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The enigma that is Louis van Gaal

Manchester United v Crystal Palace - The Emirates FA Cup Final : News Photo
Louis van Gaal  – a great or a wasted talent?
Modified 20 Mar 2019, 14:54 IST

As Jose Mourinho continues to grow comfortable in his role as Manchester United’s manager, Louis van Gaal will only be a distant and bitter memory for Manchester United fans. After all, the red half of Manchester was quite upbeat about his arrival after his exploits with the Dutch National Team in the 2014 World Cup.

An experienced manager, who had been at the helm of Europe’s top clubs was precisely what United needed, especially after a morbid 10 months under David Moyes. With Moyes, United set all the wrong sorts of records including finishing outside the top 3 for the first time in the Premier League era and not qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since 1995. Louis van Gaal came in with a promise of better things to come.

What followed in the next 2 years was nothing but a terrible anticlimax with van Gaal digging deep into United’s coffers; spending as much as £250 million and having no tangible result to show at the end. His first season could be described as average at best with United securing a 4th place finish in the Premier League.

Also read: The right choice: What Jose Mourinho is doing right at Old Trafford

But at least he had restored their status as a Champions League team. Also, it was his first season and he had felt that he had inherited “a broken Manchester United squad”. 

Unfortunately, his second season was no better. It ended with him getting axed after a disappointing 5th placed finish in spite of spending more money on players who did not fit his rigid grid and a lot of talk about a "philosophy" which was never implemented properly. The fondest memories of Louis van Gaal’s tenure for United fans would be the singular FA Cup triumph under his charge and his comical dive in a game against Arsenal to get his point across to the 4th official Mike Dean about Alexis Sanchez falling over way too easily. 

A 3-2 win over Arsenal would not have brought as much joy to the United fans as much as this antic did

So when Louis van Gaal bid adieu to The Theatre of Dreams and departed to his holiday home in Portugal, many were left scratching their heads regarding this enigma of a manager.

The bright dawn of his career


In his first managerial stint at Ajax, van Gaal certainly exceeded expectations. In the period from 1991-1997, he led Ajax to 11 trophies; 3 Eredivisie Titles and 1 Champions League being the most notable of them.

The 1994-1995 season remains undoubtedly the crown jewel in van Gaal’s long and meandering managerial career and one of the best seasons in the history of Ajax as well as they remained undefeated the whole season in the league and in Europe as well. During the 90s, most of the Dutch team consisted of players from the very successful Ajax team.

Van Gaal posing with the only Champions League of his career so far

Van Gaal then moved on to Barcelona in 1997 and in the three years that followed he notched up 2 La Liga titles and 1 Copa Del Rey. Some cracks were already beginning to show, for he clashed with the media and players often. Rivaldo was one such example of a fallout, who refused to comply with van Gaal, insisting that he wished to play in the centre when van Gaal wanted him on the wing.

Van Gaal at Barcelona – the faces of Xavi and Puyol are very familiar now

Bittersweet moments to follow

Van Gaal joined the Dutch National Team at the turn of the millennium and after one thing led to another, he resigned in 2002 when Netherlands failed to qualify for the World Cup.

He returned to the Catalan giants and resigned after only half a year following a dismal league showing which had left Barcelona 12th in the league. As always, van Gaal and Rivaldo didn’t see eye-to-eye prompting the latter to leave Barcelona for AC Milan.

He returned to Ajax in 2004 as the technical director but even this stint was a short-lived one. He resigned later that very year due to internal conflict with Ronald Koeman.

He then managed AZ for 4 years from 2005-09 where he did well to obtain another Eredivisie title in his final season after they were predicted to finish as low as 13th.

Bayern Munich, described by him as a “dream club” was the next chapter in his managerial career. After a poor start, he almost led the club to their first treble in 2010 but lost in the Champions League final to an Inter Milan team managed by none other than Jose Mourinho.

In the very next year itself, he fell out of favour with the club and was sacked in 2011 after coming 3rd in the Bundesliga

Bayern and van Gaal had to be content with a double after losing to Inter in the final of the Champions League

Another 2-year spell at the Netherlands national team followed from 2012 to 2014 before his arrival at Manchester. This time, he did much better, securing qualification 2 matches prior to the last match in the group. Despite low expectations, the Dutch outfit came 3rd in the World Cup. This was especially better than their performance in the European Championships two years ago.

A ruthless authoritarian?

There is perhaps no other manager who has had as many fallouts and spats with players as van Gaal. Rivaldo is but a singular instance in a list that includes the names of many superstars such as Lucio, Giovanni, Luca Toni, van Persie, van Bommel, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Franck Ribery and many others.

Perhaps it is his authoritarian stance on players and the club, where he felt that everyone had to prove themselves to him, in spite of any star status they may have acquired previously. On more than one occasion, notable players have lashed out at him and he has been branded pompous, arrogant, hurtful or simply a bad man by many of them.

Many observers even felt that van Gaal had megalomaniacal tendencies and wanted to let the club he managed know that he was in charge. The stripping down of van Bommel as Bayern captain was perhaps the perfect example of his attitude towards players who could rival his power at a club.

A visionary and a harbinger of youthfulness?


Louis van Gaal does have a decent track record as far as young players are concerned. Perhaps it is due to his disregard for superstars and established players. He frequently handed out starts to young players such as Muller and Badstuber during his time at Bayern Munich. He also successfully converted Schweinsteiger from a winger to a defensive midfielder, something which Bayern Munich would go on to reap in the years to come.

He also handed as many as 14 youngsters starts in his time at United and Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard have indeed made the most of it.

He has also overseen the development of many players in his time at Ajax and Barcelona and interestingly, his departure from Barcelona and Munich triggered a good number of successful years subsequently. 

A comparison with “The Special One” shows that while Mourinho has given debuts to 49 youngsters in his managerial career, 33 of them have made only 1 or 2 appearances under him. The name of Alvaro Morata may stand out, but van Gaal has simply overseen many more young players.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Chelsea v Manchester United - Stamford Bridge : News Photo
Understudy turned rival Mourinho has a seemingly contrasting attitude towards youth

Aged 65 years old, who knows if we will ever see van Gaal again. But in all his years, he has had a very colourful career indeed and if he does decide to return, the spotlight will certainly be on him, just the way he likes it.


What do you think about Louis van Gaal? Is he a genius and a visionary or a power-crazed maniac? Let us know by taking this survey below.


Published 07 Jan 2017, 22:16 IST
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