In Louis van Gaal, United have a bold, brash anti-Moyes

Ian Hawkey revisits the ground previous trod by Louis van Gaal and finds a man who will take over at Manchester United and impose his uncompromising, attack-minded will on the club.
Louis van Gaal was named Manchester United's new manager on Monday. Above, he is shown coaching the Netherlands against Ecuador on Saturday. Charlie Crowhurst / Getty Images / May 17, 2014
Louis van Gaal was named Manchester United's new manager on Monday. Above, he is shown coaching the Netherlands against Ecuador on Saturday. Charlie Crowhurst / Getty Images / May 17, 2014

The last time Louis Van Gaal sat at a podium facing as large a global audience as he will when he speaks at his Manchester United unveiling was four years ago.

He was manager of Bayern Munich then and his duty was to talk on behalf of the silver medallists after the most watched game of the club football calendar.

Suffice to say the defeat in the 2010 Champions League final hurt.

As he was hustled into the post-match press conference, a range of emotions were vividly displayed. Among them, more than a hint of sanctimony.

Van Gaal dutifully conceded the winners that evening – Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan – had “deserved” their 2-0 victory, but insisted his Bayern had set about their task with a greater emphasis on the need to entertain than Inter and been braver because they espoused an adventurous style.

“It is easier for Mourinho to win playing the style he does,” Van Gaal said. “We chose a different style, which is the style I believe the game should be played in.”

Van Gaal was quite animated on the topic, his face flushed, his delivery staccato. The effect when he is in that sort of mood – describing his work in black-and-white, good-versus-bad terms – can be to make him sound as if he is hectoring.

As a man-manager, that is not the whole picture of his approach. But he can seem lordly – he believes strongly in his own authority and ardently in a certain form of football.

If United seek a quick antidote to the perceived caution of David Moyes as a tactician and strategist, Van Gaal, the lover of swashbuckling, offensive football, fits the bill.

The downside, according to Philipp Lahm, one of his major on-the-field lieutenants at Bayern was that “in his second season at Bayern he refused to take on board or address the shortcomings of his playing philosophy”.

“He deserves credit for setting Bayern up in a way that was extremely successful for a season [2009/10, when they won a domestic double and reached that European final against Inter]. But after that, it became my duty as captain to tell him that with his purely attacking ideas, we would not meet our targets.”

So wrote Lahm in his autobiography, published after Van Gaal had lost his job at Bayern, as they failed to reach their 2011 targets. That was Van Gaal’s last post in club football.

Lahm may be an unusually forthright footballer but is not alone for detecting in Van Gaal a dogmatic stubbornness.

Xavi Hernandez, the captain of Barcelona, who was promoted into the first team as a teenager by Van Gaal in the late 1990s, later said of him: “He was demanding, believed in regular evaluations and giving players points and marks.

“At times, he was too demanding, so that it could become counter productive, but he was a great coach, professional, hard-working, honest and always straight with people.

“If he lacked a bit of tact, sometimes, that was part of his all-round character.”

Xavi has much to thank Van Gaal for, including his commitment to creative, passing football and his faith in youth.

“Van Gaal always had great faith in young players,” Xavi said, “and he made sure he knew all about what was happening in the youth teams.”

Xavi remembers the Dutchman’s passion, too, shown one night when Van Gaal took time off from supervising the first team to watch the Barca B side play away at Castilla, Real Madrid’s feeder team.

The match was in the Bernabeu stadium and Van Gaal, in the VIP seats but acting as if he were in the technical area, responded so loudly and excitedly when Barca B scored that the Real Madrid president left his seat, fuming, before the final whistle.

That was a Van Gaal still in his 40s. The 62-year-old version has not lost his spontaneity, though.

His utterances and responses to high-pressure situations will make plenty of headlines at United. He will animate the Premier League and probably antagonise some people within it.

But Van Gaal sceptics, just like Lahm, are obliged to acknowledge the serial successes that have punctuated his career.

The results in his current assignment in charge of the Netherlands, have so far been close to impeccable.

No national team set about qualifying for the World Cup as emphatically as the Netherlands Van Gaal took charge of after a disappointing Euro 2012.

They dropped only two points from their group, scored at almost 3.5 goals-per-game and let in only five in their 10 games.

The Netherlands is a job at which Van Gaal had previously registered a flop – a rare one for him – when they failed to reach the 2002 World Cup finals under his guidance.

That the Dutch Football Federation invited him back, tells of one employer’s faith in the man’s substance and his dogmas.

It is not an isolated occurrence, either. He had two spells at Barcelona, the first, two seasons up to 2000, brought more success than the second, a daunting salvage mission two years later.

At Barcelona, he left an important legacy for that club’s revival in the mid-Noughties, and their supremacy after that.

Van Gaal tends to be widely remembered for a radical recruitment drive at Barcelona – he bought into Camp Nou, almost wholesale, seven footballers directly from his previous Ajax squad – and less for the influence he had on players who would define the club, longer term.

Van Gaal backed and promoted a pale-faced, wiry teenager named Andres Iniesta, and pushed Xavi up the ranks.

He backed a young Victor Valdes, in spite of some prickly moments in their relationship, as the keeper-sweeper Barca’s attacking vision required as a goalie.

At Ajax, he had brought through the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert and the De Boer brothers.

At Bayern he would back and elevate the youthful Thomas Muller and David Alaba, and gave Bastian Schweinsteiger a new lease of life when he reinvented him from winger to central midfield general.

For aspiring United talents, such as Adnan Januzaj and Danny Welbeck, Van Gaal should be a stimulating guide. For the entire dressing-room, he will mean plenty of hard work.

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Published: May 19, 2014 04:00 AM


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