Truth be told, David Moyes never really looked like a Manchester United manager. Apart from the fact that he had the backing of football’s greatest manager, or in his early days atleast, Moyes had nothing going for him at United. Miserably out of place and embarrassingly out of his depth. On the other hand, Louis van Gaal, one of the well-traveled elite of European management, represents a stark contrast to the thankful Moyes – the Dutchman walks into Old Trafford with a proven track record and if at all, van Gaal would feel that is is United who are privileged to acquire his services.
Louis van Gaal represents a more sensible succession than the sentimental appointment of David Moyes that United owed to Sir Alex. David Moyes stepping into the Old Trafford hot-seat vacated by Sir Alex Ferguson was one of those badly judged and emotional continuity appointments that made great tabloid reading, but little footballing logic. Indeed, it was laudable that United put their faith in a man who had earned his spurs with Everton, but a proven European pedigree backed by an impressive cabinet of silverware triumphs over trophyless continuity with the promise of being there for the long haul. United are too big a club to wait for someone to sort his footballing ideologies out, and indeed, too big a club to tolerate more than a season out of European football’s biggest competition.
Here is a man who isn’t going to shy away from putting himself about at Old Trafford. A strict disciplinarian, van Gaal expects nothing but complete cooperation from his players. Last season, there were examples of players partying into the wee hours of the morning, including the much publicized pictures of Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck drunk in Manchester City centre. Moyes’ good guy nature didn’t help his cause at United. In January when Moyes took his team to Dubai for a week long warm weather training break, he allowed the players a night out. Some players rewarded the manager by returning in the early hours, waking other guests. Then there was Shinji Kagawa, who didn’t seem to care as he kept the team waiting by being late for the flight to Munich and had to be fast-tracked through security, with a smirk on his face. Van Gaal is notorious for being a hard taskmaster and the United players know, or will figure out soon, not to push him.
A Strict Disciplinarian
One anecdote from his time at Bayern Munich reveals how van Gaal insisted on two major protocols at team meals – players must eat in the same space every day and while doing so, they must sit up straight. One man who clearly didn’t seem to care was former Fiorentina striker Luca Toni. Apparently, one day when van Gaal saw Luca Toni slouching in his seat at lunch, he began to shout across the canteen. When his thunderous voice failed to grab Luca Toni’s attention, the Dutchman grabbed the centre forward by the collar and pulled him up his seat before walking back to his meal in silence. Not a word was spoken. Nobody dared to slouch after that.
Luca Toni’s Bayern career was over before the turn of the year. But don’t be under the impression that Van Gaal is this supreme dictator-like figure who thinks he is bigger than the club. Apparently, he pulled down his trousers during a team meeting at Bayern just to put his point across. There are plenty of other such stories of not just pants-dropping awkward moments, but the more refined domestic details.
As staunch a disciplinarian as he is, Van Gaal does know how to treat each and every player and what the player expects from him. He was unmoved in his view that all players must get in line and that nobody is bigger than the team. He didn’t expect an Arjen Robben or a Franck Ribery to behave like schoolkids answering to the headmaster, but the basic ground rules applied to all. Highly demanding maybe, but van Gaal succeeds in building an atmosphere of mutual trust and understanding in the group of players. So, don’t expect a Robin van Persie to whine in a post-match interview, that his teammates are occupying his space on the football pitch and negating his effect. Van Gaal wants to know about his players’ lives and believes that a player cannot give his best on the football pitch if his mind is not in the right place. So, with his obsessions of extreme discipline, comes a desire to ensure a group of players bent on contributing to the framework of collective work.
The Footballing Philosophy
In terms of footballing philosophy, van Gaal has his own way of going about things. Some managers would look at the players at his disposal and create a tactical system around it. But not van Gaal. His teams have always lined up with the same system, an attacking and free-flowing 4-3-3 with clearly defined roles for each individual. And while managers would react to the opponent’s tactics and twitch their style, van Gaal has always been consistent with his footballing philosophy, instead arguing that is the opponents who must react to his team and tactics. Call it arrogance, call in confidence – his trophy cabinet makes a strong enough case for van Gaal.
The players will need to adapt. In his second spell at Barcelona, van Gaal fell out with Rivaldo while Franck Ribery confessed he was traumatized by the 62-year old Dutchman in his early days at Bayern, when he flirted with a 4-3-1-2 with Ribery playing in the hole. From a tactical standpoint, Van Gaal perhaps offers the best of both Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola, a genuine Ajax aficionado with a fetish for defensive discipline. Louis van Gaal’s teams are known to attack, but there is a method to it all. This, itself, makes van Gaal look less like a stopgap or someone to stabilize the ship, but someone to give United a much needed sense of direction in the post-Fergie era, and above all, clearly define how this team wants to play.
While some managers splurge the cash in the transfer markets on players who are hot properties in the world of football, van Gaal must be convinced that a certain player will fit into his team. As part of his philosophy, the outgoing Dutch manager has developed certain “profiles” for each and every position in his system. The strikers must be capable of holding up the ball and bringing the attacking midfielders and the wide men into the game, while defenders, for example, must be comfortable in possession of the ball to build attacks from the back. Tony Kroos, for example, is someone David Moyes had in mind as an important piece of the jigsaw in what he wanted to build at United. Louis van Gaal, it seems, would rather prefer Kevin Strootman in the role of the midfield distributor, because he doesn’t consider Kroos mobile enough for that role. In the past, Pep Guardiola himself, and later Xavi and Bastain Schweinsteiger have donned the midfield maestro role at Barcelona and Bayern under Louis van Gaal. At Manchester United, the Dutchman is rumored to be looking to bring in the likes of Mats Hummels, Kevin Strootman and Cesc Fabregas, two players tailor-made for the van Gaal system.
Manchester United have always been a club who have never shied away from placing their faith in youth, and Louis van Gaal represents the ideal person to usher the club into a new era. While David Moyes vaguely flirted with the idea of giving the youngsters a chance, and an inconsistent run of results meant that the experiment in youth had to be shelved for another year, van Gaal is fearless in his promotion of talented youth. His time at Bayern may not have been a resounding success, having just a league title and a Champions League final defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Inter to show for his efforts, but he helped ease the likes of David Alaba, Thomas Müller, Holger Badstuber and Toni Kroos into the first team, key elements of Bayern’s subsequent successes under Heynckes and Guardiola.
At Barcelona, he gave Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Carles Puyol their big break in the first team. But the greatest advertisement of van Gaal as a manager was his success with Ajax in the mid 90’s, when he helped to revamp the structure of the academy, and oversaw the rise of the Golden generation – Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars. Edgar Davids and the de Boer twins. Van Gaal’s young Ajax side, with an average age of merely 23, beat the mighty Milan in the ’95 Champions league final with a winning goal from an 18-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert. This, simply this itself, even if he achieved nothing more, would have been enough to script van Gaal’s name in bold letters in the annals of football history.
In Adnan Januzaj, Nick Powell, James Wilson among many others, United have an impressive group of youngsters staking a strong claim for first team opportunities, and Louis van Gaal could undoubtedly mould these young guns into the foundations of a new dynasty at the Theatre of Dreams. Louis van Gaal is arrogant, confident, dominant and combustible in equal measure. From what his United team does on the football pitch, to how he reacts in his press conferences – having only recently threatened to explode into fumes at being asked a ‘stupid question’ by a BBC journalist (who asked him what he knew about United!) – Louis van Gaal’s three-year spell at United promises to be nothing short of exciting. van Gaal has already outlined that given United’s standing in the game, winning the Premier League must be the bare minimum he must strive to achieve next season. He does set high standards for himself, he almost inevitably lives up to them.
Welcome to Old Trafford, Louis van Gaal.