Sean O’Neill discusses how Louis van Gaal may just prove his credentials as a successful manager once again in England after turning things around at Old Trafford.
Upon taking his first ever managerial role at Ajax in 1991, Louis Van Gaal shook the hand of the Dutch club’s director and told him, “Congratulations on signing the best coach in the world.”
Then, upon taking over at Barcelona in 1997, he used his first press conference to declare,
“I have achieved more with Ajax in six years than Barcelona has in one hundred years.”
After taking charge of the Holland national side in 2000, in his opening press conference he said,
“I’ve signed a contract with the Dutch national team until 2006, so I can win the World Cup not once but twice.”
Sadly, history shows that this wasn’t quite the case.
But Van Gaal’s confidence in his own ability ensures he does not lose focus on the job in hand. His ill-fated 2002 World Cup qualifying with the Dutch was the only blemish on a largely successful career.
He has been triumphant at every club he has coached; multiple titles at Ajax including the Champions League, two La Ligas, in three seasons with Barcelona, a title with AZ Alkmaar in 2009, followed by a Bundesliga and Champions League final appearance with Bayern Munich. Oh, and he did eventually put to bed his disappointments with the Dutch national team as they came 3rd at the World Cup last summer. All evidence points to him eventually reaching his goals.
The last two months of his tenure at Manchester United have re-enforced this view. Wins against top four rivals Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City have been accompanied by impressive performances from key players such as Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata.
These have been the victories Van Gaal has been searching for in what has been a stuttering first season at the helm.
His post-match comments after the victory in the Manchester derby at the weekend revealed his feeling that his master plan is finally taking shape.
“We are, this year, the better team. Man City were the champions of last season but now we have surpassed them. We have also beaten Liverpool and now we go to Chelsea. We want to prove we are the old Manchester United. I think if we continue to take each step, we can reach our aims”
Significant doubts were raised regarding his ability to reverse the club’s fortunes. But he has responded. Being the man who followed David Moyes was supposed to be straight forward, but there were times in November and December when it felt far from that.
The victory over their city rivals confirmed Van Gaal’s revolution in no uncertain terms. United have never lost five games in a row to any Premier League side. They put any thoughts of that to bed on Sunday as they produced a performance that oozed fluidity, only previously associated with Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United.
If the last eight weeks have told us anything, it is that Van Gaal appears to have the guile to reproduce what the legendry Scot did. United’s ability to stamp a side into the ground when they are on top is back. The knack of their players performing at their best in the biggest moments of the biggest games is back.
The Guardian analyst Michael Cox believes Van Gaal has more than aided his team in hitting their stride.
“I think they’ve played very well over the last few games. They’ve gone on a consistent run and are now in a position where they are certainties for the Champions League places. They are a point behind second place which is remarkable. I think a lot of credit has to go to Van Gaal for turning it around.”
The scars of last season didn’t look to be healing at the dawn of the LVG era though. World Cup stars Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Angel Di Maria arrived, along with Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera for a combined £145m.
They appeared to add depth to a side that had won the Premier League by eleven points just 15 months earlier. But a steep learning curve developed. Losses to lowly MK Dons and Leicester raised question marks.
But the uncompromising Dutch man remained resolute. His confidence in his own ability was unwavering.
Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville has noticed the change in the team’s performance.
“Louis van Gaal through necessity has had to change his formation to get different people in at different times. In the last four weeks he has settled into a 4-3-3. It has worked really well and the players looked comfortable in the system.”
Without the world-class South American flair of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao, Van Gaal has moulded an efficient machine, churning out massive results against their rivals. He has taken United back to where they wanted to be – into the top four. In fact, it’s mid-April and United are still in the title race- if only just.
The early season doubt that lingered around Old Trafford appeared to be a product of the fraught relationship between the former Dutch manager and his expensive Colombian front-man, Falcao. The on-loan Monaco poacher has produced just four goals in 23 appearances and looks likely to be shipped back to the French Rivera.
But just as Falcao’s United career appears to be ending, Louis Van Gaal’s is materialising into what the fans envisaged. Perfection is still a distant ambition, but redemption is just one of the checkpoints LVG has passed.
He will want to add Manchester United to the illustrious group of top European clubs he has succeeded at. With the momentum he and United are acquiring, he might just prove his greatness once again.
Sean O’Neill, Pundit Arena