandering around Latin America. When it comes to Brazil 2014 the star rankings on this front seemed pretty clear a week ago. Get ready for a new generation of Jameses and Lionels, and Neymar juniors. The World Cup of the glory boy No10s is here: all hail the new individualism, Barney Ronay writes in The Guardian.
Things have shifted a little since then. After the mutual assured destruction of Brazil’s quarter-final defeat of Colombia, a night when not one but two poster-boy No10s were kicked out of the World Cup, it is tempting to argue the field now looks alarmingly clear.
Also when it comes to a sense of outright historical ascent only Lionel Messi is still sitting on the shoulder at the final bend, perfectly placed to burst away from the pack and write his name all over this World Cup in perpetuity. Except, he is not quite alone there. With the shifting of the pack another, rather unexpected, figure has emerged as a candidate for the tournament’s dominant influence. Enter: Louis van Gaal.
Depending on how the next five days go Holland’s manager has a fair shot at emerging by the end as the most influential single participant at this World Cup. A tournament that had seemed likely to be decided by a shimmy between the lines from some magenta-booted princeling could yet end up being defined by the spectacle of a 62-year-old Dutchman pointing and waving and glowering on the touchline. South American registry offices you have been warned. It is spelt “Louis” – or “Aloysius” if you prefer.
Either way it seems possible the most important one-on-one duel left at this World Cup is the one between Van Gaal and Messi – Lionel versus Louis – at the Arena Corinthians on Wednesday night when Holland play Argentina in the second semi-final.
Not only is Messi the most convincing obstacle still standing in the way of a first European triumph in South America, Van Gaal himself has just kept on coming at this tournament, his nudges and tactical shifts a tangible feature in Holland’s run to this stage – so much so that should Van Gaal uncover the managerial grail and successfully still Messi’s influence it is not impossible to imagine him turning up on the touchline at the final in a Mozart wig waving around a conductor’s baton.
With Ottmar Hitzfeld departing at the last-16 stage, Van Gaal is the only remaining big beast of European club management at this World Cup, not to mention the last proven elite tactician, too. Luiz Felipe Scolari is a motivator and a personality manager. Alejandro Sabella looks like a safe pair of hands with a genius on his plate. Jogi Löw dresses like a genius and talks like a genius: he just does not actually have the medals of a genius. Over to you then, Louis.
It is a classic club management challenge – stop the opposition’s best player, while also leaving yourself a chance of winning – that shines an interesting light on Van Gaal. Manchester United’s new manager has described himself as a process trainer, a manager with a set of ideas that will of necessity take time to seep through his team and attach to all its working parts. The intention is not to tinker at the edges but to create a style so coherent and well-grooved that what the opposition do in reply is almost irrelevant.
Tournament football is of course very different. It is a matter of reacting and adjusting, getting out the string and Sellotape mid-match, a challenge from the Mourinho-esque pragmatist’s school (José Mourinho would make a fascinating World Cup manager). For Van Gaal, this tournament has been a series of miniatures where he would normally aim for the big, sweeping masterpiece. It must be said, however, he has looked throughout like a man enjoying himself to an almost indecent degree, as though this is, in fact, the closest he is ever likely to get to a genuine summer holiday.
Against Spain that bespoke deep-set, direct-football approach – a page from Herbert Chapman’s notebook 80 years ago – was a stunning success. Against Australia Van Gaal had the satisfaction of tweaking his formation in adversity and wrestling the match back Holland’s way.Against Chile a counterattacking plan worked well. Even against Costa Rica, a thrilling mess of a match, Van Gaal found a way of standing out, just as Messi has for Argentina. His Tim Krul intervention stole the headlines, even if it was not quite a stroke of instinctive genius but pre-planned logic based on Krul’s extra reach.
And now to São Paulo and that remote control one-on-one with Messi. In a way it is a test of Van Gaal’s notorious tactical and personal egotism. Is he willing to bend his approach to one man, to acknowledge that Messi, not Louis van Gaal is the defining presence here? (The answer is yes of course). There was an interesting rehearsal of sorts last year when Holland played Portugal in a friendly and Van Gaal was faced with basically the same conundrum as Wednesday night: how to limit Cristiano Ronaldo’s influence without compromising his own style.
Ominously, at this foul-obsessed World Cup, Holland fouled Ronaldo quite a lot that night, to the extent he eventually squared up to Bruno Martins Indi, who was booked for another tactical trip. At times three Portugal players surrounded Ronaldo, who reacted in the second half as Messi did against Belgium, by dropping off and letting other players use the space created (he also scored the 87th-minute equaliser).
The suggestion is that both teams may try something similar at the Arena Corinthians, in what might well be a slow-burner. Messi has had this effect at times in Brazil, his mere presence, like a shark slowly circling the swimming pool, inducing a mood of wariness. Van Gaal gave Daley Blind special responsibility for Alexis Sánchez against Chile and will probably do the same to Messi, with whoever is closest detailed to double team where possible. How Van Gaal would like to have his midfield foot soldiers Nigel de Jong and Kevin Strootman, available for this match.
Wary of Arjen Robben, Argentina may well also sit deep and look to break through Messi and Ezequiel Lavezzi. Either way there is a personal duel here – off-field tactician versus on-field schemer – that shows both men in an interesting light. Messi has had a fine World Cup but his influence was more deterrent than destructive weapon in the quarter-finals. He has scored in Brazil against Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria but his best moment to date is the brilliant assist against Switzerland in a match that might have quite easily seen Argentina eliminated. If Messi is really to influence the World Cup decisively this is the moment to do it.
Strip away Holland’s pedigree in reaching World Cup late stages and it must be said, on paper, they are chasing this game from the start. This is Van Gaal’s own gift to Brazil 2014, a team of three stars and a supporting cast that is willing to bend utterly to the instructions of its touchline No10. There have already been plenty of fascinating comings-together at this World Cup.
Louis versus Lionel could end up being a contest to match the best of them.