Arsene Wenger could be forgiven for wondering whether it would indeed be Louis van Gaal in the opposite dugout when Arsenal travel to Manchester United this weekend. The Dutchman has been under huge pressure of late, but two important wins in cup competitions have ensured he'll remain in charge to face the Gunners.
It's a huge match with plenty at stake. Arsenal are chasing the title, while United need the points in order to keep alive their hopes of a top-four finish and a return to the UEFA Champions League.
Furthermore, it's a clash between two of the most decorated and respected managers on the continent. In this piece, we break down the battle between the two managers of Manchester United and Arsenal.
This is maybe the most simple measure of a manager's success. In this respect, Van Gaal reigns supreme. With Ajax, he won the Champions League, UEFA Cup, Intercontinental Cup, UEFA Super Cup and three consecutive Eredivisie titles. He later returned to the Dutch league to win another title at AZ.
With Barcelona, he twice finished on top of La Liga as well as winning the Copa del Rey and UEFA Super Cup. His time at Bayern Munich saw him land both the Bundesliga and the German Cup and Supercup. Frankly, it's an outrageously good record.
However, his last major trophy was won in 2010. Wenger's success has been more sporadic but continues to this day—two of his record six FA Cup winners medals were won in the last two years. At Arsenal, Wenger has also won three Premier League titles, albeit the last of those came in 2004.
In his previous jobs, Wenger won both Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France with Monaco before claiming the Emperor's Cup and J-League Super Cup with Nagoya Grampus Eight.
Nevertheless, Wenger's medal collection looks very sparse next to Van Gaal's extensive achievements.
Style of play
What Wenger lacks in silverware, he makes up for in style. The Frenchman has created a culture of good football that will surely extend well beyond his reign. Under his watch, Arsenal have become synonymous with attractive play. Some of the most aesthetically audacious teams of the past two decades have been produced by Wenger.
The same cannot always be said for Van Gaal, whose approach to the game is more didactic and less to do with individual expression. He sees football more strategically, coercing his players into a disciplined shape and strangling games with his methodical possession style.
That's not proved particularly popular at Old Trafford. Earlier this season, former United midfielder Paul Scholes told BT Sport (h/t the Daily Mail):
The players are bored, fans are bored, everyone's bored. You look across at the bench and Van Gaal looks bored as well.
I don't think there will be many fans who will be happy with that performance. I'd never call for manager to be sacked. He's got some really good players there, but he's spent £250million so he's got to have good players here. His style of football is not suited to Manchester United.
When it comes to sheer style, Van Gaal cannot compete with Wenger.
Both managers are passionate about developing young players. For Wenger, that has partly come out of necessity—when Arsenal were forced to make financial cutbacks to pay for the Emirates Stadium, he had to rely on academy products to fill out his squad.
However, a glance at his broader career will show he's always been passionate about helping promising players achieve their potential. His eye for talent has seen the likes of George Weah, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira prosper under his tutelage.
Few managers have been quite so prolific at blooding young players as Van Gaal. After all, he's the man who handed first-team debuts to Clarence Seedorf, Thomas Muller, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Patrick Kluivert.
That trend is continuing to this day. Although Van Gaal may not be the most popular man in Manchester, his willingness to put his faith in young players does at least fit with the club's philosophy. The most recent example is young striker Marcus Rashford, who could be in line to start against Arsenal this weekend.
Although he is seemingly an astute judge of talent, Van Gaal has not managed to use that ability effectively in the transfer market at United. His vast expenditure has not been particularly fruitful.
Speaking to Sky Sports, journalist Matt Law was very critical of Van Gaal's scattergun approach: "Every transfer window we come to, there doesn't seem to be any proper plan. It's 'oh, we'll try and sign Neymar, we'll try and sign Gareth Bale' and actually they end up with [Morgan] Schneiderlin and [Bastian] Schweinsteiger. It’s just a disaster."
It's certainly fair to say that Van Gaal has not bought very well since taking charge of United—and some of his decisions to sell players have been equally questionable. Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez, for example, were both let go for modest fees and have embarrassed Van Gaal to different degrees with their success since.
Wenger has had some less-than-glorious moments in the market, too—who can forget the purchase of Park Chu-Young, for example? However, for the most part, he has spent Arsenal's money extremely wisely. Wenger also has an invaluable knack of selling players at the optimum moment in order to maximise profits.
Even though he has temporarily steadied the ship, Van Gaal's future at Manchester United is still in real doubt. Speculation continues to swirl about the possibility of him being replaced at the end of the season, with Harry Redknapp even telling the Evening Standard (h/t the Express) that it’s a "done deal" for him to be replaced by Jose Mourinho at the end of the season.
Van Gaal could have few arguments—especially if he failed to make the top four. With the level of investment he's had, United ought to be contesting the title.
Arsenal are—just about. The Gunners are part of the four-horse race for the Premier League, and Wenger will sense a tremendous opportunity to win his first championship since 2004.
Should he prove he can win the league, Wenger's contract with Arsenal could be extended beyond its current end date of 2017. Wenger may be the older man by two years, but it looks like he'll be sticking around longer than his Dutch counterpart.
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