Will Louis van Gaal be the cure-all at Manchester United?
Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal has now taken the helm at Manchester United. This news has been greeted with almost unanimously positive reviews after Holland’s strong showing at the finals (particularly their 5-1 defeat of Spain which was hailed as a van Gaal tactical masterclass).
United fans are now fully expecting van Gaal to work his magic at Old Trafford with immediate effect, banishing last season’s disappointments under David Moyes and returning United to one of the dominant forces in English, European and World soccer.
Most people seem to believe that wherever van Gaal has gone, success has followed. But a quick glance through his managerial record and it becomes patently obvious that at times, the van Gaal way hasn’t always worked.
It certainly worked at Ajax, where his tactical system was not just successful for Ajax, but also successfully adopted by the Dutch national team from the mid 90’s onwards. He was also a success during the first couple of years of his initial spell at Barcelona and also later in his career with AZ67 Alkmaar and Bayern Munich.
He has won league titles in Spain, Germany and Holland (with Ajax and AZ) and now he can add a World Cup Semi Final to that resume with Holland. It is certainly an impressive list of achievement and it is easy to see why United fans are easily persuaded van Gaal is the right man for the job.
However, to assume that everything he touches will turn to gold, is somewhat foolhardy as within that glittering career, there have been plenty of times when it hasn’t gone well for van Gaal.
In his first spell at Barcelona, despite two years of title success, van Gaal came under fierce criticism from the Barcelona press, some fans and also some players at the club, notably Rivaldo, due to the tactical system he wanted to employ.
Just days after losing the league title to Deportivo La Coruna in May 2000, van Gaal quit, sardonically congratulating the Spanish press for what he perceived as their part in his downfall.
He took over Holland as they began their qualification for the 2002 FIFA World Cup however two crucial defeats against Portugal and Ireland saw their hopes of qualification for the finals dashed. Under van Gaal, Holland failed to qualify for their first World Cup finals since 1986.
He returned to Barcelona shortly after but once again, his midas touch had deserted him. By January 2003, van Gaal had been sacked with Barcelona just three points above the relegation zone.
He returned to Ajax in 2004 as a technical director, but that return didn’t last long as due to personal issues with then Ajax boss Ronald Koeman, he resigned later in the same year.
It has to be said that van Gaal did rediscover his golden touch at AZ, steering them to the league title in 2008-2009 and that secured him the manager’s job at Bayern Munich in the summer of 2009.
Despite popular belief, results under van Gaal were initially poor at Bayern and van Gaal was rumoured to be on the verge of being sacked, however van Gaal made two astute moves, signing Arjen Robben and promoting a crop of talented youth team players into the Bayern first team squad, such as Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber.
Soon results turned around and Bayern were crowned champions in 2009-2010, however it should also be noted that in April 2011, van Gaal was sacked after his Bayern team dropped below third place in the Bundesliga.
Certainly van Gaal does have a proven track record of success, but it is also interspersed with periods of under-achievement.
What is clear is that where van Gaal has thrived, has been in positions where his trusted tactical approach to the game, utilising three defenders, a holding midfielder, three midfielders and an attacker supported by two wingers has been adopted by players around him.
The question is, do Manchester United have the players to play this system and if they do, do the players have the abilities van Gaal needs in order to make this system a success?
Clearly, this system relies heavily on the creativity of wingers, which is why it is no surprise van Gaal has already made it known he wants to sign Arjen Robben from Bayern Munich to supplement his other summer signings Luke Shaw from Southampton and Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao.
However, what will this new system mean for other United players? With Robin Van Persie likely to be van Gaal’s focal point in attack, does this mean Wayne Rooney will be the support man once again? Where does that then leave Juan Mata? Does Marouane Fellaini have a realistic future at the club? Does a defence likely to consist of Smalling at right back, Shaw at left and Phil Jones as a single centre half, inspire United fans with great confidence?
It would not surprise me if van Gaal made some positional changes for players that he has at the club. He has done this several times previously in his career, converting Bastian Schweinsteiger from a winger to a holding midfielder and Philip Lahm from a right back to a midfielder. For players like this who are happy to adapt, it can work particularly well.
I could therefore see the likes of Michael Carrick adapting his role to play as a central defender, in much the same way Danny Blind did for van Gaal’s Ajax team.
However, not all players want to switch roles to suite van Gaal’s system. At Barcelona, van Gaal had a public falling out with Rivaldo after the Brazilian refused to play left winger for the Dutchman.
Perhaps van Gaal’s greatest problem is the culture shock that will likely envelop the club. How will United players adapt to van Gaal’s somewhat alien system? Or will van Gaal attempt to adapt his system to suit the Premier League? In both cases, if these don’t work out very well, very quickly, will United struggle once again?
If that happens, will United fans have the patience to give van Gaal the time that wasn’t afforded to his predecessor?
Of course, if the new manager comes in and hits the ground running and gets off to a great start then all will look rosy. However, it is worth remembering, David Moyes won a trophy in his first game at the club and then started the Premier League with a 4-1 win away to Swansea.
It is certainly going to be an intriguing season ahead for Manchester United and Louis van Gaal. This could be a marriage made in heaven, van Gaal certainly can get the best from a group of players.
It is just whether he has the right players to play his beloved system, or whether he can adapt that system to suit the players he has.
He has done it in the past, it is going to be intriguing to see if he can do so again.