You probably think you have Louis van Gaal figured out by now, right? You’ve read the articles, you’ve heard the crazy stories about him dropping his pants and showing his balls at Bayern Munich (no, really) you’ve heard the astoundingly egotistical press-conferences, the short temper, the league titles, the falling out at nearly every place he’s worked and the trophy count and constant winning that he’s used as a middle finger to everyone that has doubted him over the past two decades.
Oh yes, you’ve heard all this and more. So you’re probably feeling a little disappointed right now, aren’t you?
Maybe disappointed is the wrong word. After all, everyone who isn’t a Manchester United fan is probably finding their lackluster (to put it kindly) start to the season as the best entertainment on television at the moment. So no, you’re probably not disappointed in United’s start to the season, but you’re probably feeling a little underwhelmed that the Louis van Gaal crazy train of megalomania, ruthless winning and tactical revolution hasn’t quite left the station.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In fact, it would have been more surprising if Van Gaal had started off the season setting the Premier League on fire. Fast starts just aren’t a characteristic of his tenures. While other managers come in and give a “new manager boost” to the team that can see them start fast and then fizz out, Van Gaal works just the opposite. His philosophy is a slow burn, it takes time for the players to fully comprehend what he is asking of them and even longer for them to fulfill it but when they do, watch out. When he started his tenure at Bayern Munich, they won only five out of his first 13 matches and were seventh in the table at the end of November. They then went on to win the league and reach the Champions League final. You can laugh and poke fun at Van Gaal and his eccentricities all you want, but be prepared to be humbled when everything is said and done, which will likely come after he’s alienated almost everyone he’s worked with at United and leaves in a cloud of egoisms, trophies and mutual loathing, much like he has done before.
There was a joke about Van Gaal in Germany during his time at Bayern that went like this: “What is the difference between Van Gaal and God?…God knows he is not Van Gaal.”
It would be easy to laugh off Van Gaal’s behavior as the ramblings and actions of an egotistical mad man, if he wasn’t so damn good at what he does.
Before Bayern Munich, he was coaching Dutch-side AZ Alkmaar, a club that hadn’t won a league title since 1981. He took over in 2005, and they finished second. The next year, they finished third, and in his third year they finished…11th. He wasn’t going to come back for a fourth year. His plan was to resign due to disappointing results, but the board and the players said they wanted him to stay, and so he did.
The next season, AZ won the Dutch title. There is no time in his illustrious career that better shows Van Gaal’s coaching ability than his time at AZ. They lacked funds, players, prestige, and just about everything you think you would need to win a league title. It didn’t matter. His possession and press philosophy wasn’t getting results, so he turned them into a deadly counter-attacking team that went on a 28 match unbeaten streak. Van Gaal may like pretty football, but he is about winning first. Period. Van Gaal not winning is like Arsenal not having some sort of defensive depth crisis every season. It’s just not natural.
What gets lost in the image of Van Gaal as the football manager-cum-cartoonish dictatorial character is just how good he is at what he does, especially when it comes to developing young players. Here are some of the players he has given first-team debuts too:
He’s also the one who turned Bastian Schweinsteiger into a defensive midfielder, and told David Alaba he was a left-back, even if he didn’t know it yet. Van Gaal’s finger prints are all over the European game, and it is not an exaggeration to say he is one of the five most influential people in football over the past two decades. Where do you think Pep Guardiola got his obsession with possession, pressing and perfection from? You could say Johan Cruyff, but Pep is not a romantic. He has an absolute unyielding hunger to win, and that comes from his time under Van Gaal.
Many have been quick to mock the lavish spending on attacking players by United and Van Gaal over the Summer, while mostly ignoring the defense, but it’s hard to tell how much of that was Van Gaal and how much of it was Ed Woodward. After all, Van Gaal has always been adamant that he doesn’t need to spend a lot of money on players, and that he is a coach that “wants to – and can- improve players”. The likely explanation is that United wanted to make a big splash to propel themselves into the Champions League and back into contention for the league title as quickly as possible, not wanting to wait for Van Gaal to take two or three seasons to develop players that are already there.
United were never going to start quickly under Van Gaal. The problems with the team are too deep, and the philosophy of Van Gaal is too complex to simply throw £150 million at the team and go “That oughta do it”. Van Gaal has already made a change in formation, switching from 3-5-2 to 4-3-1-2 to better accommodate the midfield talent at his disposal, but the team continues to leak goals. Don’t mention defensive frailties to Van Gaal though, he’ll tell you that a true team overcomes individual weaknesses and turns them into strength, so don’t bring up buying Falcao and Di Maria when they could have used two new center-backs, and don’t talk about poor performances, because Van Gaal sees the game in a completely different way than you and I.
Make no mistake though, Van Gaal is going to succeed at United, and he’s going to make sure you know how smart he is and how stupid you were for doubting him as he does it. There may be no better manager in the world, as he would be happy to tell you, and he is probably the only manager in the world that can dig United out of the hole they are in. When he was hired by Ajax in the early ‘90’s, he congratulated them on hiring the best manager in the world. He had no experience in top-flight football. It is that kind of unshakable confidence and bravado that makes Van Gaal what he is, and why he will never be deterred by a few poor results.
Van Gaal knows exactly who he is, and he knows beyond a certainty he’s going to be successful, whether we like it or not.