The idea of “Total Football,” that ingenious and almost artful style of play developed in the Netherlands in the 1970s, is often associated with freedom and fluidity.
But not so long ago, it was equally easy to label Louis van Gaal’s so-called “philosophy” as rigid. Never the most democratic leader, the Dutch boss operated from a set of beliefs he regarded as gospel. No one could convince him to do otherwise.
True, this set of beliefs propagated attacking, attractive football, and yes, the players on the pitch were asked to fulfil many different tasks at once. But don’t think these players relied solely on creativity and the spur of the moment. When Van Gaal sends his players out for a match, he makes sure every little detail is planned out.
As he told Fifa.com in an interview in 2013, the 4-3-3 formation has always been constitutive to Van Gaal’s gospel. Having developed it at Champions League-winning side Ajax in the mid 1990s, he later perfected it at Barcelona. In different tweaked versions, he used it at AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich as well.
Ask any of these clubs about Van Gaal, and they would probably confirm his brilliance as a manager. But they would also likely comment on his leadership methods. Authoritative, strict, and sometimes abrasive, Van Gaal usually tries to impose his will on friends as well as enemies.
In this regard, a real problem came to the fore when Kevin Strootman, who had been a key player in Van Gaal’s 4-3-3 setup at the Dutch national team, suffered a serious injury shortly before the World Cup in Brazil.
Even with Strootman, the Dutch had found it difficult to successfully implement Van Gaal’s 4-3-3. Sure, they had qualified with apparent ease, but in a number of friendlies, including a recent one against France, the Oranje had received thumpings.
With Strootman out, a large part of the Dutch public had little hope for the World Cup, where the Netherlands would have to face reigning world champions Spain and dark horses Chile in the group stage.
Remarkably, though, Van Gaal made a shock announcement: He would relinquish part of his gospel and change from his favoured 4-3-3 formation to a newfound 5-3-2.
While it could be argued 5-3-2 is a more conservative formation than 4-3-3, it can also be argued that Van Gaal’s sudden change of heart was, in fact, quite adventurous. Who would have thought the famous Dutch boss would ever move away, even just in small steps, from the philosophy that made him famous in the 1990s?
Then, the Netherlands demolished Spain 5-1 in their opening match, and Van Gaal’s decision was vindicated in both his eyes and the eyes of the public.
Giving 4-3-3 up had been the right choice, and by embracing evolution, Van Gaal had transformed impending disaster into hitherto unimaginable success. By sacrificing a drop of fluidity on the pitch, he adjusted his famous “philosophy” to something more fluid than the set-in-stone gospel that it used to be.
It remains to be seen if Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 will bring success to Manchester United. But his implementation of this—for his standards—daring formation proves that he is more willing to experiment than ever before.
That creativity, that willingness to display leadership by taking risky but necessary decisions, makes him a better manager than he was before the World Cup.