Thoughts on Louis Van Gaal as Manchester United manager

My interest in football came too late to appreciate Louis Van Gaal’s success with the Champions League-winning Ajax team of the mid-90s in real time. Instead, it was his 3 year stint between 1997 and 2000 at Barcelona that introduced to me this most enigmatic of coaches. His time at Barca is a curious one. Van Gaal won league titles in his first two seasons, but during those seasons Barcelona were eliminated in the group stages of the Champions League; in 1999-2000, his last, Barca reached the semis in CL, but relinquished the league title to Deportivo La Coruna. But in that season, Barcelona had a truly monstrous squad and put on some frighteningly good performances in Europe. With the Dutch contingent who were bought the previous season having bedded in, Van Gaal could field a first eleven whose quality was off the charts: Patrick Kluivert, Rivaldo and Luis Figo up front, with a midfield of Luis Enrique, Phillip Cocu and Josep Guardiola, and a defence comprising Frank de Boer, Abelardo, Michael Reiziger and Sergi. Only the goalkeeper, Ruud Hesp, was a weak link, while the fact that Jari Litmanen, Ronald de Boer, Winston Bogarde and Simao had to spend significant time on the bench was a source of frustration both for themselves as well as neutral fans. In the Champions League, Barcelona not so much dominated opponents as utterly overwhelmed them. A very good Fiorentina side with Gabriel Batistuta and Rui Costa were swatted away at the Camp Nou 4-2, Arsenal were manhandled at home in Thierry Henry’s debut season, and Porto led by Mario Jardel were defeated 6-2 aggregate. Most memorably, Chelsea were brutally hammered in the Camp Nou 5-1 after daring to win 3-1 at Stamford Bridge. That game is notable for the way Barca scored almost at will, Chelsea bewildered and ultimately broken. 

In what is something of a running motif for Van Gaal’s teams, however, there was something not quite right about this Barcelona. As can be gleaned from the above score lines, they conceded too many goals. They only played to their awesome potential in fits and starts. Rivaldo, the world’s best player at the time, strafed against Van Gaal’s desire to put him on the left of the front 3. Even for a club renowned for its internationalism, there were too many Dutch players in the squad. It all came to a head in the 1st leg of the semi-finals of the Champions League, when Barca were destroyed 4-1 by a talented and disciplined Valencia team, themselves full of great players like Gaizka Mendieta, Claudio Lopez, Kily Gonzalez, Gerard and Francisco Farinos. It played out much like the Chelsea tie, except in the return leg Barca could not find a way back to make up the deficit. They had clearly the best team in Europe, and the highest ceiling of any of the semi-finalists, yet they crashed out ignominiously, unable to build a legacy that was there for the taking.

Van Gaal left in the aftermath of the second place league finish, to take up reins at the Holland national team. Here, another hugely talented team could not fulfil its promise. Van Gaal failed to get a collection of world class players like Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Mark Van Bommel, Jaap Stam, Marc Overmars and Edwin Van der Sar as well as the de Boers and Kluivert – many of whom were approaching the twilight phase of their peaks – to qualify ahead of Portugal and Ireland for the 2002 World Cup. He departed for an ill-fated 5-month return to Barcelona that left the club hovering above the relegation places. A confusing and thoroughly contentious spell as a technical director at Ajax ended abruptly in 2004, and Van Gaal’s future as a top-level manager looked bleak.

It was at AZ Alkmaar that Van Gaal rehabilitated his reputation, although even there it wasn’t without controversies and disappointments. Most notably, a run of bad results saw Van Gaal handing in his resignation in 2008, before a player-led show of support saw a retraction. He ultimately managed a redemptive league title the following year, which was only the second in the club’s history.

This paved the way to his appointment by Bayern Munich, a giant in the throes of self-doubt and insecurity following a disastrous attempt at reinvention with Jurgen Klinsmann. Here, Van Gaal was afforded that most obscure of qualities in European football: the Bayern board’s patience. He promoted several youngsters, found new roles for established stars, and turfed out big-time charlies. Such a clearing of the deck usually takes time, but within his debut season Van Gaal turned things around so dramatically that he went from being suspected of an early sack to within whiskers of a treble, only prevented by Inter Milan’s victory in the Champions League final. More importantly, he laid the foundations for Bayern’s subsequent emergence as the best team in Europe. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s new role as a holding midfielder and the championing of emerging talents like Thomas Muller, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber are still paying the dividends for the club. Of deeper significance is that Van Gaal moved Bayern away from the functional, organised automatons towards a more fluid passing model, a change that the club had tried to effect with Klinsmann but failed. By no means Van Gaal should be given the full credit for Bayern’s dominance today under Pep Guardiola, but the installation of that new philosophy was a crucial moment for them. Bayern went through 3 managers in 5 seasons to try and solve their increasing stagnation in Europe, and frustration was widespread in Bavaria at the difficulties they faced in finding the right formula. Van Gaal, with a mixture of accident and design, provided it, and his sacking before the end of his second season doesn’t overshadow that fact.

Van Gaal’s record, compared to his outsized reputation, isn’t quite as unreservedly successful. He made his name with Ajax, where he won 3 league titles in a row as well as that famed Champions League victory, but the last of those trophies came almost 2 decades ago. Since then, it’s 4 league wins and no European triumphs in 3 different countries over a 17-year period, not all of them spent in club management. It’s a very good record, but not quite at the level of the current uber-coaches like Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola. When you add in other factors like stability and European record, you could make an argument that he falls behind Ottmar Hitzfeld and Carlo Ancelotti. What keeps Van Gaal in the discussion for every major post in Europe, however, isn’t the number of trophy wins or his durability, but rather what he represents as a proponent of a certain footballing philosophy. He is valued – and dismissed – for his unyielding belief in the primacy of the coach, his remorseless war against interference from above and bullshit from the media, and the insistence that he needs the players to buy into his philosophy. That philosophy, based on the Dutch approach of controlling space and possession but shorn of its romanticism, is less of an ideology as is the case with Cruyff and Guardiola, and more of a technocratic belief in finding the most efficient means of dominating a match. It requires the performance of more specific roles than usual from players and the establishment of more lines of formation than the average. This is perhaps why Van Gaal has had notable success with more malleable players such as at Ajax and the 2009 Bayern. When his philosophy works, as it did at times with Barcelona, the results can be truly impressive, a chillingly effective interpretation of total football, without the obsessive sideways passing. The problem, though, is that with Van Gaal there hasn’t been a consistent period where it has worked, and I suspect that this is down to more than just circumstance, that his abrasive personality often betrays Van Gaal from establishing a more lasting legacy.

So where does that put him with regards to his mooted appointment at Manchester United? Should he get the job, Van Gaal will face a situation not too dissimilar to the one he had with Bayern 5 years ago: a club lacking in confidence, requiring a major clear out of the playing staff, seeking to move on from a glorious, suffocating past. Like at Bayern, he will be replacing a hugely unpopular manager who probably should not have been appointed in the first place, and so will be afforded considerable patience and goodwill. Unlike Bayern, where the three-headed and very mouthy hydra of Uli Hoeness, Franz Beckenbauer and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge could – and did – at any moment undermine the manager, at United Van Gaal will find a much quieter and reserved upper echelon. Contrary to belief this season, Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton’s biggest crimes were simply attending matches, while the Glazers and Ed Woodward usually stay behind the scenes. The only question is how Van Gaal will get on with the class of ’92, but United’s desperation is such that it’s not hard to imagine the new manager being given the benefit of the doubt. In short, United and Van Gaal are going to be a pretty good fit. I think there’s going to be meaningful rehabilitation of the club, both in the way they play, and the mentality that will once again demand excellence. His personality is the polar opposite of the stuffy and charisma-free David Moyes: there are many stories, from pushing a young Gerard Pique to the ground to dropping his trousers in the Bayern dressing room, but another good example is this karate kick he delivered on the sidelines to remonstrate against Marcel Desailly’s high foot in the 1995 CL final. Given the way Van Gaal has operated throughout his career, I don’t expect his United stint to be particularly long. But as long as the expectation is that he will stay for 3 seasons or so and get the club back on the right track with the right players trained on his formidable footballing philosophy, there shouldn’t be too many disappointments. At the very least, we will see some wonderfully caustic press conferences.

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