Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Louis Van Gaal - Genius? or Mad man?

As promised, my 100th follower on Twitter would decide the topic of my next post. Maaruthy Kumaar (@the_outlwawtorn) was the chosen (lucky?) one. His request was for me to write about Louis Van Gaal.
There are some Bayern Munich fans out there who will probably want to kill him (or me for writing about him), but he’s quite a special character Mr. Van Gaal. Some consider him quite the genius for his contributions, and others just consider him mad. With a face that looks like that of a politician, it’s always been rare sight to see Van Gaal smiling. Holding a serious appearance, this is one man who never looks like he’s happy; even when his teams played well. But if he looks back at his career he’s got a few things he should be proud of, because wherever Van Gaal has gone, success has, almost always, followed. He’s managed in different leagues across Europe and found relative ease at motivating his players to become victorious.

First and foremost with Ajax, where a decade’s worth of Dutch superstars were given their chance in the game thanks to him. The Golden Era of Dutch Football and Dutch Footballers happened thanks to Van Gaal, though he’s not credited with it as much as he should be. When we think of some of the names that went on to become World Class superstars recognized as Legends at various clubs around the world, it was all thanks to Van Gaal giving them a chance as youngsters and fielding them all together to form an unbelievable team: Edwin Van Der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Winston Bogarde (ok, not a legend but still – Chelsea fans should have fond memories of him), Frank De Boer, Ronald De Boer, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert…etc.

These are the boys he turned into men at Ajax where he imposed a 3-3-1-3 formation (or 2-3-2-3 if you like) which was based on possession (comparable to what we now see at Barcelona). The same players pretty much flooded the starting eleven for the Dutch National team for many years. His tenure at Ajax may only have lasted 6 years, but in that period of time, he made history. Leading a team made up of young fledglings to unprecedented success in Holland as well as in Europe: 8 trophies in 6 years, including 2 Champions League finals in a row (1 victory). An incredible record during such a short period of time which is often forgotten when debates go on about the greatest teams of all-time. I would rate that Ajax side highly up there amongst the greatest ever. Following his success at Ajax, Van Gaal was knighted. Yes, that’s right, knighted. Meaning he holds a similar status to Sir Alex Ferguson in the UK; but the Dutch equivalent. That’s how incredible his success was at Ajax.

His next step was to move to Spain and take over the helm at Barcelona. His short term there was controversial, yet successful. Winning La Liga twice and the Copa Del Rey once, his success was marred by constant feuds with the media and public spats with some of his players. Upon his arrival at the Nou Camp, Van Gaal’s immediate intention was to impose his style on the club he took over from Bobby Robson. His philosophy of putting tactics before players didn’t go down well with Barcelona’s superstars at the time (Figo, Rivalo…amongst others) and he replaced some of Barca’s adoring stars with no fewer than 8 Dutch internationals; a move that didn’t endear him to the “socios” of Barca. Despite this, Van Gaal was still successful. Some of the players he had brought along to the Nou Camp were the same players he had brought up during his Ajax days: Reiziger, Kluivert, Cocu, Zenden, Frank and his brother Ronald De Boer, Hesp and Bogarde. It’s almost forgotten now that he gave Xavi his debut and allowed him to break into the first team (as usual giving youngsters a chance).

His success was not good enough for him to stay on at Barcelona. Losing the title in 2000 by finishing 2nd place and losing his battle with the influential Spanish media was the end of his time there. The public fall-out with some of his players was too difficult to handle; in particular with Brazilian superstar Rivaldo (who was the Blaugrana’s darling at the time). The player insisted on being played as a playmaker rather than on the wing and of course, Van Gaal, being the man that he is, stuck him on the left regardless of the player’s opinion. It all blew in Van Gaal’s face in the end and both he and Rivaldo left Barcelona. It was during his time at Barca that Van Gaal’s reputation as a bit of a mad man began to prosper, especially with the Rivaldo situation. Whereas at Ajax his calm imposing presence was respected by all, at Barcelona, the stars wanted to impose themselves on the man himself.

Following his tenure at Barcelona, short stints with the Dutch National team, a return to Barcelona and a return to Ajax (as technical director) followed – but all were unsuccessful and Van Gaal was jobless and out of the limelight during 2004. Most of these short spells with these teams ended in feuds with Van Gaal being criticized for his behavior and stubbornness. The mad man was clearly not making many friends.

His return to the managerial fold was just another demonstration of the class that Van Gaal has as a manager. Taking over the reins of AZ Alkmaar in early 2005, an unfashionable club in the Dutch league with a stadium that holds no more than 17000 people, he turned them into League Champions by 2008. A feat all the more remarkable in a league which had only 3 different winners (PSV, Ajax & Feyernoord) since the last time AZ won it, back in 1981. His success with AZ led him to his next big break – with the mighty Bayern Munich where he spent only 2 seasons. Success followed as well, with a League and Cup double in his first season, which could have been a treble but for the defeat in the Champions League final vs Inter Milan. Van Gaal had made his mark and put Bayern back on the European map (also gave youngsters a chance again - Muller, Badstuber...). However, towards the end of the following season, 2010-2011, Van Gaal was sacked for failing to securd 3rd spot in the league; a harsh sacking, but which was greeted by many in Munich.

Stories of Van Gaal clashing with his players constantly kept occurring in Munich and it disrupted the squad. One of them, told by Luca Toni to the press, was about Van Gaal pulling down his pants in the Bayern Munich dressing room to show his testicles to the players to prove to them that he had “balls” to drop any player from the team. There were also rumors that Van Gaal made his players (and his children) call him “Sie”, which is the equivalent of using the plural for someone older, or more respected, in languages like French or Spanish. There’s also the common perception that Van Gaal hated Brazilian footballers, as wherever he managed, he had difficulties with them and treated them differently (Sunny Anderson, Rivaldo, Lucio…). A lot was even made about his speech during Munich’s title celebrations. Many comparing it to that of a dictator (I can’t blame them really,
click here to see it).

Despite all that, Van Gaal’s records everywhere speak for themselves. It is a shame that he’s without a job at the moment, because if ever there was a manager to guarantee a team instant success and discipline, Mr Van Gaal would be the man the ensure it. And I can think of quite a few clubs around Europe would could use such a manager.


  1. I totally agree with you! :D Awesome article and I like your blog as well! :)

    S├ębastien :DD

  2. Thanks a lot for the feedback Sebastien!

  3. hope he becomes the next spurs manager

  4. This was a good article. Its quite relevant considering Van Gaal is probably 24 hours away from being named the new manager of Manchester United.

  5. Forgive but do not forget, or you will be hurt again. Forgiving changes the perspectives. Forgetting loses the lesson.