Louis van Gaal is a man with complete belief in his own ‘philosophy’ and methods, and has earned the tag of ‘dictator’ over his management career. His clashes with players are well documented, and many have been outspoken about his methods over the years. It’s fair to say he’s a divisive character, and his stock with fans seems to fluctuate quite unpredictably at times. At Manchester United, Van Gaal had a first season filled with hits and misses, culminating in a 4th place finish to earn that coveted Champions League spot. So what should United players and fans expect over the remainder of King Louis’ reign at the club?
It’s hard to see United playing free-flowing football and scoring at will under Van Gaal, and expecting a Premier League title might be asking too much. When Van Gaal won the Bundesliga title with Bayern Munich, the team netted 72 goals. The next year saw the goal tally rise to 81, but a 3rd-place finish led to Van Gaal’s departure from the club. The following season under Jupp Heynckes, Bayern finished runners up, with only 77 goals. However, the 2012-13 season, which was Heynckes’ second in charge, saw Bayern score a whopping 98 goals, followed up by 94 goals in Pep Guardiola’s first season there.
LVG’s tendency of holding back attacking flair has reared its head at United. In his first season in charge, United mustered 62 goals – 2 shy of the turbulent 2013-14 season under David Moyes (and, briefly, Ryan Giggs). This tally was a 10 year low – the last time United scored fewer goals was in 2004-05, where we managed only 58 and finished runners up to Chelsea. Wayne Rooney ended last season as top scorer with 14 goals, which is the lowest tally for a Manchester United top scorer since 1981-82, when Frank Stapleton managed only 13.
If these statistics don’t provide a clearer perspective on Louis van Gaal’s philosophy, his comments after the game against Liverpool shed some more light. Asked about his side’s performance in each half, Van Gaal stated: “I think we played better in the first half in that we had far more control.” No doubt, United saw 61% of the ball in the first half compared to only 51% in the second. However, when you take into consideration that United managed only 2 shots in the first half and 7 in the second, and scored all three goals in the second half from 3 shots on target, Van Gaal’s comments seem counterintuitive at best. Controlling games certainly has its merits, but United fans can perhaps stop expecting 4-0 victories against bottom-rung sides lining up defensively at Old Trafford after being spoilt with them under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Pep Guardiola’s football philosophy, which came to be popularized as ‘tiki-taka’, has set the foundation of Barcelona’s style of quick movement and short passes for years to come. However, Louis van Gaal’s philosophy hasn’t enjoyed such longevity. After stamping his mark on the managerial world with Ajax from 1991-1997, Van Gaal has failed to serve for more than 3 years in any of his other managerial stints, barring one at AZ from 2005-2009. At Barcelona, despite enjoying league success in his 3 years there, he left after finishing 2nd to Deportivo de la Coruña in 2000. He claimed to have had difficulty implementing his philosophy due to lack of cooperation from players, the most famous case being that of Rivaldo, who wanted to play in a central position but was made to play on the right by the manager.
Van Gaal’s return to Barcelona in 2002 was disappointing by any standards. His signings had failed to perform, and Juan Roman Riquelme, bought in to replace Rivaldo, had a forgettable time there. He left by mutual consent with Barcelona in 12th place and only 3 points adrift of the relegation zone. Fast forward to 2015 at Manchester United, and one can draw parallels with big money signings failing to perform at the club. Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao were hot properties in football at the time of their arrival, but couldn’t adapt to Van Gaal’s way. Perhaps the manager must be given credit for having the spine to take them out of the first team – something David Moyes wouldn’t have been likely to do – but when you consider the enormity of the sum spent in acquiring the services of proven world class talent, Van Gaal’s rigidity can look ill-judged.
Looking at the money Manchester United have spent under Louis van Gaal, United start resembling the cold commercialism of Real Madrid or Manchester City. Fallouts with players of high stature such as Victor Valdes, Angel di Maria, Radamel Falcao and Robin van Persie, and successful youngsters of the past such as Rafael da Silva, don’t paint the picture of a happy, integrated environment. Couple that with rumours of unrest in the dressing room, and United seem to be losing something of the aura of the club.
United are on an incredible streak of 75 years with a home grown player featuring in the squad in every game, but last weekend against Southampton, young Paddy McNair was the only one keeping the record alive, and perhaps would have lost his place to Marcos Rojo if Luke Shaw hadn’t suffered the injury he did against PSV. Having been treated to a stable manager and faithful players since time immemorial, United fans are having to come to terms with the crueller corporate logic of the modern game.
However, there still remains cause for optimism. Van Gaal’s organizational efficiency has shown to benefit managers that step into his shoes once he leaves. After Van Gaal’s second spell at Barcelona, the team immediately recovered under Frank Rijkaard, finishing runners up in his first season and winning the La Liga title a season after. In Rijkaard’s third season, Barcelona not only retained the La Liga title, they also won the UEFA Champions League and the Spanish Super Cup, completing the coveted treble. Almost a direct parallel can be drawn with Bayern Munich post Louis van Gaal, where Jupp Heynckes’ side finished runners up in his first season in charge, and won the Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League, DFB Pokal and the DFL-Super Cup a season after. Historical precedent indicates that van Gaal will efficiently eclipse the ugly organizational void left behind after Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, and present Ryan Giggs with the perfect platform for success as United seek to reclaim their spot at the top of the footballing world and in the hearts of their fans.
Cover image by Stan Chow.