It is times like these when a football club, especially one of the stature of Manchester United, need to simply focus on getting back to the top. The misery and indignation that has engulfed this year’s campaign will perhaps never be forgotten. For the hardcore doyens of the Stretford End, David Moyes’ ignominious 10 months as the Theatre of Dreams’ creative director has etched itself irreversibly into their sunken hearts. But it’s football. The dust has well and truly settled after the furore created by the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson’s successor and Manchester United, as a business, but more importantly, as a football club, look forward and are intent on concentrating their energy on what truly matters; success.
Of all the prospective candidates to replace Moyes, Louis Van Gaal stands above the illustrious names of Guardiola and Ancelotti as a manager most suited to United’s needs. The slim possibility of a Guardiola departure from Bayern, likewise Ancelotti from Madrid would steer them towards Old Trafford almost purely out of the necessity to be employed at the highest level. Guardiola has had his 12-month sabbatical, and benefited greatly from it, and like his Madrid counterpart, has only begun the process of making Bayern his. As managers who champion an obsessive attention to detail and believe in the patience needed to make a club great, one year at both Real and Barcelona suggest that the time isn’t right for them at United. In light of that, United fans are beginning to get the sense that the Dutchman truly wants this job.
Since first being mentioned as a top candidate being considered for the job, the 62 year-old has come out and openly expressed his ambition to take Manchester United into the next chapter of a storied footballing history. “I would love the job,” he told the BBC at the start of a three-day World Cup training camp with the Netherlands. “I hope that I shall be the one. It’s the biggest club in the world and it’s a fantastic challenge.”
Van Gaal’s public declaration means that his appointment seems to be a matter of when, rather than if. Initial reports suggested that he made adamant demands to have it tied up by the time he underwent formal preparations for the World Cup with Holland on May 7. However, it has now been suggested that he has softened that demand slightly to allow Manchester United to accommodate Ryan Giggs for his final fixture in charge as interim player/manager. It is now believed that Van Gaal’s appointment will be officially announced not long after the Premier League season concludes this Sunday.
One of the reason’s for United’s attraction to Van Gaal is the fact that he possesses a clear footballing vision. David Moyes was anointed as the ‘Chosen One’ before his team had even kicked a ball and perhaps the pressure and sheer magnitude of the challenge obstructed the Scot in truly engineering a Moyes style of play. There will be no such problems for Van Gaal, however, as his managerial intelligence has fast-tracked his adaptability around Europe. Words like ‘vision’, ‘philosophy’, ‘mantra’ are flung about recklessly when discussing modern day managers but the argument here is that it is actually applicable to Van Gaal.
The ‘Czar of Alkmaar’ championed a great footballing vision which flourished in the 90’s during his time at Ajax. He placed great emphasis on encouraging the development of talented youth players and integrated them expertly into a team of proven stars, shaping the side into true champions. Van Gaal’s Ajax were a team that defied expectations and attracted great admiration from all corners of European football. One such corner was Manchester, as Sir Alex Ferguson studied Van Gaal’s coaching methods during that famous season for the Amsterdam club and put it into practice himself by including the Class of 92′ graduates into his team of Premier League winners and established internationals. Interestingly, it is well-documented how well Ferguson thought of Van Gaal. When the legendary Scot initially announced his retirement for the end of the 01/02 season, Van Gaal was on the short-list of managers to succeed along with Sven Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Martin O’ Neill.
Ferguson’s admiration for Van Gaal stemmed from the unlikely success created by the Dutchman at Ajax. His side won the Champions League of 94/95, beating a formidable AC Milan side managed by Capello in the final, took the Eredivise title without losing a single game and is perhaps the ultimate example of what discipline, sophisticated tactics and intelligent system-building can achieve. Van Gaal’s blueprint for Ajax had the ability to be truly spectacular. The players and passes flowed with speed and precision and blew away titanic footballing institutions to achieve the highest prizes.
Van Gaal created a wonderful footballing machine comprised of a rich array of talents. He packed his midfield with tactically astute and physically commanding players like Gullit, Rjikaard and De Boer. He lined-up with two wingers blessed with blistering pace; Marc Overmars and Finidi George. Up front he had the goalscoring prowess of Patrick Kluivert (now his assistant at the national side) and employed the fantastic technical abilities of Jari Litmanen just behind the striker. It was a formula that worked brilliantly and cemented Van Gaal’s place as one of Europe’s most respected and coveted young managers at that time.
After the dissolution of his team at Ajax, Van Gaal revived a dying giant of European football when he succeeded Bobby Robson at Barcelona in 1997 and led them to successive La Liga championships in 1998 and 1999. During his time at Barcelona, he again emphasised the importance of letting home-grown players flourish including handing Xavi his first-team debut against Manchester United at Old Trafford during the sides’ 3-3 draw in September 1998. Furthermore, he inherited an assistant from Bobby Robson. A young Portuguese scout and analyst who had a “certain arrogance about him” and did not respond well to authority; Jose Mourinho. Despite their clashes and confrontations which led to Mourinho’s departure from working under Van Gaal, the Portuguese speaks very highly of him because he recognises he was given his first big chance under Van Gaal. Again, it shows a shrewd eye for talent, on and off the pitch, that the Dutchman possesses and it is this very quality United crave.
If Manchester United decide to appoint Van Gaal, they will be getting a dizzying mixture of positive and negative characteristics that have brought Van Gaal both wonderful success and abject failure in the past. He can be abrasive, arrogant and can undermine his players. He has had several confrontations with leading players at clubs he has managed including a persistent disagreement with Rivaldo, during his time at Barcelona, over where the Brazilian should be played. Rivaldo made it clear to Van Gaal that he felt he was best used in the centre, where he could control the play and score more goals. Van Gaal disagreed, he suggested that Rivaldo’s pace and trickery and ability to cross the ball meant he should play wide left, still with licence to cut inside and influence the play in the middle. In addition, he believes in seizing firm control of a football club which has prompted internal discord, sometimes to an irreconcilable extent, in the past with Bayern, Barcelona and Ajax. It is indeed a distinct possibility that his personality will clash with some of the bigger egos at Manchester United but the important thing to remember is that, more than anything, he knows his football. He knows how he plays and isn’t prepared to change that for any player, club or coach. This may cause problems, but his record speaks for itself. The bottom line; getting past personality clashes will more than likely bring Manchester United a return to success and trophies and re-establish their standing as one of the game’s greatest powers.