Expect success, drama during van Gaal’s tenure at Manchester United
Louis van Gaal’s acerbic response hung heavily in the air. "Is it me who is that smart, or you who is that dumb?" he had just snapped at a Dutch reporter. It was 1996 and the Dutch manager was nearing the end of his triumphant run in charge of Ajax, whom he would take to consecutive UEFA Champions League finals. The beleaguered reporter had prodded him about the possible transfer of Edgar Davids and Michael Reiziger to AC Milan in the upcoming summer. Van Gaal felt he had already answered the question and blew up.
For van Gaal’s unquestionable gifts for coaching and almost unimpeachable record as a manager, there is much to put up with. Manchester United, who finally confirmed on Monday that the 62-year-old Amsterdammer will succeed David Moyes, are about to find that out.
Since his promotion to manager of Ajax in 1991, van Gaal won three Dutch league titles, a Dutch cup, the Champions League, the UEFA Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup through 1997; two La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey and the UEFA Super Cup with Barcelona in two stints from 1997 to 2000 and 2002 to 2003; another Dutch league title with AZ Alkmaar from 2005 to 2009; and a German double with Bayern Munich from 2009 to 2011. This summer, he leads the Dutch national team he rebuilt almost from the ground up to the World Cup in Brazil, before starting the job in Manchester.
His record is improbable for a once forgettable midfielder and former gym teacher. But it comes at a steep price.
By all accounts, van Gaal is a difficult man. It’s that rigidity of character, however, that also underpins his success. He believe in his methods, his system, his discipline. They are non-negotiable. He will play in the Dutch school, preferably with three attackers. Players will be subservient to the system, never the other way around. Rivaldo found that out the hard way at Barca, when he was shunted to the left flank, to his consternation and endless protestations.
Because van Gaal will tolerate no debate. Not from his players, and especially not from the press. He considers management a craft, and those who don’t ply his trade couldn’t possibly understand it, let alone critique him.
Eventually, this will take its toll. Van Gaal prefers to work with young players, whom he can mold as he sees fit and who aren’t as likely to talk back or question him. When he is handed a veteran team of arrived stars, his shelf life is considerably shorter. Whereas he lasted six years at Ajax and four at AZ, young teams that obeyed him, his first spell period at Barca lasted three seasons, his second only half a year. He didn’t quite make it to the end of his second season at Bayern.
Eventually, senior players who expect to be treated like adults will grate under his discipline — his rules about flip-flops and socks and every other imaginable detail. Sooner or later, van Gaal loses the dressing room. That’s what happened when he was tasked to lead that same golden generation he had brought up at Ajax in the mid-90s to the 2002 World Cup in his first assignment as manager of the Netherlands. They weren’t kids anymore, and they wouldn’t be treated like it. The side failed to qualify, even though its players were at the very height of their powers. It was one of van Gaal’s two professional failures. The other was his return to Barca, when they almost dropped into the relegation zone and he was fired in January.
Still, van Gaal would seem to be the right man for United, who fell off so badly under Moyes after Sir Alex Ferguson finally retired last summer. He will clear out the excess parts and oversee a summer of serious spending. He will devise a new playing style and implement it. And van Gaal will surely return the team to Premier League contention. Most of all, he will lay the foundation for future success, the way he did at Barca and Bayern, before getting fired from both jobs.
But if he is a good fit for the situation, he couldn’t be more ill-equipped to work with the English media. If he doesn’t like the tone of inquisition, van Gaal will unabashedly spurn a question he deems "stupid." Things haven’t gotten off to a great start as the English press hounded van Gaal at the Dutch national team’s training camp in the last few weeks. He has made no secret of his irritation. Things are likely to only get worse, the way they did in Spain. When he left Barca after his first spell, his goodbye was addressed directly to his tormentors: "Friends of the press," he said. "I am leaving. Congratulations."
And let’s not forget that Jose Mourinho, England’s manager-cum-media provocateur in residence, served his most formative apprenticeship under van Gaal at Barcelona, when the Dutchman turned the eager translator with little knowledge of the game (according to van Gaal’s long-time assistant Gerard van der Lem) into a coach. He can still learn a thing or two from the master when it comes to jousting with journalists.
It stands to reason that van Gaal will make United a better side. That he will re-establish the rhythm in their game that was lost under Moyes. That he will find untapped abilities in some players. He will make them better and make them look better. But there will be strife. Success will doubtless be coupled with drama. So most of all, there will be contradictions — they don’t call van Gaal the "Iron Tulip" for nothing.