As a lifelong Man Utd supporter, I had a real rollercoaster ride with my feelings about van Gaal. My mind is finally settled about him.
Louis van Gaal became the manager of Manchester United in 2014. The team had an absolute horror 2013/14 season and the man who was chosen to become the succesor of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, David Moyes, was sacked even before the season ended. Man Utd fans were crying out for a saviour to bring back the good old days to the Old Trafford,many believed that we were given one when the appointment of Louis van Gaal became official on 19 May 2014. The successful run of van Gaal’s Dutch national team at the 2014 World Cup convinced a good part of his doubters also. All on in all Man Utd fans were hopeful that the team will be back to winning ways under the „Iron Tulip”. A convincing run of victories in the pre-season friendlies fueled fan hopes even further. However, this fairlytale ended very early. Man Utd lost it’s opening match of the season against Swansea, and achieved only two draws in the next two matches.
The poor results led to several signings in the last few weeks of August, including high profile players Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao. The team’s form improved from September onwards, however Man Utd in the end finished only fourth in the league, and failed to win a trophy for the second season in a raw. Worse than this was the fans dissapointment with what they saw as boring football played by van Gaal’s team.
Nonetheless, a good portion of the fan base was still behind the Dutchman, van Gaal qualified the team to the Champions League and United performed surprisingly well against other top teams during the 2014/15 season(two wins against Liverpool included here).
The signing of highly-rated Dutchman Memphis Depay, Bayer Munich legend Bastian Schweinsteiger and proven Premier League midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin gave further hope for the fanbase.
However, some were left wondering whether the shortage of strikers will haunt United in the upcoming season. During the 2014/15 season, Man United’s strikers were Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao and youngster James Wilson, except for Rooney all were gone for the following season, with only Anthony Martial being brought in to replace their goals.
United had a positive start to the season and was second on the table in November, however, a poor run of results in December saw the team drop out of the top four and be eliminated from the Champions League.
At the same time, Chelsea sacked their successful coach Jose Mourinho, with Mourinho now available on the market and van Gaal’s team still looking underwhelming the press started to speculate whether Mourinho will replace van Gaal, disappointed fans started to warm up to the idea as the season progressed.
In the end United finished the season in a disappointing 5th position, missing out on Champions League football virtue of Man City’s better goal difference. Van Gaal’s team went on to win the FA cup, however not many were surprised when van Gaal was sacked a few days after winning the FA cup.
The reason for United’s disappointing season was obvious for everyone to see, lack of goals. United scored a mere 49 goals in 38 games, in comparison with this, surprise champions Leicester scored 68 goals, Man City who just edged United for 4th scored 71.
The performance of Man Utd against Leicester in the 35th round of the season probably characterised the team’s season perfectly, United dominated possession, created more chances than their opponents, but it was toothless domination, and in the end, the match ended in a 1-1 draw as United failed to deliver the knockout blow.
Our new Messiah Jose Mourinho replaced van Gaal for the 2016/17 season, he started the season with 3 straight wins, however, United failed to mount a title challenge as the months passed and in the end finished a rather disappointing 6th in the league, though Mourinho winning the League Cup and the Europa League somewhat masked our disappointing season.
The problem of van Gaal’s last season was still in place, United lacked goals, despite the addition of a truly world-class striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and two highly-rated creative players, Paul Pogba and Henrik Mkhitaryan, United only scored 54 goals in the league, 5 more than van Gaal’s team the previous year, and finished the season with 69 points, three more than van Gaal’s team a year before.
The following season the team’s league form improved drastically, United ended the season with 81 points, scoring 68 goals also, however, thanks to Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking Man City they were never in contention for the title after the first few weeks of the season. Fans were also angered by a disappointing exit from the Champions League against Sevilla.
After an underwhelming transfer window and start to the 2018/19 season Mourinho was sacked also.
Mourinho is known as a very pragmatic coach, unlike his great rival Pep Guardiola, who is almost doctrinarian in his approach to football. Many of us Man Utd fans laughed at Guardiola’s and Jurgen Klopp’s teams failing to win anything during 2016/17, while our team racked up three trophies.
For us both Guardiola and Klopp looked very deja vu, two stubborn coaches forcing their vision on a team that is simply incapable of that football, we had the same opinion of Louis van Gaal also, we felt 2016/17 justified the change of approach to a more pragmatic man.
The obvious problem with van Gaal’s team was that it lacked firepower, United was able to dominate possession, but failed to create enough chances and convert them into goals, Pep Guardiola’s Man City struggled defensively, especially with the fullbacks and goalkeeper, Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool struggled with the goalkeeper and the whole defensive line more or less.
However as time proved it, both Guardiola and Klopp were right in the long run, the two of them won all titles since the 2016/17 season, the problem was not with them or with their football but with the person they initially had. Pep Guardiola inherited some excellent players from his predecessor, like Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne or David Silva to mention a few, after he fixed Man City’s defence they went on to win 3 titles in 4 years.
Jurgen Klopp had a much harder job and he needed more time also. When Klopp took over in October 2015 Liverpool was tenth in the table, he only managed to guide Liverpool to 8th. He had the luxury of no European football during the 2016/17 season and yet Liverpool managed to qualify for the Champions League by a single point.
Liverpool had a slow start to the 2017/18 season, the defensive woes were ever-present, some were even questioning whether Jurgen Klopp was an improvement over Brendan Rodgers, as ridiculous as it seems today. Yet the Liverpool board remained confident in Klopp’s ability and with the signing of Virgil van Dijk, and later goalkeeper Alisson, Liverpool’ defence improved markedly.
They won the Champions League in the 2018/19 season and just missed out on the title against Guardiola’s Man City. The following season Liverpool romped away with the title, last season they had horrendous luck with injuries and had a disappointing season. This season, however, Liverpool looks to be very much back to their brilliant best.
All of these three men: Louis van Gaal, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp have some things in common, all of them have a clear vision about football, all three had major successes before their arrival to the Premier League, all had initial struggles to adapt their vision to the Premier League and their respective teams, however only two of them went on to build teams that are regular challengers for the league title in England.
Some fans believe that Louis van Gaal was past his best by the time he arrived in England, I am most certainly not one of them. The Iron Tulip guided the Dutch National Team to a third-place finish in the 2014 World Cup, with a roster of players who, except Arjen Robben, in my opinion, was good but not exceptional, and certainly not on the same level as the German team for example.
Before his tenure at the Dutch National Team van Gaal laid down the foundations of Jupp Heynckes’s all-conquering Bayern. Robben was bought for van Gaal, he made Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber regular starters, he also turned Bastian Schweinsteiger from a winger into a central midfielder, he also gave David Alaba his first few games in a Bayern shirt.
His tenure at Bayern probably showed both the best and the worst of van Gaal, he had a disastrous start to his first season, he had conflicts with many senior players(Franck Ribery, Luca Toni, Lucio) and he stubbornly tried to push through his football to a team that was unused to this style.
His results were so bad that he nearly was sacked, however, once he got the team firing they were unstoppable and won 15 out of their last 20 league games, won the German Cup and reached the final of the Champions League.
His second season was underwhelming and ended with the sacking of van Gaal, as both Germany and the Netherlands reached the last stages of the 2010 World Cup many of his key players were tired, he also failed to sufficiently strengthen his squad, his conflict with Uli Hoeneß, and disappointing results led to his sacking.
Some might see van Gaal’s Bayern and Man Utd tenure similar, however, for me there are key differences, van Gaal built a very good team at Bayern, his downfall came as a result of his overconfidence and sheer bad luck.
Man Utd on the other hand, was a half-made van Gaal team only. Seeing how two other stubborn coaches who initially had difficulties in the Premier League came to achieve great successes, I can’t help but wonder how the Iron Tulip would have fared given a bit more time to him.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Andrew Szekler