Intentionally or not, in Louis van Gaal, Manchester United have chosen a manager who could not be more different than his predecessor, David Moyes. Such drastic shifts are common place in an often reactionary sport, but given the disastrous tenure of Moyes, United’s choice is more understandable than rash -- an admittance of their previous error.
The fact that Moyes had never won a single trophy as coach and had not taken charge of a single match in the Champions League proper always made him a curious, underwhelming appointment and a massive gamble for a club with a claim to be the biggest in the world. It was an attempt to replicate the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson, a man whose achievements are revered so much precisely because they are unique. He is a freak, especially so in the modern game. The story of Moyes taking Manchester United’s players for a stroll on Bondi Beach in Sydney just days after his appointment last summer only to be mobbed by supporters, leaving the squad scrambling for safety on a nearby rooftop, spoke to the Scot’s failure to grasp the scale of the club and his new job. It was a lesson he failed to learn.
That will not be an issue with Van Gaal. His resume made him the standout candidate of those available. The list of Van Gaal’s trophies won in United’s statement announcing his appointment stood to emphasize that this time they had got a man with a proven track record at the very top of the game. A Champions League crown with a brilliant young Ajax team in 1995 marked Van Gaal as one of the game’s great coaches and minds. Two La Liga titles followed in two spells with Barcelona before he led AZ Alkmaar to their first ever Dutch title. At Bayern Munich, he continued his record of winning at least one league title with every club he has managed, as well as guiding them to the 2010 Champions League final.
Along the way, it is fair to say that things didn’t always go smoothly. His personality, in his own words, “confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative,” have made him plenty of enemies in dressing rooms, board rooms and press rooms. He will, though, seemingly unlike Moyes, command respect from a squad of players, many of whom have won almost every honor the game has to offer. Importantly, there will be none of Moyes’s unwisely modest comments, such as suggesting Liverpool were favorites to win at Old Trafford or that United’s other great rivals, Manchester City, had a team that his were looking to emulate.
Perhaps the difference between Moyes and Van Gaal that Manchester United’s fans will notice, and appreciate, first, is the sharp contrast in playing philosophies. Moyes had achieved modest success at Everton with a reactionary style that was centered on attempting to negate the strengths of the opposition. That was never going to cut it at a club with United’s ambitions and history, but Moyes was unable or unwilling to change. The team lacked an identity throughout his tenure.
Van Gaal could not be more different. He has a clear philosophy and a proactive won at that. For better or for worse, the 62-year-old’s model centers on his team controlling the play and taking the game to the opposition. His Ajax side was revered across Europe, not just for the emergence of an incredible generation of young players, including Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert, but the way in which they played. It was a classic 4-3-3 in the famed Dutch style of the 1970s, a system he is insistent on sticking to and finding players, no matter what their pedigree, to fit it.
“The characteristics come back to my point on vision,” he said in an interview with Fifa.com last December. “You have to play as a team and not as individuals. That's why I'm always going back to the vision, then the team, and then which players fit in my system, a 1-4-3-3, because I'm always playing that. If a young player can do it, then I select him. If it's an older player, it doesn't bother me; it's not the most important factor. Age is not important.”
At Barcelona, that approach heralded the debuts and emergence of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, while at Bayern, Van Gaal converted Bastian Schweinsteiger from a wide midfielder to a holding one, David Alaba from a midfielder to a full-back and gave debuts to Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos. At both clubs those players went onto become cornerstones of Champions League winning teams, albeit after Van Gaal had left.
He has widely been heralded as a genius, even if he can often be too much of an ideologue to see the fruits of his mind realized during his own tenure. Philipp Lahm, who worked under Van Gaal at Bayern expressed some of the issues with his approach.
"We played an attacking style," he told German publication Bild shortly after Van Gaal’s dismissal in 2011. "We always took a lot of risks going forward. Often we were too far up on the pitch and left space for opposition teams to make too many goal-scoring opportunities.”
Bayern would go onto claim a unique treble under Van Gaal’s successor Jupp Heynckes, with the veteran German coach building on Van Gaal’s foundations and making the side stronger without the ball.
Van Gaal has spoken of the importance of keeping a coach on with acknowledge of the club and its players, particularly at a youth level. At United that will be Ryan Giggs. In his penultimate match in interim charge, Van Gaal’s now assistant handed debuts to James Wilson and Tom Lawrence. They could well be two of the several young players who will be handed their chances to impress under Van Gaal.
Much has been made about the vast amount of money that will supposedly be made available to strengthen the squad this summer. Van Gaal, though, has always been more about developing and sculpting the players he already has than buying ready-made superstars. Players like Luke Shaw, for whom United have already had a bid rejected, could perhaps provide the balance between the two; a big-money signing to refresh a stale squad but still young enough to be shaped by Van Gaal.
Quite what the future holds for those already at Old Trafford remains to be seen. A dominant No.6, a key part of Van Gaal’s philosophy, will doubtless be sought, while a wide player also appears to be needed. The decision of which of United’s myriad of No. 10s gets handed that role could be the most intriguing. Juan Mata has just become the club’s record signing, Wayne Rooney the club’s highest-paid player, but one or even both could well be forced out of the side or forced to adapt to a new position, with Van Gaal’s Netherlands captain Robin van Persie likely to be the main man up front.
Van Gaal doesn’t bring a guarantee of success, and his history and personality suggests he won't be there long, but, while he is, things certainly won’t be boring, either on or off the pitch.