Brilliant van Gaal must prove he is the right man at the right time

May 11, 2014 Tags: Reads 12 comments
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Legend has it that Louis van Gaal greeted appointment to his first management job with the boast: “congratulations on signing the best coach in the world.” It is one of those quotable moments where the subtly is perhaps lost in the passage of time. Still, if the Ajax board didn’t believe the rookie coach in 1991 some seven years and 11 major trophies later there was little doubt they had become apostles.

In the intervening years van Gaal has proven brilliant and destructive in not always equal measure. There have been spells at Barcelona, AZ Alkmar and Bayern Munich, and twice with the Dutch national team. The 62-year-old earned trophies and enemies at each bar the Oranje, where silverware has not been so easy to find.

Still, he is eminently comfortable in a small group of élite managers who offer service to the continent’s largest clubs. van Gaal will surely prove far more than just the safe pair of hands required in the aftermath of United’s disastrous David Moyes experiment.

The Dutchman is likely to be formally announced as Manchester United’s new manager in the coming week – an open secret held up only by contractual details and ongoing discussion over staffing. He will be United’s 23rd manager. The first from outside Great Britain or Ireland.

Yet, van Gaal joins a club at its lowest ebb since Ferguson shipped in from Aberdeen nearly 30 years ago. After all, the Reds finished the Premier League campaign on Sunday with a draw at Southampton, leaving the side some 24 points adrift of title winners Manchester City – a 33 point swing from this time a year ago.

So poor has the campaign been that United will play no European football next season for the first time in 24 years; not even in the massively expanded Europa League, the continent’s second tier.

It leaves van Gaal with a multi-faceted job: to rebuild a side, to take control of a dressing room that has bordered on mutinous this season, and to restore significantly more than pride in the months to come. It is, despite United’s size and wealth, one of the veteran’s greatest challenges. The essence is to prove that van Gaal is not only the right man, but appointed at the right time.

It is a challenge unlikely to daunt one of the game’s more worldly coaches. In more than 20 years as a front-line manager van Gaal has built a reputation not only for an arrogance born of total belief, but of a work ethic equally compelling.

van Gaal first became assistant to Leo Beenhakker in 1988 serving a three year apprenticeship at Ajax before taking over as head coach. It would prove to be the Amsterdam club’s most successful period since Johan Cruyff’s led Ajax to three European titles in the mid-1970s.

Under the Iron Tulip Ajax became Eredivisie champions three times from 1994 to 1996, completing the first campaign unbeaten at home and abroad. van Gaal’s youthful Ajax side captured the Champions League in dramatic fashion, securing a 2-0 victory over Milan in the Vienna final. It would add to the side’s multiple domestic cups, the 1992 UEFA Cup, and the 1995 Intercontinental Cup.

“We are the best,” declared van Gaal after Ajax’ 4-3 penalty shootout victory over Gremio in the Intercontinental final. “Not just of Amsterdam, but also of Rotterdam and Eindhoven and Europe. And now we are the best of the world.”

It was a period in which the manager built an obstinate, media-adverse and overtly eccentric reputation. And when genius flourished too; an époque in which van Gaal promoted youth – Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp, the de Boer brothers, Edgar Davids, Michael Reiziger, and Edwin van der Sar – and was richly rewarded.

“He was sharp tactically. He paid attention to the tiniest details which gave us advantages in games,” said striker Jari Litmanen.

“He was the perfect teacher. With him, we listened, we learned, we won. He’s a tough man, but at his level you don’t get by with a smile and a few kind words.”

Neither reputation has left the coach in the intervening years – tough and brilliant in equal measure. Yet, they were qualities that took van Gaal to Barcelona in 1997 – and more silverware in a combustible three year spell at Camp Nou.

Barça secured La Liga in 1998 and 1999, although the Champions League went to Real Madrid, United and Bayern during the period. Off the pitch the Dutchman repeatedly clashed with the press and players alike. World Footballer of the Year Rivaldo was said to have repeatedly undermined his manager by refusing to play on the left side of van Gaal’s preferred ‘Dutch’ system.

The notoriously fickle Catalan media were hardly any more supportive. “Friends of the press. I am leaving. Congratulations,” said the coach with no little sarcasm in May 2000 after Los Culés surrendered La Liga to Deportivo de La Coruña.

It was perhaps the first time van Gaal has tasted failure during a decade in management, although not one that would irrevocably destroy his reputation in Spain. Not yet at least.

“The trainer I learned most from about the field of play was van Gaal, even though he’s the one I’ve had the most confrontations with,” said former Barça midfielder Luis Enrique. It has become a common refrain.

If Catalonia ultimately brought disappointment far more came in the nine years following the Dutchman’s departure from Camp Nou. Two disastrous years with the Dutch national team ended in the Oranje’s failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. van Gaal was then unceremoniously sacked six months into a return to Barcelona, with the side fourth from bottom of La Liga.

Compounding the manager’s fall from grace van Gaal was forced to leave a position as Technical Director at Ajax less than a year into the post in 2004 – boardroom politics demonstrating once again that where the dogmatist is concerned conflict rarely ends in détente.

Redemption can follow a fall though. For van Gaal AZ Alkmaar proved an unlikely club for one of Europe’s elite coaches, yet one where success was achieved on the precipice of failure. Three seasons into the job AZ finished 11th in Eredivisie bringing an offer of resignation. The players, so legend has it, refused to countenance van Gaal’s departure and secured the league title the following May. No mean feat for a club whose average gate rose barely above 15,000 during van Gaal’s reign.

It brought another shot at the big time, with Bayern calling in 2009. FC Hollywood brought silverware and tantrums once more, as if van Gaal is a magnet to both.

“Who has the best defense?” asked van Gaal after securing the 2010 Bundesliga. “FC Bayern. Who has the best attack? FC Bayern. And that’s why we are champions and not just in München also in Gelsenkirchen and also in Bremen and in Hamburg. We are the best in Germany and perhaps soon in Europe.”

It was a familiar refrain. Yet, José Mourniho’s Internazionale put an end to that European dream just a few weeks later. Inside a year Bayern’s board cancelled van Gaal’s contract as Der FCB slipped to third in the Bundesliga amid yet more dressing room angst and tactical intransigence. United’s players have been warned.

“It can be that he is a bit arrogant, but if you treat him with respect, then respect comes back to you,” said Bayern director Franz Beckenbauer last month.

“In the end there was a little discussion about the way he was handling his job so that’s why they went separate ways — but for me he’s one of the best. He would be perfect for Man United.”

That fit is a jigsaw puzzle of challenges: to rebuild a squad that will shed up to half-a-dozen players this summer, integrate what is likely to be an extensive programme of acquisition, and find the right balance of tactical philosophy and pragmatism given the resources at hand.

Indeed, the smart money suggests that United’s board – and supporters – will require a modicum more patience than was afforded an admittedly failing Moyes. It should surprise few if the new man is guided by the same single-minded and sometimes inflexible determination that has coloured a career.

The Amsterdam-born veteran will instigate change at Old Trafford. It may not suit all. Not least those that do not, cannot, or will not adapt to van Gaal’s way. It is a gamble by United’s board: that the Dutchman is significantly better equipped to drive through change than Moyes. History suggests they have chosen well, but not without risk.

Yet, van Gaal will not begin his new job on the backfoot. In Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Juan Mata, Shinji Kagawa and Adnan Januzaj the new manager is afforded a talented attacking quintet as good as any. United’s executive vice chairman Ed Woodward is charged with adding yet more to the talent on offer.

And there are few better than the Dutchman to fashion a new side. This man who is “confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative,” all at once.

His words. United will need all of them.


Gary Cullen - May 11, 2014 Reply

Outstanding coach. If you could hold up one man outside of Fergie for Manchester United #LVG is the man. #mufc

Jade - May 11, 2014 Reply

Oh no! I do hope Man United have made a good choice because van Gaal does seem like a big risk. It could come off good or it could just drive the club into a much deeper grave. A new CM, LB and DC and we could be back to winning ways. And if we could get rid of Rooney and Fellaini that would be even better. On to a new season. This last one was shite.

Denton Davey - May 12, 2014 Reply

“van Gaal has proven brilliant and destructive in not always equal measure”

He’ll need to be brilliant to transform the utter dross that was served up by TheLads this season – and that brilliance calls for “creative destruction” since the last remnants of UTD’s great 2008 CL winners are now being cast aside (finally, in the case of the defensive/midfield core).

Another destruction has to be the romantic bullshit surrounding “the United way” and the “class of 92”. And, to do that the new manager will need to red-circle SAF’s influence. We’ve heard a lot about the “treasure chest” that is going to be spent in this off-season but one has to wonder if Van Gaal still thinks he can win something with kids.

A third element that is going to be facing the new manager is the role of TheWayneBoy – we all have different opinions of his value-to-the-team but he is just too important and his importance has served to marginalize a lot of other players. Maybe it’s just forcing a square peg in to a round hole but it seems to me that the worst role for Rooney is #10. I’m in a minority but my opinion is that it’s time for him to take on (or be forced into ?) “TheScholesRole”, alongside a couple of new midfielders.

If you believe – as I do – that footie is a form of entertainment (not more important that life/death), then the roller-coaster high of May 2013 and the low of May 2014 creates a huge sense of excitement/anticipation about an unknown future. I’m looking forward to the ride.

Neil - May 12, 2014 Reply

Van Gaal seems to be the best manager (who is genuinely available) at this moment in time to come into this specific scenario at United, I don’t think there will be a fast start in the first 3 months of the new season because the players will take a bit of time to adapt to him… but after that I’m certain a Top 4 place is more than achievable. (Maybe even a title challenge if we make 3 good signings, and no I’m not joking).

I’m actually excited to see the group of players, many of whom are relatively young, led by Van Gaal who is a teacher/mentor/ type of manager. The younger lads will look up to him for all he has achieved, much as they looked up to Ferguson, and couldn’t to Moyes. I think we’ll see some players revitalised for sure.

Again though we will succeed or fail based on our new signings, for the past 2 windows we haven’t brought in the right players; even if Mata is top quality we desperately needed 2 new CMs in the past couple of windows. Fellaini as we know is not a United player.

A £27m bid for Luke Shaw is a step in the right direction but if we fail again to get the midfield right we will lose another season.

therealdeal - May 12, 2014 Reply

van Gaal is ndt the right choice.
We’ve got more problems with this man.
Need to bring in Roberto Marinez, then you will see real modern style football and real success, because the younger managers are bringing a new style to the game that’s why they are successful. Look at Liverpool, Juventos, Athletico Madrid and Bayern Munich. They all have young managers under the age of 44 years old and look at the attractive, attacking style football they play. Everton played some great stuff this season, just were unlucky to make the Champions League. We need a manager with new ideas, not an old fading van Gaal. Moyes failed because he bring this old style Scottish football and then he ran out of ideas. Martinez will become the next sought after manager in the very near future. Watch out for Everton next season!

sion - May 12, 2014 Reply

Forget fabregas and kroos they will be a waste of time and budget get Carvalho from Lisbon granit xhaka from Munich and Johannes geis from Mainz younger players Shaw from southampton timothee kidwolezich from Metz for left back.ginter and lovern for centre back.carlos mane and griezmann for the wings use mata and Kagawa behind van persie wellbeck or Hernandez with Lawrence and Wilson playing against lesser teams and cup games. Promote Powell Sanko lingard pettruci Thorpe Pearson sell machada Anderson young Rooney fellaini nani buttner lindergard Amos and Johnston can back up de gea

MJ - May 12, 2014 Reply

I’m wondering why United didn’t choose to appoint you….

Jag - May 12, 2014 Reply

dont worry mate he has won trophies he will with us but we minimum 4 new players

Shamoon Hafez - May 12, 2014 Reply

excellent read once again.

Andrew Higginson - May 12, 2014 Reply

brilliant read !

Nemesis - May 12, 2014 Reply

Strap yourselves in gents this could be a bumpy ride! One hopes the destination will be worth it. LVG Air my preferred airline!

geoff - May 15, 2014 Reply

Lets not forget that van Gaal is not even our manager. Especially in the shambolic manner in which the glazers & edwoordard have been running the club since fergy & Gill left.

The glazers as financial vampires know nothing about football & will be looking for the cheapest option of a manager.

Lets be careful with the rumours. The weeks are passing by & the world cup is coming where all our focus will be. We haven’t signed any player & the rumours on the papers are being sponsored by betting & gambling companies who make a kill out of speculating. Don’t believe the Luke shaw hype. hazard & Moura were closest to “joining ” man united until we realized that these were just speculations.

Van Gaal is a man who highy regards himself & would not entertain such kind of “wait & see” attitude of the glazers. He might even take the spurs job over man united’s if he doesn’t feel he’s respected by man united negotiating teams. He’s not the kind of manager who just take a club because of its status.

Lets start talking about Van gaal when he signs the dotted line on the paper. Until then am watching the build up to the world cup. I have seen enough of our club embarrassing itself to the whole world.

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