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When ‘football genius’ Louis van Gaal was announced as the new Manchester United manager in the summer of 2014 the news was met with cheers from United fans all around the world. After all, United were brining in a big-name manager who could restore the pride of the club after a disastrous season under David Moyes in the first year of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.
One year and three months into van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford, fans are already singing a different tune. The club has had mixed results in van Gaal’s short tenure.
Most of these poor results have been blamed on the players taking time to acclimate to van Gaal’s possession-based football philosophy. For those who have been watching United for the past year, it appears van Gaal wants his team to maintain 85-95 percent of the possession and attacking the other teams goal seems to be optional.
With that philosophy, how did he ever become such a great manager?
At first glance there’s no denying that van Gaal has a great resume as a manager. If you just read the headlines, there’s no argument against that. But if you dig deeper and read the fine print, it tells a bit of a different story.
Over his career van Gaal has managed at Ajax, two stints at Barcelona, two stints with the Dutch National team, AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Other than United (and obviously the Netherlands), he’s won the league at each one of those clubs. Don’t rush to give him credit for winning the league at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, everyone wins at those clubs.
Van Gaal’s biggest accomplishment was winning the Champions League with Ajax in 1995 and making it back to the final the following year. That of course was in the mid 90’s, when the Champions League consisted of eight teams and wasn’t nearly what it is today.
However, it wasn’t all roses for van Gaal. His first stint at Barcelona was marred by disagreements with one of the club’s most talented players Rivaldo. This resulted in Rivaldo being sold right at the start of van Gaal’s second stint with the club.
His second stint lasted less than a year. Van Gaal then returned to Ajax as the technical director of the club, but that too lasted less than a year. His first stint managing the Dutch National team was also short-lived as he failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.
At United, van Gaal’s shortcomings have been on full display. Van Gaal has one style of play, and if you don’t, or can’t, adapt to it you are exiled. The problem is van Gaal doesn’t seem to treat the players like they are humans. It’s as if he wants every move to be calculated and to take all the emotion out of the game.
Players must fall into his possession-based system. There is no such thing at running at or attacking defenders because doing that may result in being dispossessed of the ball, and if you are dispossessed more often than not you’ll find yourself on the bench.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, United were famous for always attacking and running at defenders. Under van Gaal, United play a slow style with a lot of short passes and very little creativity making it very easy to defend against. This is the van Gaal way.
The irony of the whole situation is van Gaal demands his teams go out and buy the best players even though once he gets them he makes them fall into system that robs them of their playmaking abilities. He’s like the child who demands his parents buy him the nicest toys for Christmas, but then refuses to take the toys out of the box, opting instead to leave them on the shelf for display.
Louis van Gaal has built himself a reputation of being a ‘football genius’ and one of the best managers in the world. But if you take a closer look at his career maybe you too will start to wonder why that is.