Van Gaal’s aura sets him apart in an era of change at Manchester United
Only a few months ago there remained a section of Manchester United’s support that suggested David Moyes should have remained in charge at Manchester United. False equivalencies were made, comparing points totals from different seasons, and £150 million reasons were offered as to why Moyes had it harder than Louis van Gaal. If Moyes under-achieved in taking United to seventh place, then why is it an achievement for United to finish three places higher after such healthy investment?
Despite this revisionist thought the majority of fans have been more patient this season. There is a greater understanding of the problems the club faces in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era and there is an acceptance that the squad still lacks balance. Yet, given the challenges Van Gaal has faced, it begs the rhetorical question of why fans have always thought that Van Gaal is inherently a better fit at United than Moyes.
It is worth labouring the point that no two seasons are the same and therefore comparing points across campaigns is largely redundant. It took 85 points to win the league last season, but it was 79 the year prior to that, and 89 the year before that. It is a form of fallacy. The reductive nature of the comparison does not allow for the fact that Moyes took over a title-winning team brimming with confidence, while Van Gaal stepped into a club in relative crisis.
Unlike Moyes, Van Gaal’s record demands respect
Admittedly, 2013’s debacle of a transfer window effectively undermined Moyes’ prospects from the get-go, and it quickly became apparent that Fergie left a squad in dire need of re-building, but Moyes could have done more with the resources at his disposal. Some players resisted change, but it’s part of a manager’s remit to win over players and assert his authority.
The players didn’t believe in Moyes’ methods and this aspect is considered crucial by many in the game. On the subject Sky pundit Jamie Carragher once documented how the conviction felt by Liverpool’s players under Gerrard Houllier and Rafael Benitez didn’t waver even after disappointing starts.
“Before the Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in 2005, his message could not have been more emphatic,” said Carragher. “‘We will win,’ he told us. There was no wavering. He arrived with two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup, so we did not doubt him.”
The confidence in Houllier, however, stemmed from players viewing their managers’ unshakeable confidence in the press – which highlights a pivotal difference between Van Gaal and Moyes. Van Gaal walks the walk and talks the talk. He has a presence and it helps inspire team-spirit and confidence. By contrast, Moyes mumbled on endlessly about “trying” to make it difficult for the other team. “Try” shouldn’t be in United’s lexicon. Language is a contributory part of any culture and Moyes’ was dour.
This leads us to the chasm of difference in charisma levels between the two managers. Charismatic leadership is a huge weapon in any manager’s arsenal. Consider Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone, whom Tiago Mendes once described as “like a God,” and “if he asks us to jump from a bridge, we jump.”
The respect and admiration Simeone has elicited from his players is there to see in the club’s incredible feats in La Liga and the Champions League last season. Furthermore, it has taken something quite special from Simeone – something that even José Mourinho didn’t have in his man-management repertoire – to revitalise Fernando Torres. Charisma and personality may be intangible qualities, but they have tangible effects on the football. While the players are still on board with Van Gaal, the board should be inclined stick by him, whatever the near-term results.
The Dutchman handles pressure like no one else
Van Gaal wasn’t being questioned early into his tenure; not by the media, or his players. He asserted his authority from the offset. Not in the same way as Moyes at least. Suffering fools gladly isn’t one of Louis’ qualities. Consider the answer he offered one journalist who, last summer, asked him “what he knew about Manchester United”. “That is a stupid question, I think. That is a stupid question because (it’s) the biggest club of the world,” said Van Gaal.
The aura has faded a little and pressure is mounting, but Van Gaal certainly looks like he can handle it better than Moyes. You won’t catch the former Ajax manager off-guard making the same errors of judgement as Moyes, such as stating that City are “at the sort of level we are aspiring to,” or that Liverpool are the favourites for a game about to be played at Old Trafford.
These differences haven’t just manifested themselves in media performances. After a match against Newcastle United last season Moyes stated that the plan was to bring off Robin van Persie – who was returning from injury – after 70 minutes. He didn’t though and Van Persie suffered an injury recurrence in the next match and missed a month of the season.
“I think if I’d brought him off some people would say ‘What are you doing? You are 1-0 down and you’re taking off your top goalscorer,” said Moyes. Fans reacted with incredulity.
Although sometimes, for his sins, Van Gaal does what he wants too: making a substitution before half-time, omitting a fully fit Radamel Falcao from the match-day squad or handing out mini-dossiers in press conferences. This, it was suggested, was Van Gaal’s moment; that he had finally ‘cracked-up.’ Parallels were drawn with Rafa’s rant from his time at Liverpool. It is a suggestion that Gary Neville, in his column in the Telegraph, strongly refutes.
“My experience of sitting down with Van Gaal earlier in the season tells me he will have produced those figures and facts to attempt to teach people,” wrote Neville.
“I can imagine him sitting in his office saying: “I will cure them of their ignorance.”… Replying to Allardyce, he will not have been flustered. In his view he will have set out to educate the uneducated people about how football should be played. His absolute confidence will have led him to think: ‘I will transform all your opinions, so you start thinking the way I think.’ I laughed when I heard people saying he’s cracking up.”
Van Gaal’s re-building job at United is decidedly gargantuan; after years of under-investment by the Glazers the club has realised that spending in the Premier League is a pre-requisite. By sheer force of will, and the depth of Ferguson’s character, the Scot had a method of getting the best out of a declining squad in his later years.
“He had an ability to make even the smaller games – the early rounds of the FA Cup, the league games against lower-placed sides – feel like the World Cup final,” said former Red Paul Scholes.
“He got inside your head. He got you going… And then there were those very few occasions, not usually the big games, when we would be waiting for him and he would come in, looking angry. “Just go out there and beat this team,” he would bark – and walk out. One sentence, then gone.”
It requires a colossal character to bridge this gap. After returning from the World Cup, Van Gaal made quick, bold decisions in pre-season regarding who stays and who goes. He will have the benefit of a season with his feet under the table when it comes to the summer’s transfer window. The Dutchman deserves the time to re-configure United as he sees fit. He is the recusant required to carry out the re-calibration in a way that Moyes simply wasn’t.
Despite leaving Barcelona in tough circumstances, Van Gaal brought the club back-to-back titles after four years without a La Liga win. He revitalised the club, appointed a relatively young Pep Guardiola as captain, and brought through talented youth from La Masia. When Van Gaal left it was Victor Valdés that was first to thank his manager “for showing the courage necessary to gamble on a talent that only he could see. He began building this historic Barça side…”
Similarly, at Bayern Munich, Van Gaal’s influence in laying the foundations for the side that won a historic treble under Jupp Heynckes shouldn’t be under-stated.
With a difficult run of fixtures on the horizon Louis may ultimately fall short of bringing Champions League football back to Old Trafford next season. However, tangible results seem to be coming from the ‘philosophy’ and Van Gaal’s standing in the dressing room. The club should stick by him and let him build – fourth place or no fourth place come May.