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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 28 November, 2014

‘You have to be a bit crazed or obsessed to get to Louis van Gaal’s level’

TheScore.ie chat to the United manager’s biographer about what the club’s fans can expect from the coach.

Van Gaal has had a difficult start to life as Manchester United manager.
Van Gaal has had a difficult start to life as Manchester United manager.

IF PREMIER LEAGUE teams were ranked purely by the complexity of their manager’s personality, then Manchester United would surely earn a Champions League place at the very least.

Of all the colourful characters in the English game, Louis van Gaal is one of, if not the most, talked-about figures currently operating within its confines.

The veteran coach, who is nicknamed the Iron Tulip, has provoked an endless array of articles since he was confirmed as Manchester United boss last May, largely because he is such a fascinating individual and as the position he’s been put in is so unique.

After the brief and generally disastrous reign of David Moyes, many critics have suggested that Van Gaal is the true heir to Alex Ferguson’s throne. Unlike Moyes, the 63-year-old Dutchman is a manager with a proven track record at the highest level, and like Ferguson, his countless achievements in the game automatically earns him a significant level of respect even among the most stubborn, self-centred players in the beautiful game.

An extremely impressive World Cup showing with Holland, in addition to a hugely encouraging pre-season in which United went unbeaten despite coming against sides of the calibre of Liverpool and Real Madrid, meant Van Gaal-inspired optimism was in overdrive before the league season had even begun at Old Trafford.

Yet all this unequivocal positivity promptly vanished amid last Saturday’s dismal 2-1 defeat to Swansea. It felt uncomfortably similar to the ineptitude regularly on display at Old Trafford last season. It was deja vu. And in fact, in one respect, it was worse than deja vu — Man United had comprehensively beaten Swansea 4-1 in their opening match of the 2013-14 campaign, as David Moyes initially seemed set to continue where Alex Ferguson left off and maintain United’s outright dominance of English football.

So now that the hype has died a quick and painful death, and fans’ expectations have come crashing down to Earth, where does Van Gaal go from here?


One person better positioned than most to answer the question is Maarten Meijer. The Dutch author, who has written a 310-page biography of Van Gaal, believes that in order to succeed, the venerated coach must adapt to United rather than vice-versa.

But interestingly, in the teams where the veteran coach enjoyed arguably his greatest successes — Ajax, AZ Alkmaar and even Holland to an extent — he had a considerable amount of time to decide on issues such as which players to pick and what formation to settle on. Assuming United treat Van Gaal in a similar enough manner to Moyes, then he’ll have less than a season to prove his worth. Consequently, anything other than a top-four Champions League spot will presumably be unacceptable in the eyes of the Old Trafford hierarchy.

Meijer believes this lack of time for Van Gaal could prove problematic, especially for a manager with such a sophisticated and radical vision of how a club should be run.

“In general, when he comes into a new situation, he turns things upside down and makes a whole new system,” Meijer tells TheScore.ie. “So some players have complained that his demands are so high that the players get exhausted and feel over-stretched at some point. They think the level he envisions cannot be sustained.

“What is unique at United is that there is a strong tradition in place and he’s not going to be able to dispense with that, although he will implement his vision or philosophy. So it’s interesting that he has Ryan Giggs as his assistant coach. He picked Giggs because he understands the tradition of the club.

Britain Soccer Premier League

Source: AP/Press Association Images

(Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal in discussion with his assistant Ryan Giggs)

“My hope is that Van Gaal can be a little bit more pragmatic and then marry his own philosophy to the existing tradition of the club. The good part of the tradition. If he is able to do that — a combination of the best of both worlds — I would hope that this could be a long-term success story. Whether that’s possible is hard to predict, but that’s going to be my hope.”

Moreover, a biography of Van Gaal is not completely new territory for Meijer. The author has also written books on two similarly innovative Dutch coaches — Dick Advocaat and Guus Hiddink.

“He’s a person who’s been a very colourful character, an intriguing person, which makes the biographer’s job more interesting as well because he’s fun to write about.

“Of the coaches I’ve written about, he’s the most controversial of the three. You love him or you hate him. Nobody feels that strongly about Hiddink — Advocaat only a little bit.”

Nevertheless, despite Van Gaal’s colourful persona, Meijer believes the 63-year-old’s fiercesome reputation is exaggerated to a degree.

“He has this image of being a hard-to-get-along-with guy. As a biographer you inevitably start thinking in a prejudiced manner, but things are not as bad as people were saying if you speak to him personally. Most typically his wife, but other people as well [make these claims].

“He spends a lot of time with children. He really engages with them and takes their questions quite seriously. So you can see he has a heart. He’s not the monster or the megalomaniac or the dictator that people say he is.


“Maybe he could work on his rough edges at press conferences a little bit, but he’s not nearly as bad as people try to make out. The problem with the sports press is that people make a living from it. People like to write controversial stories and Van Gaal is bait for that. They like to write something that catches the eyes of readers, but it’s happened more than it really should, particularly in the Dutch media.”

Speaking of the media, one of the common words used to describe Van Gaal is ‘genius’. This reputation has been established not just for his significant success over the years as a coach, but also because of his penchant for making highly unusual decisions that tend — more often than not — to pay off. His decision to bring on goalkeeper Tim Krul in the last minute of extra-time in Holland’s World Cup quarter-final penalty shootout win against Costa Rica, for instance, is a perfect example of Van Gaal’s maverick sensibility.

“If he’s a genius and we are the ordinary mortals, how do we determine if somebody is a genius? But of the people currently coaching, he definitely would qualify as a genius, because he has an uncanny insight into the game. Some of the substitutions that he made, the goalkeeping change against Costa Rica, they were very unconventional substitutions.

“It’s he who thinks of these things — he has a very open mind, and he comes up with the creative solutions that most other managers most likely could not have come up with. Again, the World Cup was a very good illustration of that. He has an incredible sense of that — not only which system but which player fits that system at any given moment. Coaches know that substitutions can go either way, but with Van Gaal, nine out of 10 times, they go in the right direction.


“Tactically, he has an incredible level of insight into the game, and he knows who is needed at which particular time. So his personnel management is quite extraordinary.”

However, in spite of all these skills, Van Gaal was looking decidedly un-genius-like, as United suffered a poor start to the Premier League last week, though he has a chance at partial redemption as his side travel to face Sunderland in the 4pm kick-off today.

“He was unbeaten in all the pre-season games, so everyone thought this is going to be fantastic and then the first game was more or less a disaster. So it’s hard to say [how well he'll do].

“He is responsible for the loss against Swansea, but he’s coming into a pre-existing situation where there are problems at executive level that he didn’t necessarily create.

“In previous situations, he had time. Manchester United is a top team. He’s not getting that time right now and if he loses another game, it’s a disaster. It’s difficult for him to approach things the way he usually approaches things.

“It was similar to Bayern and at Barcelona. He said: ‘I’m going to be losing games in the first two or three months. If you guys don’t like it, it’s too bad for you because that’s how I work. I’m going to transform and build the team, and over time, we’re going to get the results we need.’ The problem is at United, he won’t be given that time. That’s going to be a challenge. He needs to turn the whole thing around in such a short period.”


Van Gaal, of course, is known for being somewhat temperamental, with many commentators suggesting that the pressure he is under could spark a falling out at boardroom level if the situation gets much worse. The 63-year-old is famously single-minded and at both Bayern Munich and Barcelona, there were many occasions where he refused to listen to the advice of the club’s directors. That said, Meijer feels that if relations between Van Gaal and the Man United board become tense, such problems are likely to be kept away from the media’s glare.

“Van Gaal thinks that if you have problems, you keep that inside. You don’t express that outside of the group. He’s very protective of that atmosphere within the team. I’m almost certain he’s irritated by United’s failure to sign [Toni] Kroos and [Marco] Reus.

“I don’t really think the problems are because of Louis van Gaal, it’s because of other reasons.  He’s not going to come out and say ‘Woodward doesn’t know what he’s doing,’ ‘what is wrong with this organisation,’ as he’s a team player. He works with the people within the organisation in a fair way. So you will not hear him complaining about the club. He’s not only a professional manager but he’s a sportsman in that sense.”

Yet team player or not, Van Gaal is abrasive at the best of times. He famously cares little for people’s reputations — while in charge at Barca, he fell out with the team’s best player, Rivaldo, among other high-profile stars who have gotten on his bad side. Meijer admits he even originally feared for Wayne Rooney’s United future upon Van Gaal’s arrival at the club.


The former Ajax coach is unapologetic about his nature though, with Meijer suggesting he consciously pushes buttons in an attempt to ultimately get the best of those around him.

Van Gaal has been known, for example, to give preferential treatment to younger players over established stars because they are more malleable. He also had a round-table discussion with the Dutch players before his second stint as manager of his country, in an attempt to avoid a repeat of his first disastrous tenure as coach of the national team, during which Van Gaal claims he over-indulged the side’s star players, with Ireland effectively knocking them out of the World Cup in a famous 2001 qualifier at Lansdowne Road.

“I don’t think his mistrust of authority is rooted in anything psychological,” Meijer says. “He has a good family background. He respected his parents. He’s a very patriotic Dutchman, he always sings the national anthem. In that respect, he is from the old school. It’s more pragmatic, it’s more practical. He feels on the pitch, ‘I am responsible’.

“He thinks ‘what I say goes’. If you were going to be the one on the pitch or the boardroom or wherever who is going to come down hard on him, he’ll think ‘I have no use for that because I know better’. So I think it’s a more practical concern, it’s not necessarily that he doesn’t want to work with people, this is how it goes.

“And to some extent, all great managers have it. People like Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, they’re not exactly the kind who confide in other people and say what do you think about all this. They basically say ‘okay, I’m in charge, pay attention, this is just how it goes.’”

Louis Van Gaal portrait

Source: uly14x E

(To mark the arrival of Louis Van Gaal to the Premier League, William Hill commissioned a large-scale portrait of the Dutch football manager made out of tulips)

So whereas journalists have often portrayed him as somewhat of a mad genius, there is no doubt Van Gaal can show an enormous level of control and self-discipline when necessary. For instance, back in the 1990s, when opposition fans in the Dutch league unfurled banners mocking his dying wife, Van Gaal responded with great calmness and composure.

“I don’t know if it’s a Dutch thing. Whether it be Van Gaal, Hiddink or Advocaat, they all have this quite strong sense of privacy. They’ll talk about football, the game plan, transfer policies, but they insist — ‘you stay away from my private life’. He has an amazing dignity and he was interviewed by a Dutch journalist who asked him when was the last time you cried, he said it was when his first wife died, which was years ago. So he was very cautious, very selective and careful what he says about these things.

“Some people say he’s a scary guy, but if you’re the boss, you always need some aspect of yourself in reserve. People see one thing but they don’t see the whole picture. He has a mysterious quality over himself so that adds to his authority. People don’t really know who he is, what he is up to… But there is a definite sense of this guy being no pushover. He has something extra, but you never know what it’ll be.

“He’s a little bit obsessive or even crazy. And the only way you can get to this level is when you eat, sleep, drink and dream this stuff. I think that’s not only in sport, but in music or art or whatever you do. You have to be a little bit obsessed or crazed to get to Louis van Gaal’s level. He constantly thinks about football, he’s always seen with his notepad on the sideline or off it. He’s always thinking about it. Advocaat said as soon as the final whistle sounds on Sunday, you start thinking about the game next Sunday. You never have any moment of peace or rest. It’s like that for Van Gaal and all the people at the very top.”

‘Louis van Gaal: The Biography’ by Maarten Meijer is out now. More details here.

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