Manchester United fans dreaming of a rapid return to the top of the Premier League under the stewardship of Louis van Gaal were brought down to earth with a bump by their opening day defeat to Swansea.
The Dutchman has ridden a wave of popularity since replacing David Moyes at the helm, thanks in no short part to his World Cup accomplishments, as he guided the Netherlands to third place. However, a look back at Van Gaal's past gives plenty of reasons for United fans to exercise caution in their expectations.
He looked to be picking up where he left off, leading United through an unbeaten pre-season against the likes of Real Madrid, Liverpool and AS Roma. However, the manner of the defeat to the Swans has already set alarm bells ringing at Old Trafford. United looked a shadow of the side that demolished the LA Galaxy 7-0 just last month.
While their failure to live up to their early billing has generated more surprise than anything else, the warning signs were there. Van Gaal is undeniably an excellent manager, but his record is chequered. For almost every success he has had, he has a failure to go with it.
His first two permanent postings, at Ajax and Barcelona respectively, were roaring successes. At the former, he spent six years leading the club through its most prosperous period since the glory years of Johan Cruyff. At the Catalans, he welcomed the league title back to the Camp Nou after a four-year absence.
Van Gaal’s first real slip-up came in his initial spell as the national coach of his homeland. The Dutch failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. He was then lined up to replace Sir Alex Ferguson, before the Scot opted to postpone his retirement.
Instead, Van Gaal returned to Barca, only to leave months later following a series of disastrous results that left the club perilously close to the relegation zone.
Four years at AZ Alkmaar, which culminated in winning the Eredivisie, rehabilitated his image to the extent where he was able to return to the European elite and take over at Bayern Munich.
Like so much of his career, it was a story of highs and lows. His first campaign began badly, before a surge in the second half of the season led them to the Bundesliga title. He was sacked less than a year later with the club floundering in fourth place.
He is nothing if not an enigma, as flawed as he is brilliant. This dichotomy isn’t simply restricted to his managerial record. For every player he has revitalised—such as Bastian Schweinsteiger, who he converted from an adequate winger into a world class defensive midfielder—he has alienated another.
He fell out with Rivaldo during his first spell at Barcelona, despite the Brazilian winning the Ballon d’Or in 1999, and released him upon his return—a decision which played a critical role in the decline of the team.
So far, he seems to be doing a good job of managing the bigger personalities in the United squad. Wayne Rooney, who has twice requested transfers in the past, has been given the captaincy, a long-term commitment to the Englishman’s role in the future of the club that should pacify him for now.
Another player whose attitude has also been questioned is Robin van Persie, but his relationship with Van Gaal is strong thanks to their time together in the national setup.
He can be less reliant on favourable treatment from the media. He has always had a somewhat fractious relationship with journalists, and while many pundits are still salivating at the prospect of his withering put-downs—a style in stark contrast to his predecessor—the honeymoon period can’t last forever.
If the Swansea result is anything to go by, it won’t be too long until the Dutchman can start to expect some criticism to come his way, and it’s unlikely he’ll take kindly to it.
Admittedly, his 3-5-2 system is one that is at odds with the traditional manner in which Premier League teams line up. Players will need time to adapt, and United’s is a squad in transition, a fact that Van Gaal is all too aware of.
As the manager calmly pointed out in the wake of the defeat, “it is only one game”. Van Gaal may well prove to be the man capable of continuing Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy, albeit more than a decade later than first intended. However, predictions of guaranteed success were always very premature.