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.