No matter that the announcement that Louis van Gaal is to be Manchester United's new coach after the World Cup was expected everywhere. There will be plenty of surprises to come, for players and fans alike, one suspects.
The only thing that we can safely assume is that it will be explosive. The appointment of the 62-year-old Dutchman is a definitive break from the Sir Alex Ferguson years. Not just because David Moyes was dispensed with in less than a year to clear the way, but because going with Van Gaal is not a long-term plan.
Instead, United are looking at a short, sharp shock back onto the road to success. Van Gaal offers certain guarantees—attacking football, uncompromising commitment, attention to detail—but since his first senior post at Ajax in the 1990s, he has never got his feet too far under the table.
That was the longest spell he has spent anywhere as a coach—six years which incorporated three Eredivisie titles, two Champions League finals (a win and a loss) and a UEFA Cup.
Since then, his four-and-a-half season spell at modest AZ is his longest. He seriously thought about quitting in 2008, a year before he actually left, before his players talked him round.
Van Gaal was at Bayern Munich for less than two seasons. It almost beggars belief, when one considers how much he achieved there. At the end of his first campaign, Bayern fell agonisingly short of registering a first-ever league-cup-Champions League treble by a German side—three years before Jupp Heynckes and company managed it.
Bayern is perhaps a good place to start when looking at why van Gaal stands for success, but not necessarily for longevity. His manner was never less than confrontational, as The Independent’s Robin Scott-Elliot recounts in this anecdote about the coach showing Luca Toni what it meant to “have the balls for the job.”
The collateral damage in human relationship terms was considerable at Bayern. Lucio (who left at the beginning of Van Gaal’s spell), Toni (who joined Roma halfway through his first season) and Franck Ribery all complained about Van Gaal.
Even more revealing are Dennis Bergkamp’s views on Van Gaal in his autobiography, “Stillness and Speed.” Having initially developed prodigiously under the coach, their relationship cooled considerably in the months up to Bergkamp’s departure for Inter in 1993.
“We (the Ajax players) were young and keen to learn,” wrote Bergkamp, “but if we’d been together for five years, I don’t think van Gaal’s fanatical approach would have worked.”
The bottom line is the philosophy, or Van Gaal’s “vision,” as he calls it. There’s no room for individuals (and thus, a limited sense of empathy for the players). You fit in, or you’re out.
"The characteristics (of any player) are the last point in my vision,” Van Gaal said in a recent interview with FIFA TV, "because my vision is football, it's the game. You have to play as a team, not as an individual.”
“It's who fits the profile that I make for all positions,” he continued. “If it's a young player, and he can do it, then I select him. If it's an old player - never mind, for me.”
Back to Bergkamp. “For van Gaal, all players are equal,” wrote the now-Ajax assistant coach. “Even for the greatest players, the team has to take precedence. But imagine you have ten mediocre painters and you also have Rembrandt. Are you really going to tell Rembrandt that he is no better than the others?”
This isn’t to say Van Gaal is totally inadaptable. The Netherlands lined up in a 3-5-2 in the weekend friendly with Ecuador, rather than his preferred 4-3-3. In terms of United, that could retain the width that the latter plan offers, but might give Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney the chance to work together up front.
Whether tactically or ideologically, though, United’s stars will have to adapt. Van Gaal’s litany of career success means you wouldn’t back against him doing the same at Old Trafford—but he is of the opinion that you don’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs.
It will be exhilarating, but it is Van Gaal is probably at United for a good time, rather than a long time.
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