Is Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal an arrogant man? Probably. When playing for the Ajax reserves, the Amsterdam-born midfielder claimed that he deserved a chance in the first team, as he was better than the star man occupying the striker position – Johan Cruyff.
While Louis van Gaal never emulated Cruyff as a footballer, he has been similarly successful as a manager. After being offered the chance to manage Ajax in 1991, he led the club to three league titles, two Champions League finals (one of which they won) and a UEFA Cup among other prizes. Van Gaal was lucky to have a good squad at his disposal, but he showed vision and persuasion by turning attacking wingers Michael Reiziger and Winston Bogarde into two of the finest full-backs the Netherlands have seen.
In general, moulding teams and players at will has been a strong point of Van Gaal. After his success with Ajax, he joined Barcelona and promptly delivered the Catalan club their first league title in four years. Under Van Gaal, Xavi made his debut and Rivaldo became World Player of the year, but the disciplined manager fell out with Rivaldo over the Brazilian’s role. Whereas Van Gaal’s tactical nous was undisputed, it was his management of football superstars that came under scrutiny. After two titles and a second place, Van Gaal was relieved of his duties.
After nine years of almost continuous success, he was appointed Netherlands national team manager. It was supposed to be a career highlight, but it turned out as the irrefutable black page of Van Gaal’s career. After a disastrous start to the qualifying campaign for the World Cup 2002, drawing at home with Ireland and losing to Portugal, the Netherlands then slumped to a 1-0 defeat against Ireland, sealing the Dutch’s only omission from a World Cup or European Championship since 1986. Later, several senior players would admit that Van Gaal’s regime as national manager was just too intense for a group of players that had basically seen it all, illustrating the intensity of working with an all-demanding manager like him.
With Van Gaal leaving the national team in 2002 and rumours of Ferguson retiring after 2001/02, the first suggestions of the Dutchman joining Manchester United started, drawing Algemeen Dagblad into coming out with an exclusive. Their story of the coach joining United turned out to be 12 years premature.
After adventures that didn’t fare too well, with a stint at Barcelona not proving as successful second time round, Van Gaal sought redemption at AZ, one of his former clubs as a player. He turned a club that had raised a few eyebrows in Europe into title contenders. Whereas he had struggled with the diva-like behaviour of several players at both Oranje and Barcelona, he found a young group eager to learn. When things turned to the worst in his third season, Louis announced to the squad he planned to resign, but was won over by his players who stated they would do everything to keep him as their manager. And so it proved. A league title in 2009/10 ensured Van Gaal could continue his tradition of winning the league at every club he had managed.
Bayern Munich was his next destination. And as he had done with his previous three clubs, he delivered a league title and brought through youngsters. While he found his next Rivaldo in Franck Ribery, he also managed to bring through players like David Alaba, Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber. The first season of a strict regime proved a grand success, with a league and cup double, followed up by a Champions League final.
If there’s one thing driving the 62-year-old, it is a continuous will to prove that he is one of the greatest managerial minds in world football and he has a reputation to back that up. And even though Van Gaal favours a system with three attackers and is generally seen as a stubborn man, he has been tactically apt to change a system to get the best out of his squad if necessary.
Apart from his fall-outs with a few high-profile superstars (Rivaldo, Ribery, Toni) he has often inspired and improved his players.
Virtually the whole Ajax team was a collection of Ajax academy graduates and bargains picked up somewhere else.
At Barcelona he saw the talent of 21-year-old Puyol, Xavi and later Iniesta.
At AZ he identified the talents of Jeremain Lens and brought in the likes of Moussa Dembele, Hector Moreno and Sergio Romero. All four are likely to go the World Cup this summer.
And with Bayern, rather than using the high profile signings Van Gaal was given, he opted to bring through youth players such as Muller, Badstuber and Alaba to fit his system. Perhaps the most obvious change was turning Bastian Schweinsteiger from a winger into one of the best central midfielders in the world.
Looking at Manchester United, it can be expected that Van Gaal will first go through the youth system, searching for players that can execute his ideas on football.
At Oranje, he sees Robin van Persie, Kevin Strootman and Arjen Robben as the three main pieces and with the former already available, it is likely that he will turn to Man United’s number 20 to be the leader in the dressing room.
Given that Strootman and Robben are both reported to have a weak spot for United, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Van Gaal try to complete his current Orange triumvirate.
As the title-winning manager of Ajax, he told the Dutch public that his team were not only the best of Amsterdam, but also of Rotterdam and Eindhoven. Later, he told a German crowd that Bayern were the best, not only in Munich, but also the rival cities of Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen. Van Gaal is now looking to tell the English that the superior team in Manchester, London and Liverpool goes by the name of Manchester United.
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