TO SOME, HE’S ONE OF THE BEST MANAGERS OF THE PAST TWO DECADES, willing to sacrifice style for substance and flair for formality. To others, he’s an unnerving disciplinarian, an expert at alienating his players and fans. Whatever side of the fence you fall, few will doubt that Louis van Gaal is one of the most pragmatic managers in the modern game.
On the face of it, it’s difficult to understand where the animosity comes from. After all, here we have a manager who has won seven domestic league titles in his managerial career, four European trophies, and guided an inexperienced Netherlands side to a third-place finish at the World Cup. Factor in a number of domestic cups and individual accolades and the case against Van Gaal appears frivolous.
Depending on who you ask, of course.
Dennis Bergkamp shrugged his shoulders. The date was 20 October 1991, and PSV faced-off against arch-rivals Ajax at the Philips Stadion. It was round five of the Eredivisie season and, after a bright start under new manager Van Gaal, Ajax were looking to upset the home party.
The free-flowing, adventurous football that had seen the Amsterdamers score 23 goals in their opening seven games was replaced with a methodical, balanced approach. The plan was clear: deny PSV the space to play and keep Romário out of the game. It was the first time under the Dutchman’s reign that Bergkamp had been asked to sit deeper and close the passing lanes. It was the first time that he had publicly shrugged his shoulders in frustration at Van Gaal’s demands.
The nature of Van Gaal’s management shifted seismically that day – and the future of Ajax changed beyond repair if you spoke to Johan Cruyff. Some say the beauty that Rinus Michels and Cruyff instilled during their fruitful – fateful even – periods in charge at the club was swatted away by the cold hands of the ‘Iron Tulip’.
Sure, that’s an exaggeration, but the extent of Van Gaal’s divisive long-term effects at de Godenzonen rumble on today. Bergkamp’s opinion on Van Gaal is clear. Perhaps his decision to leave Amsterdam for Milan in 1993, instigated of his own free will, was the first admission of disdain for Van Gaal’s coaching style. It would later come at length in his autobiography Stillness and Speed: “He would never admit it, but the football Van Gaal propagates is the football of Cruyff and Wenger. Only his methods are different. Cruyff’s coaching is based on how he was as a player: adventurous, spectacular and offensive. He doesn’t analyse as much, it’s more instinct and technique.
“Louis is didactic. He gives his players instructions to make the system work. And the system is sacred. All players are equal to Van Gaal, big names do not exist for him, and everyone is subordinate to the team and system, his system. Cruyff being a great player encouraged individualists because they can decide matches. He challenged them, others play in service of them. Van Gaal could not do that. It would also go against the team he is building.
“But what if you have ten mediocre painters and Rembrandt. Do you tell Rembrandt that he does not have to imagine, that he doesn’t represent more than the others? Or are you going to give him the feeling that he is special and let him display it, so he can produce his finest work?”
It’s a telling insight into the team-centric methods that Van Gaal imposes. There’s little doubt that his coaching style is different; Cruyff was free of spirit in training, focusing on small sided games, individual quality, technique, possession and pressure. Van Gaal’s methods were the paradigm of structure and shape. Perhaps this is why so many big-name players have found the Dutchman so tricky to play under.
Bergkamp suffered under the authoritarian style of Van Gaal, despite his impressive goal return of 122 in 237 Ajax games. His reservations regarding the management of his fellow countryman was nothing in comparison to the outright war that would later break out between Van Gaal and Rivaldo at Barcelona.
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After leaving Ajax with a 68.7 percent win ratio, it made him the most sought-after boss in Europe. He had guided the club to 11 major honours in just six years at the helm. That he had one of the greatest club sides in the history of the game, featuring a number of home-grown stars, is as undeniable as the trophies themselves. Some have said, naively and unfairly, that anything other than a Champions League success during those years, with that team, would’ve been considered an unmitigated failure. That opinion fails to consider the strength of Serie A at the time, the resurgence of Manchester United in England, and the ever-powerful Real Madrid and Barcelona duopoly in Spain.
At Barça, Johan Cruyff had been building for the future. His dominant work at the Blaugrana had seen the club lift the European Cup in 1992 and win four consecutive La Liga titles between 1991 and 1994. His success was unparalleled in the history of Barcelona.
Perhaps more importantly, his influence on La Cantera would shape the club for decades to come. Cruyff worked tirelessly on training programs that would develop the technical quality of players coming through the system, with a view to making the club more self-sufficient than it currently was. Further to the implementation of Dutch coaching methods, the club was to increase its scouting presence across Spain – particularly the Basque region – and Latin America, leading to a bloating of both the number of teams and the number of players in the academy. It was fantastic long-term thinking.
When Cruyff finally left the club in 1996 it was probably the right time to move on. He had set in motion a number of concepts – and refined other parts of the academy like staff recruitment and infrastructure – that would ultimately see one of his favourite disciples, Pep Guardiola, lead a team of predominantly home-grown, Barcelona-trained players to European dominance.
Conversely, when Van Gaal left Ajax, Cruyff, among others, bemoaned the shift in focus from totaalvoetbal-esque coaching to the regimented, structure-based training that would serve the players so well under a first team managed by Van Gaal. Cruyff, incensed by Van Gaal’s altering of his methods, was scathing in his attack: “We have bad chemistry. Personally, and in the way we see football. Training players his way prepares them for a life in an office, not on a football pitch.”
Youth training aside, it was Van Gaal’s treatment of the major stars at Barcelona that ultimately brought about his demise. Rivaldo was the notable example.
The Brazilian, widely considered to be one of the world’s best players, was unceremoniously benched after refusing to play on the wing as he believed it limited his impact in attack. He didn’t see the value in tracking back and covering the full-back, especially when Van Gaal wanted his teams to counter at pace. He would’ve been a passenger for much of the move. How times change; at Barcelona now, Lionel Messi is encouraged to stay in the attacking half at all times. Why would you negate the quality of such a talent? The same could be applied to Rivaldo.
It was to the dismay of the Catalan crowd that the Brazilian had been demoted. A World Player of the Year was sitting on the bench instead of entertaining the locals. Where Cruyff ultimately differed from Van Gaal – and where van Gaal is probably most deserving of the criticism he receives – is in his treatment of big stars.
Cruyff’s three most gifted players during his tenure at Camp Nou, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and Romário, were a handful to manage. Robert Prosinečki, who joined during Cruyff’s final season in charge, was equally so. But he managed to win and see his major stars influence results despite the occasional falling out and personal feud. Stubbornness rarely stood in the way of success and flair, and it never stood in the way of the football that fans loved to see.
Perhaps that’s why Van Gaal’s tenure at Barcelona, despite winning two league titles, draws such a mixture of opinion. A win ratio of 55 percent and the failure to lift the Champions League in 2000 – with arguably the best squad in the tournament – eventually put paid to his time at the club. It wasn’t good enough, and there were clear signs of rot setting in.
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Further to his treatment of Rivaldo, the lack of game time for Jari Litmanen, unquestionably one of the game’s most gifted strikers despite injuries, and previously his most influential performer at Ajax, was a cause for concern. Van Gaal summed up his reasoning – and gave a clear indication as to why his methods divide so many – when he said the following about the Finn: “Players count for nothing, the team is everything. I set more store by a player’s character than by his on-field qualities, and particularly whether he is willing to give everything to the cause. There are some incredibly talented players who haven’t got the character or the personality to suit my methods.”
Again, Van Gaal had failed to see the value in freedom for his most creative fulcrums. Where Cruyff would’ve seen goals, former saw an opportunity for the opposition to exploit space.
A tumultuous stint in charge of the Netherlands followed his spell at Barcelona, as he failed to guide Oranje to the 2002 World Cup. Arrogance, now-customary stubbornness, and a rigid team structure punctuated a forgettable time in charge of his beloved nation. A fierce patriot, it would’ve hurt. His arrogant statement that the Dutch were “much more talented than the Irish” ahead of a key game in qualification – that Holland ultimately lost – led many to question his methods. If sections of the Ajax and Barcelona support had been unsure about Van Gaal, by now a wave of scepticism had spread like a plague around Europe.
Van Gaal returned to management later in 2002; to the surprise of many, he took the vacant hot seat at Barcelona. A 30-game, largely forgettable stint saw him leave his post after just six months. Van Gaal was just not made for Barcelona.
After over two years out of the game, the family-orientated authoritarian, rejuvenated after time spent away from the game, returned to management at AZ Alkmaar. It was a club he knew well. His coaching career had started at the Alkmaarders as assistant manager in 1988.
For many, myself included, some of van Gaal’s best work – certainly most under-appreciated – was conducted at AZ. Guiding the club to second in 2006 and third in 2007 was a memorable achievement.
Being the big name in a principally small pond also reaped dividends for van Gaal. After starting the 2007/08 season in disappointing fashion and offering to resign, it was the players who came to the manager’s rescue by convincing the club to keep him at the helm. For the first time in Van Gaal’s career, there was a mass movement within the squad aimed at keeping him in charge and playing to his methods when the odds were stacked against him. There wasn’t division. Van Gaal, a former Ajax, Barcelona and Netherlands manager, was the big draw.
The faith in Van Gaal paid off when he led a team boasting the likes of Moussa Dembélé, Jeremain Lens, Ari, Graziano Pellè, Sergio Romero and Niklas Moisander to the title. With many expecting another mid-table finish to mirror that of the season before, he led his troops on an eight-month unbeaten league stretch to secure the title ahead of Twente and Ajax.
The best defensive record in the league was complimented by the goalscoring exploits of Mounir El Hamdaoui and Ari. It was vintage Van Gaal; the team was hard to break down and played on the counter. Where it’s important at big clubs to win with style and substance, at AZ it didn’t matter. Success needed to be tangible – it needed to be held aloft.
While Van Gaal once again failed to promote much talent from the youth ranks, his work in furthering the careers of Dembélé, Moisander, Romero, Lens and Pellè cannot be overstated. He took good players and set them a benchmark. He gave them targets and training goals that ultimately made them the perfect team fit. He moulded effective footballers, not superstars; exactly what each of those players are today.
It’s no surprise that the club failed to retain its title the following season. Despite Van Gaal leaving for Bayern Munich, it would’ve been a gargantuan effort to bring home the crown again. More importantly, Van Gaal’s work in raising the profile of the club’s better players worked wonders in bringing much-needed financial relief.
He established AZ as one of Holland’s premier clubs and reformed his own image, which had taken such a battering after his time in Spain and with the national team. Next up was a career-defining move to Bavaria.
“I have come to a dream club.” He had also brought Arjen Robben along for the ride. Despite his image as a manager who has failed to bring through talent at the teams he managed – with the exception of a once-in-a-generation crop at Ajax – it was incidentally Van Gaal who gave Robben his under-20 Netherlands debut.
Bayern Munich was meant to be a watershed moment in the career of the Dutchman. It started off dubiously at best, some sections of the Die Roten support calling for his head just one month into his tenure. Results were poor, and what looked like another Jürgen Klinsmann-esque appointment was soon to reach the table of Franz Beckenbauer.
Van Gaal insisted he is a prozesstrainer, someone who needs time for his methods to work. Who doesn’t? Managers need time, but in a game where the relationship between time and success is warped, Van Gaal was staring down the barrel of a loaded gun. For the first time, he needed to change his style.
It was at the Allianz, under Van Gaal, that the likes of Holger Badstuber and Thomas Müller were promoted to become first team regulars. Most intelligently he moved Bastian Schweinsteiger from the wing to central midfield. It was all aimed at returning the “Bayern core” to the team, as van Gaal put it.
Müller was the ideal forward for the Dutchman; hard working from the flank or down the middle, ready to put the team first and sacrifice his own game for the greater good. His introduction was timely. Yet again, Van Gaal had fallen out with a big star. This time, Luca Toni, effective in the box and rarely anywhere else, was the target of his ire. Toni offered little in the build-up to moves, was ineffectual on the counter, and could not exploit space behind the opponents. In an ever-open Bundesliga, Van Gaal wanted to combine structure with exploitation behind the opposition. Toni would have to be sacrificed, much to the frustration of the fans.
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Despite the axing of Toni, the club went on to lift the Bundesliga title in 2010. It was the perfect start for Van Gaal, who become the first Dutchman to win the German title as manager. Van Gaal’s ultimate judgement, though, would come in Europe – something not lost on the man who sat under the looming shadow of former greats in the boardroom.
Finishing second in their group, behind Bordeaux, was just enough to edge through. The dominance that the fans expected was far from evident, but the Bavarians were still expected to challenge for the crown. Defeating Fiorentina, Manchester United and Lyon set up a final encounter against Van Gaal’s old protégé, José Mourinho.
It was Van Gaal who had inducted Mourinho as his assistant during his time at Barcelona. His star pupil, who spent many days at the Camp Nou diffusing a bitter feud between Ronald Koeman and the manager, was on trial. It was his chance to shine against the man he based much of his philosophy on. Van Gaal and Mourinho were close – and each needed the Champions League crown to silence any doubters.
Both men had failed to lift the Champions League crown for a second time, resting much of their reputation on an achievement made early on in their careers. This was master versus pupil – and it was a defining moment for both.
In the end, an Argentine split a Dutchman and a Portuguese, as Diego Milito helped Mourinho enter the realm of gods. Van Gaal was comprehensively out-thought and out-manoeuvred. The pupil had exhibited all the strengths that the master failed to enforce. Mourinho effectively blended individual talent and freedom for his stars with a team-first ethic that made Inter Milan so hard to play against. He was a modern Van Gaal, refined and ready for a game of superstars.
A season of on-field disappointment and personal battles defined 2010/11 for Van Gaal, with a third-place finish for Die Roten unacceptable by most standards. Ten points off eventual winners Borussia Dortmund, whose enigmatic, likeable manager Jürgen Klopp was a fans’ favourite across the nation, put paid to any legacy Van Gaal had in mind at the Allianz. In the end, on one side there was Klopp, fresh, humorous and in touch with the fans and players, and on the other, there was van Gaal, alienated from his stars and unable to capture the hearts and minds of the fans. German football’s brief love affair with Van Gaal was over.
Asked by a German journalist whether he thinks Van Gaal believes that he is God, Uli Hoeness responded tellingly: “He probably thinks he is God’s father.”
It was around this time that Van Gaal’s feud with Johan Cruyff started to hit the front pages. A bitterness that went as far back as 1989, Cruyff became publicly vocal in his antipathy towards his compatriot’s methods. An undeniable legend, Cruyff did, however, often motor away without much thought. Scratch beneath the sullen surface, though, and you may find some telling truths: “Van Gaal has a good vision of football but it is not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I don’t. I want individuals to think for themselves.”
Cruyff, backed in his train of thought by his top lieutenants, Bergkamp and Koeman, was equally critical of van Gaal’s plan to overhaul the national academy’s training and selection methods: “You judge football players intuitively and with your heart,” he said. “On the basis of the criteria which are now in use at Ajax [recommended by Van Gaal] I would have failed the test.
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“When I was 15, I could barely kick the ball 15 metres with my left and with the right maybe 20 metres. I would not have been able to take a corner. I was physically weak and relatively slow. My two qualities were great technique and insight, which happen to be two things you can’t measure with a computer.”
Perhaps Cruyff’s words were harsh. Perhaps they’re the words of a man who didn’t see the value in a philosophy so conflicting to his own. Cruyff had a tendency to speak out of line – perhaps, as it does to so many that have spent decades in the game, he had grown bitter during his time away from the action. On the other hand, maybe he was right. Holland haven’t been a dominant force in football, at club or international level, since he was around.
Your opinion probably rests on who you like more.
And so, a career and a retirement later, here we are. Van Gaal’s development of the national team during his second term in charge cannot be underestimated. He blooded a number of promising Dutch stars and took them to the semi-finals of the World Cup. It was a significant achievement for a team many expected to struggle.
It wasn’t vintage Holland, but it was classic Van Gaal: regimented, structured, counter-attacking. Despite the obvious chorus of disdain for such style from the Dutch, it was realistically the only way Holland could play with such a weak defence. Style had to be sacrificed for substance. What we know, however, looking back on a 20-year career, is that style has always been sacrificed for substance.
Manchester United reaped the rewards of his management, with a fourth-place finish in his maiden season bringing Champions League football back to Old Trafford and the FA Cup won in his second. But again there were clashes with the big names.
Robin van Persie, a striker he labelled the world’s best in 2014, left after falling out of favour just 12 months later. Falcao fared little better and, despite not reaching his peak level of fitness and form, coming in and out of the team was hardly the ideal remedy, as his time at Monaco now shows. It remains a mystery as to why Ángel Di María couldn’t recapture his Real Madrid and Argentina form.
With Wayne Rooney struggling for form, 2015/16 – in what would prove to be his final season in football management – was testing time for Van Gaal. What could he do with the promising youngsters at Old Trafford if he was given more time? Despite a dearth of talent coming through the Red Devils’ academy in the latter part of the noughties, few can argue against the quality of the current crop, led superbly by Marcus Rashford. It went against Van Gaal’s methods to blood youngsters when results were the primary focus – which probably demonstrated some welcome flexibility on his part – especially given he had gone on record as stating United was a short-term, personal project.
Ashley Young’s resurgence was as much to do with his ability to fit into Van Gaal’s system as it was his performances. He fitted in well with his hard-working, combative style. Antonio Valencia was much the same. With functional players such as Matteo Darmian, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining the ranks, it was always likely that United would once again follow the classic Van Gaal model.
Whether it works in a league where stars are king – Agüero, Sánchez, Coutinho, Hazard, Özil – will never be known. Will Juan Mata, Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Rashford be given the attacking freedom to execute their game in the most creative way under José Mourinho? How different is his style of play – the sticking point for many observers – to Van Gaal? Not very, and only big trophies will alleviate any doubts.
Fundamentally, Van Gaal left another job having underachieved. With dressing room unrest and fans split, it’s hardly a surprise that he was sacked from a job many thought he was tailor-made for., announcing his retirement a few months later.
And so we sit in the middle of the road. There’s no traffic, it’s just you and the tarmac. In one direction you have Johan Cruyff beckoning you over for a game of five-a-side. Alongside him, Bergkamp and Guardiola play some short passes. In the other direction stands Van Gaal, stern and focused. With him, Ron Vlaar and Thomas Müller metronomically practice their set-piece routine. The choice is yours; the road is yours.
How beautiful do you want football to be? Answering that may take you some way to determining how you see, and rate, the career of football’s most divisive success story of the last two decades, Louis van Gaal.