Things went pretty well the previous time Louis van Gaal led an underdog Netherlands team to a World Cup.
That was in 2014, when they narrowly missed the final in Brazil on penalties. They had just finished an unexpected run that included the stunning demolition of the reigning champions Spain, a comeback victory over Mexico with two goals in the dying minutes, and of course the amazing shootout victory over Costa Rica with Tim Krul and all that.
But with fewer choices available in this year’s World Cup, they might have to rely on a young player competing in his first major international competition.
When Qatar 2022 rolled along, Cody Gakpo’s reputation was already solid. He frequently appears in transfer rumors, and this season in the Eredivisie, where he has been the league’s top scorer and creator, he has been instrumental in propelling PSV Eindhoven into what appears to be a true three-team title chase.
And right now it appears that he will also be the catalyst for the Netherlands’ World Cup effort.
In one of the dazzling temples of arrogance constructed for this tournament, the Al Thumama Stadium, Van Gaal’s team defeated Senegal 2-0 on Monday with a goal from Gakpo.
You’d hesitate to claim the Netherlands played well — never mind wonderfully — but here they are, proud owners of three points from their opening Group A encounter.
That was due as much to Dutch brilliance as it was to a lackluster performance by the Sadio Mane-less Senegal. Understandably, the defending African champions of Aliou Cisse were severely missing their star player. To make matters worse, Edouard Mendy provided more proof to his detractors that he is not the superior goalkeeper they claim he is.
The starting trio against Senegal were Gakpo in the hole, close below Steven Bergwijn and, in one of the great comeback tales of our time, Vincent Janssen.
Janssen was the epitome of a busy person—a huge, hulking presence who didn’t quite cause enough trouble for himself to merit complete justification for his position.
Van Gaal has high expectations for the 23-year-old. In the summer, when he was the subject of transfer rumors, Manchester United was the English club most interested in acquiring him. Van Gaal stepped in and counseled Gakpo that staying at the Eredivisie for at least another season would be the wisest course of action, as consistency and familiar surroundings would give him the best chance of winning this World Cup.
In the 79th minute, Van Gaal substituted Davy Klaassen and Teun Koopmeiners for Bergwijn and Berghuis. This required a change to the 3-5-2 formation, with Gakpo being shifted farther forward.
It’s not precisely the kind of goal you’d anticipate from a team’s inventiveness, but it doesn’t really matter. It was a goal that showed Gakpo’s offensive instincts, instincts that the Netherlands, who might face England, the USMNT, or Wales in the last-16, may need to heavily rely on if they want to accomplish anything significant at this World Cup.
Although it’s a lot of pressure to place on someone so young, the evidence suggests he can handle it.