Where did it all go wrong for Louis van Gaal at Manchester United - and what happens next?
Louis van Gaal's confrontational and stubborn brand of management has proved his critics right, says Elko Born, but what happens now?
Despite the love he receives from many of his countrymen, Louis van Gaal has always been a great target for criticism in the Netherlands.
Take his first few years at Ajax, back in the early 1990s. Still under the spell of club legend Johan Cruyff, who managed the club from 1985 until 1988, the club’s fans needed time to adjust to their new manager’s ways of working. Flash forward almost 25 years, to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, and you’ll see a similar sentiment. Van Gaal, with his oddly reactive tactical set-ups, was even dubbed a traitor to the so called ‘Dutch school’ of football.
As we now know, history caught up with these critics. At Ajax in the 1990s, Van Gaal won three league titles and the Champions League. With the Dutch national team, he engineered a stunning 5-1 victory against reigning world champions Spain and unexpectedly finished the tournament in third place. After that, few pundits still dared to speak up to Van Gaal, Dutch school of football or no Dutch school of football.
No wonder most withheld their criticism after Van Gaal’s first season managing United. He was building something new, you see. It was always going to take a while. After his second season, however, United are as far removed from the days of Alex Ferguson as they were before the Dutchman took charge. Sure, he may clinch the FA Cup before his impending departure. But in the context of a highly disappointing season, in which Manchester United failed to even qualify for the Champions League, that’s hardly an achievement that’s going to vindicate Van Gaal.
This is, of course, hard to swallow for most Manchester United fans. It’s also what Van Gaal’s old critics were waiting for over in the Netherlands. To them, the Dutch manager’s failure to convince the red side of Manchester he’s putting their club back on the road to success is proof that in the end, his penchant for conflict is simply not worth it. ‘Goodbye King Louis’, these critics say. ‘You thought you could come in show the English how it’s done, but they’re not having it. Enjoy your retirement and good luck in Portugal.’
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal and assistant manager Ryan GiggsReuters
Criticism like this is a little harsh, of course. Yet it also highlights what has gone wrong for Van Gaal in the past two years. The Dutchman has never been afraid to clash heads and push through his disruptive ideas until the bitter end, but in Manchester, Van Gaal has taken his stubbornness to the next level. More convinced than ever before that his methods are right, Van Gaal has taken the Van Gaal experience to the maximum level, alienating fans, pundits and club legends in the process (did anyone mention Paul Scholes?). The result? Self-implosion.
On the pitch, this stubbornness has manifested itself in Van Gaal’s insistence on playing two holding midfielders, no matter the opponent, as well as an unwillingness to grant creative players like Angel Di Maria the freedom they so desired. Van Gaal himself would argue he has had no other choice: the United squad has simply not been good enough to play the free flowing, attacking football many fans long for. In this regard, his two years at Manchester United are reminiscent of his second spell in charge of the Dutch national team. There too Van Gaal argued he had to make-do-and-mend with a squad that was only good enough for reactive, counter-attacking football.
At the Dutch national team, this argument worked because it brought success. In the Premier League, however, it’s not good enough. With more money to spend than most clubs dare to dream of, it was part of Van Gaal’s responsibility to make the squad better. Partly because of this, the stakes are much, much higher.
This, then, is the crux of the matter. When the stakes are high, Louis van Gaal’s methods seldom work as well as he would like to think. We saw this at Bayern Munich, where his willingness to go against convention and challenge the order of things ultimately started to work against him. We saw it too at Barcelona, where his tendency to argue with everyone in sight was one gamble too many. How different things were at the relatively smaller clubs he managed. At Ajax in the 1990s, no one dared to dream of the Champions League. At AZ Alkmaar in 2009, not a single soul was expecting a league title.
Marouane Fellaini in action against Leicester, with Wayne RooneyReuters
At Manchester United, Van Gaal has introduced an unconventionally conservative way of playing and given players like Marouane Fellaini more faith than the United fans can handle. Now it seems it’s too late, whatever happens in Saturday's FA Cup final: as became the case in Barcelona and Munich, the patience and readiness needed for Van Gaal’s contrariness to pay off are simply not there anymore. And although he might claim he doesn’t care, it’s near impossible to solve this situation. You only get one shot at a club like United. You fail or you succeed and when judgment comes it is unforgiving. As a result, he might have to retire sooner than he had hoped.
Now that Van Gaal’s career seems to be nearing its end, his critics may think they’re having the last laugh. ‘We told you,’ they say. ‘He might bring you some success, but in the end Van Gaal is simply too arrogant for his own good.’ And they might be right: Van Gaal’s refusal to adapt to English football has been a major disappointment. Too fixated on his notepad, he has failed to properly look at the particular situation Manchester United are in.
At the same time, it’s this same perceived arrogance that could motivate Van Gaal to shut his critics up once more. In the past couple of months, Van Gaal has been linked to a job at the Dutch FA, and over in Amsterdam, some people are still talking about a possible return to the club where it all started. So who knows? He has insisted time and again he will retire after his time at Manchester United, but is Louis van Gaal the type of man to finish his career in such an anticlimactic fashion?
He might not be. But whether his future lies in his retirement home in Portugal or in a job back in the Netherlands, Van Gaal probably hasn’t given it much thought yet. He’s been too busy dreaming about a scenario that may sound like a nightmare to most fans of Manchester United: a third year in England, a final shot at that Premier League trophy he craves.