Football Features

The six rising stars who could shape Louis van Gaal’s new-look Netherlands

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 20:18, 22 August 2021

Louis van Gaal was forthright as ever in his first media conference as the newly-appointed Netherlands manager.

The 70-year-old, who many (including himself) felt had retired, answered his nation’s call following their disappointing exit from this summer’s European Championship.

“If I was the KNVB, I would’ve picked Louis van Gaal as well,” he told the assembled press. “That’s why I said yes. I saw the emergency, who else could have done it?”

To be fair, it’s a declaration he can back up, as Oranje were in a similar predicament following Euro 2012. The powers that be turned to him following that tournament — in which they crashed out of the groups without a single point — and the result was a third-place finish at the subsequent World Cup finals with a much-unfancied Netherlands team.

It was also a personal vindication as Van Gaal infamously stepped down as Netherlands manager in 2002 after they failed to qualify for the World Cup. His reward for galvanising a team at near-rock bottom was, of course, the Manchester United job, which had its own highs and lows.

Throughout a fascinating three-decade coaching career ‘LvG’ hasn’t wavered from his “philosophy”, with developing future stars a central tenet.

So it came as no surprise when his first provisional squad — for the upcoming 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Norway, Montenegro and Turkey — featured no fewer than 10 players (from 25 selected) aged 23 or below. Eight of those 10 also have less than 10 caps. Matthijs de Ligt (22), though, is an exception as he’s a seemingly guaranteed starter having already played in 30 international matches. The other anomaly is Borussia Dortmund’s summer recruit and rising star Donyell Malen (22), who has 13 caps.

There’s a good chance in the following months under Van Gaal’s stewardship that others in the aforementioned age bracket could regularly line up alongside them. So, here are six names worth keeping a close eye on to potentially shape a new-look Oranje side under Dutch football’s premier coach.

Justin Bijlow

Position: Goalkeeper

Age: 23

Club: Feyenoord

Oranje appearances: Uncapped

There’s a case to be made that Justin Bijlow starts for Oranje in their next international outing, with first choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen still absent for duty. Van Gaal has provisionally selected four ‘keepers, with three — including Bijlow — uncapped. The odd man out is Tim Krul of Norwich with his 15 caps to date. Bijlow, who just signed a new and improved contract with boyhood club Feyenoord, where he’s so far managed to register 22 clean sheets across 57 appearances in all competitions, is a man in form. Even if he doesn’t predominantly take part in these upcoming fixtures it will not be long before that is corrected and he’s vying with Cillessen for that ‘number one’ jersey.

Tyrell Malacia

Position: Left-back

Age: 22

Club: Feyenoord

Oranje appearances: Uncapped

Absent from this provisional squad is AZ left-back Owen Wijndal as he’s currently nursing a groin injury. For some observers the Zaandam-born defender is Oranje‘s long-term solution in that position, but as the old saying goes: one man’s misfortune is another man’s gain. Enter competition in the guise of Tyrell Malacia who, much like his Feyenoord teammate Bijlow, is riding the crest of a wave. Though his numbers aren’t exactly mind-blowing — three goals and five assists in 68 league appearances for the Rotterdammers — it’s his tenacity and workrate that has made folks, including the incoming Van Gaal, sit up and take notice.

Devyne Rensch

Position: Right-back

Age: 18

Club: Ajax

Oranje appearances: Uncapped

A huge curiosity is what formation the Netherlands will play under Van Gaal considering the hoopla this past summer regarding his predecessor Frank de Boer’s decision to adopt a 3-5-2 shape. Ironically the man in the current Oranje hotseat famously adopted that system at the 2014 World Cup finals, but he did hint at the possibility of deploying a 4-3-3 shape, meaning traditional full-backs. Now who could possibly start at right-back? Well there’s Ajax teenager Devyne Rensch. After breaking through last season, he’s gone on to make 30 appearances so far, registering three goals and creating a further two.

Teun Koopmeiners

Position: Defensive midfielder

Age: 23

Club: AZ

Oranje appearances: 1

It’s been a summer of changes at AZ, with forwards Myron Boadu and Calvin Stengs departing for Ligue 1, and expecting to have joined them out the door was Teun Koopmeiners, who has been strongly linked with an Italian adventure (Atalanta and Roma have reportedly shown interest). There’s a good reason why clubs from outside Alkmaar want his signature. Koopmeiners has transformed into a robust modern box-to-box midfielder; a threat in the opposition half and a presence in his own, breaking up attacks as well as starting and finishing them. Breaking into Oranje‘s midfield will be a tall order but having someone like him waiting in the wings is a blessing for any coach.

Guus Til

Position: Attacking midfielder

Age: 23

Club: Feyenoord

Oranje appearances: 1

Koopmeiners isn’t the only former AZ academy graduate seeking to become an Oranje mainstay. His former teammate Guus Til is now back playing his football in the Eredivisie — after briefly representing Spartak Moscow and Freiburg — with Feyenoord, and to say he’s made an immediate impact would be an understatement. Til, predominantly a deep-lying forward who can also play up top or in central midfield, has turned out seven times for the Rotterdammers in all competitions, subsequently bagging six goals. Again there’s stiff competition for his position but considering Van Gaal is a coach that puts form over reputation, there’s every chance of him featuring in the September qualifiers.

Cody Gakpo

Position: Forward

Age: 22

Club: PSV Eindhoven

Oranje appearances: 1

If there’s one area where congestion might not be an issue it’s across Oranje‘s forward line. Memphis Depay, who has a strong bond with Van Gaal, is a guaranteed starter. Malen is another who the new coach has taken a shine too but he’s yet to cement a starting berth in Dortmund’s line-up, which could become problematic if that’s not addressed soon. Thankfully former PSV teammate Cody Gakpo — who’s fast-approaching a century of appearances for the Eindhoven-based club (registering over 20 goals and nearly 20 assists) — is hitting his stride and could present a serious option on the Dutch left flank.