Under California sun, Louis van Gaal gets Manchester United to work: ‘Want to learn my players’

Gregg Patton arrives at Manchester United's travelling circus in Southern California, and finds a manager ready to start molding his squad.

Louis van Gaal will lead Manchester United in his first match as manager on Wednesday against LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer. Peter Powell / EPA
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PASADENA, CALIFORNIA // Just a few days into Louis Van Gaal’s latest high-profile job, the media are wasting no time exposing him to the lofty expectations at Manchester United.

Nor is the 62-year-old Dutchman wasting any time exposing the media to his own hardened approach.

“The pressure I put on myself is much bigger than what you can do,” Van Gaal said.

Match on.

His first week on the job has brought him to greater Los Angeles, where his club begin their preseason schedule Wednesday with a friendly against LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

His pre-match duties included a 15-minute press conference Tuesday in which he answered a variety of questions from a group of around 40 reporters, and several dozen photographers and television cameras.

This part of the world – best known for a century-old college American football game and a New Year’s Day parade – may be tepid in its appreciation for Van Gaal’s sport, but the heat surrounding Old Trafford has followed him here, anyway.

No matter that he is still introducing himself to his players. Already he is being asked about transfers to fill holes, whether Javier Hernandez, a late addition to the travelling party, will stick with the team, and if the club will keep to a philosophy of developing young talent.

Mostly Van Gaal asked for time.

“At this moment, I can’t say anything about that,” he said when asked what areas he was pinpointing in the pursuit of more players. “I want to learn my players. I want to see how they perform.

“I want all the players to have a chance to show themselves.”

United operate in a high-pressure environment anyway, but this year the squeeze is a bit tighter. A humbling seventh-place finish, their worst in 25 years, in the English Premier League, which left them out of the Champions League, cost Van Gaal’s predecessor, David Moyes, his position after a mere 10 months.

Humility may be a heavenly virtue, but United want no part of it. Mediocrity is not an option at arguably the world’s most recognised sports team, backed by a huge financial operation that recently added Adidas and Chevrolet as major sponsors.

Van Gaal will be expected to clean up the mess quickly. His credentials, of course, are impressive: two stints with Barcelona, another with Bayern Munich, twice the manager of the Netherlands, who finished third at Brazil 2014 earlier this month.

The media, in general, may be approving of his hire, but they will watch him through a microscope as he deals with everything from the team’s performance to his ability to handle United’s travelling circus.

As newly signed Luke Shaw, the 19-year-old left-back, said Tuesday, “When I first turned up at Manchester United, everyone told me how big it is. But until you tour, you don’t understand just how big the fan base is. It’s crazy.”

Van Gaal already seems miffed at United’s pre-season schedule in the United States, which includes at least three more games in the International Champions Cup against Roma (in Denver on Saturday), Inter Milan (in Maryland next Tuesday) and Real Madrid (in Michigan on August 2). If they win their group, that means a final game, in Miami on August 4. Or put another way, United could have five matches in 13 days, broken up by four flights covering more than 6,300 kilometres – and not including the two leaps over the Atlantic.

“When you have a lot of commercial obligations, you have to fly a lot, you have jet lag,” he said. “This is not good for preparations. But Manchester United will do everything to adapt to my rules.”

Including, apparently, agreeing to a less demanding pre-season schedule next summer.

“They have already said that to me,” said Van Gaal. “I am confident the tour will be shorter.”

His immediate concern, of course, is whipping a team into shape in four weeks. His back line has lost three veteran players (captain Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand) in the off-season, from a side that in 2013/14 often lacked defensive organisation.

Despite the club’s ability to purchase pieces as Van Gaal sees fit, the new manager claims it isn’t as easy as opening up the check book.

“There are a lot of clubs capable of playing at a high level,” he said. “The financial situation – the teams in the Premier League have a much better chance to buy players. It is much more difficult than in the Netherlands or in Germany where not many clubs can give out the money.”

Not that the Old Trafford community, nor the travelling media, will care what the difficulty is. Only that Van Gaal pushes this weighty franchise back to the top.


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