Decoding Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal

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Take two! Like a setting from a film set, with the director angry at the acting in the just shot scene, the post-Ferguson era at Manchester United is at its second take.

The first take was disappointing. David Moyes arrived at Old Trafford and the ridicule seemingly followed him in. Previous highs crashed to mediocre levels. It came as no surprise when he eventually crashed and burned out.

Louis van Gaal has replaced him. His managerial CV includes Ajax Amsterdam, Barcelona (twice), AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and the Netherlands national team (twice). His titles include a Champions League trophy, league titles and cup wins in Holland, Spain and Germany.

Described by Jonathan Wilson as red-faced and dogmatic, van Gaal’s managerial career has developed steadily. The older, the wiser. His strict and stubborn approach to his philosophy in his early managerial years have now given way to a mixture of realism within his ideals.

World Cup 2014

This is what enabled him to lead a young group of Dutchmen to third place at the World Cup. In a squad less filled with as much quality as previous eras, it is he that brought back the pride lost by the Bert van Marjwick era of ‘resultaatvoetbal’. Win at all costs got Holland to the 2010 World Cup Final — but it also led to a Group Stage exit of Euro 2012.

Van Gaal’s appointment by the KNVB was mainly premised on his ability to build teams. In the end, his tenure with the Dutch national team ended with the promise of a potentially bright future.

Therefore, what should Manchester United expect?

Basis of Coaching Philosophy

For one, the Dutch manager’s philosophy is insistent on three key strands: discipline, communication and team-building.

A strict disciplinarian, van Gaal once hired security guards to ensure that his players did not break curfew. By communication and team-building, van Gaal seeks to create a solid unit; a team as one rather than of individuals. In doing so is the understanding that all players must know each other’s strengths and weaknesses – the logic being that this makes it easier to cover and interplay with each other on the pitch.

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Current and former Manchester United managers

As a tactician, van Gaal has a strong ability to read games and change them.

He also does not overtly believe in the extreme paramount of possession football that most of the Dutch school believe in. In his team, every horizontal pass should ideally be followed by a vertical one so as to encourage attacking intent. Long balls are not necessarily frowned upon if they bring about directness. Quick transitions are encouraged.

Attacking players must be hard workers, capable of defending from upfront while defenders must be ball players. In van Gaal’s view, the attacking players in modern football have very little space to function as the team’s sole playmakers and thus having defenders who can play the ball and switch play is as important.

Tactical Options at Man United

The formation varies. Initially at Ajax, it was 3-4-3 but it evolved into a 4-2-3-1 by the time he was at Bayern Munich. As such, whichever formation he applies, he does insist that central midfielders not take part in overlapping past their wingers — both as a means of defensive solidity but also as a way of ensuring that they provide the option for play to switch flanks.

Early indications are that at Manchester United, he will employ a back three. Like the one for the Dutch at the World Cup, it is bound to play zonally, shuffling across to cover whichever flank is under attack and allowing for either,

  • both full backs to slot in to make it a back five, or
  • one of the full backs (the one on the free side) slotting in to make it a back four.

One of the back three should also be capable of stepping forward into the midfield to assist in ball retention and to initiate attacking transitions. This is a position known as the Dutch no. 4 role.

Manchester United in a provisional 3-4-1-2 formation
Manchester United in a provisional 3-4-1-2 formation

By playing a back three, there is room now for players to populate the midfield and attack. The numbers ensure possession and at the same time enough pressing for when the team loses the ball with wing backs to provide width on either side, be it in the defensive, attacking or possession phase.

Depending on the circumstances, the rest of the formation could line up with two central midfielders, an attacking midfielder and two strikers in a 3-4-1-2, or as three central midfielders with a sole striker assisted either side by wingers in a 3-4-3.

Manchester United in a provisional 3-4-3 formation
Manchester United in a provisional 3-4-3 formation

All this tactical acuity is complimented by a rigorous meticulous obsessive attention to detail and preparation. In 2009 while at Bayern, club officials were surprised at how detailed a report his scouts made of SpVgg Neckarelz — a sixth division club of part timers which the Bavarians were playing in the first round of the German Cup. It is no wonder that two of his most famous disciples — Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola — are just as meticulous.

Similarities with Ferguson

Beyond systems however, the true value of any great manager is in the ability to get the very best out of each individual, and in turn inter-relate that into one coefficient. It is that which sustained Sir Alex Ferguson at the top for so long. He may not have always had the best team, but he always got the very best out of what he got.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Louis van Gaal in 1998
Sir Alex Ferguson and Louis van Gaal in 1998

At the same time, van Gaal has a great record of encouraging youth. His Ajax side of 1995 won the Champions League with youth, an 18 year old Patrick Kluivert scoring the winner in the final against Milan. It was also he that gave club debuts to Andres Iniesta and Thomas Muller and Xavi speaks of a time when as an 18 year old, van Gaal used to prefer him to then Barca captain Pep Guardiola.

Van Gaal’s Netherlands squad at the World Cup also displayed his belief in youth, with an inexperienced young side managing to play to high levels.

Manchester United manager?

As a decision maker, van Gaal is brave enough and not a respecter of persons, something that is exemplified best by Luca Toni’s story of how he once dropped his trousers in the Bayern dressing room just to prove to his players that he had ‘balls’.

That character however makes him a hard man to work with, and there have always been disagreements with authorities and players at virtually every club that he has managed. That however is counter-balanced by a strong charismatic personality.

If anything, that could be the most drastic change to the Moyes era. Van Gaal carries with him an elan of success that Moyes could not boast. The intangible sense of optimism will be there and even when things do not seem to be going well, there will always be hope that he can realistically turn things round.

Nothing is ever a guarantee of success, but van Gaal is walking into an easier job than Moyes ever did. Instead of continuing the Sir Alex Ferguson dynasty, van Gaal must first correct the Moyes fall. In that, a high profile manager of his status seems ideal. At the very least, Manchester United may not be disappointingly looking for an immediate take three to the post-Ferguson era anytime soon.

 

 [images courtesy of zimbio]
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