There’s no bigger challenge in football than succeeding Sir Alex Ferguson. Knowing Louis van Gaal, it’s one he will relish. Like the great Scot, he’s a serial winner: treating triumph and disaster as the same.
A title winner at each of his four previous clubs he is the most decorated Dutch manager in history. If one word could describe him – and there are plenty – it’s ‘fundamentalist’. His coaching philosophy, as far as he’s concerned, is the right approach. You know what you’re getting. “I am who I am; confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative,” the Amsterdam native once declared.
For a club in transition, which United are, there’s no one better to steer the ship. His greatest strength remains team-building: rejuvenating squads and implementing his ethos in the process.
Van Gaal, according to Felix Magath – predecessor at Bayern Munich – “laid the foundations” which Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola subsequently built from. He can do the same at the 20-time English champions, whilst preserving their identity forged by Ferguson, as they move forward.
As a coach his approach is militaristic. Dennis Bergkamp, who played under him at Ajax, now coaching at the club, remembered a “sacred system”. But his approach is more than a system; it’s an emphasis on collective responsibility (‘collectief’ is his favourite Dutch word) and mutual understanding, enabling the growth of the unit.
Attacking football is a moral obligation. His real obsession is domination of the ball (circulation football): passing endlessly until space is found to punish the opposition, a trait he picked up from his idol Rinus Michels.
Van Gaal takes great pride in his method has even published a book: Biografie & Visie. “I want my teams remembered for how they played,” he writes. He’s utilised varieties of every formation from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 to 3-3-1-3, yet his commitment for playing possession oriented attack-minded football has remained constant.
His doctrine been successfully adopted by Guardiola, who described his revolutionary 1995 European Cup winning Ajax side – dubbed “football Utopia” by former Real Madrid manager Jorge Valdano – as ‘a reference’.
Marcelo Bielsa is another staunch admirer. “I’m a big fan of his,” he confessed. “His philosophy when executed properly, is winning football, and is great for the fans, which is what we should all aspire to accomplish.” José Mourinho credits the Dutchmen in shaping his own philosophy: “He taught me the trade.”
Another plus for United fans is that he will safeguard the club’s tradition of promoting youngsters. His knack of getting the best out of players, regardless of ability, places him above most of his contemporaries. He spotted the potential of Thomas Müller and handed professional debuts to teenagers Clarence Seedorf, David Alaba and Andrés Iniesta, as well as successfully converting Bastian Schweinsteiger into a defensive midfielder.
“He’s probably the most important and the best coach I ever had,” Ajax manager Frank de Boer, his protégé, told L’Equipe on the eve of the Oranje’s World Cup semi-final against Brazil in 1998. Fifteen years on and the answer remains the same.
Xavi, who was brought through from La Masia by Van Gaal, once described him as a father figure. “I owe much to him. Sometimes he even preferred me over Guardiola, and I was only 18. That’s quite a bit. Van Gaal is a formidable guy.” He sure is.
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