With the pressure that owners, boards of directors and fans seem to put on their managers in modern football growing year by year, managerial cycles seem to become shorter and shorter. Consequently, it’s now harder to become a so-called managerial heavyweight: a manager who instils respect and awe – mixed with a mild dose of fear – when someone as much as mentions their name; someone, in short, like Louis van Gaal.
Van Gaal started in his career at Ajax in the Netherlands in the early 1990s. His Ajax side achieved world fame in 1995, when the Amsterdam based outfit won the Champions League with a squad comprising mainly of youth academy graduates and other technically gifted players, cleverly bought for relatively low transfer fees. In 1996, Van Gaal’s Ajax reached the final of the Champions League again. This time they lost after penalties against Juventus.
His achievements at Ajax did not go unnoticed though, and in 1997, Van Gaal joined Spanish side Barcelona after his contract with Ajax had run down. There, he would go on to win two league titles and the Copa del Rey.
In 2000, Van Gaal became manager of the Dutch national team, but when the Netherlands failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002, he resigned. Luckily, Barcelona took him back. Unluckily, Van Gaal’s second stint in Spain was much less successful than his first. He didn’t even finish the season.
This was a delicate moment in Van Gaal’s career. In a way, it was make or break. Yes, he had been successful at Ajax, and miraculously, he had won the Champions League. Yes, he had had some success at Barcelona. But he had failed as an international manager, and he had failed when the Spanish giants had taken him back. All in all, Van Gaal’s place on the managerial spectrum wasn’t quite clear.
It would take until 2009, when Van Gaal returned to the international spotlight after a period of time spent in relative anonymity, until football got its answer. Van Gaal had won the Dutch title with relatively small club AZ Alkmaar – no easy in feat in a league historically dominated by the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven – and was now in charge of one of the biggest clubs in the world: German giants Bayern Munich.
Van Gaal’s Bayern side won the German title and reached the final of the Champions League in 2010. Later, in 2013, when Bayern Munich won Europe’s biggest prize under the leadership of Van Gaal’s successor Jupp Heynckes, the Dutch manager would claim that it was him who had laid the foundations of Bayern’s future success. While this remark might sound arrogant and pompous, it is also true in many ways. Many aspects of the style of play employed by Bayern were inspired by Van Gaal’s trademark ‘philosophy’ – the attacking tactics inspired by the Dutch ‘Total Football’ employed by Johan Cruyff and his colleagues in the 1970s.
In fact, the same could be said about Barcelona, whose former manager Pep Guardiola was coached by Van Gaal when he was still a player at the Spanish side. Guardiola, who now manages Bayern Munich, would at one point revolutionise football management and football tactics, but he learned the trade from Van Gaal in the late 1990s, when he was already thinking about his future career. And it wasn’t just Guardiola who Van Gaal mentored during his time at Barcelona. Current Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho – then just promoted from the position of club translator – was Van Gaal’s assistant.By now, Van Gaal has removed all doubts: he is not some pretender who managed to do what he has done merely because luck was on his side. He is one of those rare giants of the game. A quick look at some of Europe’s top sides will prove that. Thus, any club able to employ Louis van Gaal should count themselves fortunate to do so. And in the case of Manchester United, this fortune seems to go both ways, as the Dutch legend recently stated in an interview that he regards Manchester United as ‘the biggest club in the world’.
Not too long ago, Van Gaal announced he had two ambitions left. He wanted to manage a team during a World Cup, and he wanted to manage a team in the Premier League. His first ambition has been fulfilled. United are able to offer Van Gaal chance to fulfil his second ambition. And as we know now, United could do worse. Louis van Gaal is a managerial heavyweight.
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