Method but so much madness

Louis van Gaal
Louis van Gaal has proven in the past he can put the structures in place for future successes. But he’s also proven his attitude and ego mean he’s at Manchester United for a good time, not a long time, writes Ewan MacKenna 

It’s not so much the trophies – and there are plenty of them – but the players produced and the seeds sown that demonstrate the method behind the madness of Louis van Gaal. It’s just that, where Manchester United’s new manager is concerned, even José Mourinho will have some stiff competition in the ego stakes this coming season.

Consider the following as an insight into the mind of a man long known as the Iron Tulip. The story goes that after he was offered his first managerial role with Ajax in 1991, he grabbed the hand of a club director and announced: “Congratulations on signing the best coach in the world.” Six years later, during his first press conference as manager of Barcelona, he declared: “I have achieved more with Ajax in six years than Barcelona has in 100 years.” (Factually incorrect, but never mind.) When he left in 2000, after missing out on a third consecutive Primera Liga title, his parting shot was: “Friends of the press, I am leaving. Congratulations.”

Later that same year, he took charge of the Netherlands national team and kicked off his tenure by telling the press: “I’ve signed a contract with the Dutch national team until 2006, so I can win the World Cup not once but twice.”

A year later, the Dutch were knocked out of the World Cup qualifiers by Jason McAteer’s famous goal at Lansdowne Road. Before the match, van Gaal told anyone who’d listen that “Louis van Gaal has nothing more to learn”, and that “I am who I am – confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative”. Indeed, when he was back at Barcelona for a second stint in 2002, he bumped into a 14-year-old Gerard Piqué whose grandfather was vice-president at the club. “I had the chance to see him one day in my grandfather’s house,” recalled the defender, who has since won a small mountain of silverware for Barcelona and Spain. “He knew I was playing for Barcelona’s youth team. He pushed me, I fell down on the floor, and he said to me: ‘You are not tough enough to be a centre-back’.”

Louis van Gaal, meet the Premier League; the Premier League, meet Louis van Gaal.

This Saturday, the 62-year-old makes his competitive bow as boss of Manchester United, at home to Swansea City. If one thing can be guaranteed, it’ll be fun. We’re talking about a man who once responded to a journalist’s question with the following: “Is it just me being so clever, or is it you who’s being so stupid?” That’s not an isolated incident, either.

But whether quick success matches the levels of craziness depends far more on his transfer activity over the coming days as even his skills won’t overturn the squad deficit.

While midfielder Ander Herrera and left-back Luke Shaw have already been signed this summer, the truth is that United’s vulnerable-looking squad still needs an all-action midfielder in the mould of Juventus’s Arturo Vidal (a long-running on-off-on-off saga), a central defender (Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund has been mentioned) and possibly a world-class winger (Real Madrid’s Ángel Di María is being heavily linked) to challenge Manchester City and Chelsea.

But what United will get, at the very least, are the kind of qualities they were so sorely missing last season under the doomed David Moyes: ferocious discipline, a clear direction and – perhaps most crucially – the sort of forward-thinking structures which van Gaal put in place at both Bayern Munich and Barcelona, and which allowed both clubs to prosper hugely after he had gone.

If his past is any guide, the above is likely to happen again, although that same past also suggests he won’t be around for more than three seasons or so. That’s because he is every bit as confrontational as he is egotistical. He has, in fact, reached a level where he transcends vulgarity and has come full circle to the point of being likeable again.

While Mourinho engages in dislikeable theatrics as a ploy to deflect attention away from his players at key moments, van Gaal does it purely to deflect attention onto himself. That’s where the problems will start, because there’s no room for anyone else to be right when he’s about. But with Alex Ferguson, Bobby Charlton, David Gill and Ed Woodward to contend with away from the touchline, it’s hard to see it all going smoothly in the longer term.

A glance at van Gaal’s time with Bayern Munich fits a theme in this regard. When he first took over the club in 2009, he remarked that the job fitted him like a warm coat. He duly won the Bundesliga title, the German Cup and the German Supercup in his first season, reaching the final of the Uefa Champions League into the bargain.

A year later, when he stage-managed the presentation of a three-volume book of his managerial thoughts entitled Biographie & Vision, he handed the club directors a copy and stressed to them: “You can learn from it. It is important that you read it.” Soon after, Bayern’s president and club legend Uli Hoeness was quoted as saying: “He doesn’t accept anyone’s opinion, there’s no point talking to him any more.” Things quickly deteriorated further.

By the time of van Gaal’s departure from the Bavarian side in April 2011, a vicious war of words was raging.

“Van Gaal’s problem is not that he’s God, but that he’s God’s very own father,” fumed Hoeness. “Louis was already there before the world even existed. If you look at the world from that perspective, like Van Gaal does, it is hard to see what the world really looks like.”

Characteristically, van Gaal just had to have the last word, responding: “I am the captain beside God. And Hoeness thinks he’s God.” It’s not hard to see why the short term is likely to be the only term for him at Old Trafford.

But even with all that baggage, there’s a reason why van Gaal had two spells coaching both Barcelona and the Netherlands, and why he keeps getting the biggest jobs in European football. For all that his words get him into trouble, his actions speak far louder. And this is the part that United fans – as opposed to the rest of the Premier League – can look forward to.

After the nerviness and uncertainty of Moyes, with van Gaal there’s only certainty, and only his way – usually heading in the correct direction. United’s players finished the season addressing their stand-in boss Ryan Giggs by his first name, in what some saw as a mark of seemingly declining standards at the club. But it’ll be different with van Gaal. There are two versions of the word “you” in Dutch, and he insists even in private that his two daughters address him by the formal version.

His micro-management goes much further and, while it’s annoyed many along the way, it’s exactly what a previously rudderless United now need. When managing the Netherlands for the first time, he drove several big names to the edge, particularly Ruud van Nistelrooy, then one of the very best strikers in the world, who was said to be fed up with his manager forcefully instructing him on the best-fitting socks to wear.

At Bayern Munich, van Gaal’s control-freakery reached new levels. In the cafeteria, he insisted players eat in the same places, at the same time and never slouch. When he caught Italian striker Luca Toni slumped over his food one day, he let out a roar. When it went without response, he walked over, grabbed the much bigger and fitter and younger man by the collar, heaved him into what he deemed a more favourable posture, and walked off in silence.

Not long afterwards, during a training session, he confronted Bayern’s big-name stars and reminded them of his power to drop them – and then, extraordinarily, dropped his own trousers to show them his testicles. “I have never experienced anything like it,” recalled Toni. “It was totally crazy. Luckily I didn’t see a lot, because I wasn’t in the front row.”

There was blood on the carpet before long. Toni was given a free transfer, while veterans Mark van Bommel and Lúcio were moved on, as was Martín Demichelis. From that list, you can see a pattern: van Gaal much prefers to work with younger players who he can mould and who look up to him, rather than those already moulded who are too big to put up with him.

At the same time, van Gaal signed Arjen Robben, developed Bastian Schweinsteiger into the midfielder he is today, and coaxed David Alaba, Thomas Müller, Holger Badstuber, Toni Kroos and Mats Hummels into the first team. Earlier, at Barcelona, he had helped Mourinho to go from translator to coach, and also gave Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Carles Puyol and Lionel Messi the necessary time to grow.

Egotism aside, there was a kernel of truth in his proclamation that he deserved some credit for what Bayern and Barcelona became after he left, as they went on to bestride European football in recent years. So much so that, after Pep Guardiola followed in van Gaal’s footsteps from Catalonia to Bavaria, van Gaal said, “Guardiola follows the van Gaal philosophy. So I’m not surprised Bayern have hired Guardiola. Bayern always hire the best managers.”

What else? There was a surprise Dutch title win in 2009 with relative minnows AZ Alkmaar (arguably one of his finest hours). But most memorable are his five glorious years at Ajax, where he ruthlessly honed the traits he has become world-famous for. The three leagues, the Uefa Cup and – most dazzlingly of all – the 1995 Champions League win were phenomenal achievements, but even more impressive was the way in which he did it.

On the field, there was Total Football in attack mixed with stringent tightness in defence. Off it, just as at all his other clubs, he revamped Ajax’s academy and helped a generation of players to become legends of Dutch football.

All of which will be music to the ears of United and their fans. Vitally, too, van Gaal has made himself big enough to take United out of transition and begin a new era at a club which still mourns Ferguson and clings to the past. The ego may have landed at Old Trafford – but he’s carrying more than mere arrogance with him.

10 August, 2014
Sunday Business Post

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