If not for the susceptibility of indecision, Louis Van Gaal could once have been the manager of Manchester United. Far from becoming engulfed in a personal conundrum however, it was the indecision of Sir Alex Ferguson and his premature retirement plans that left Van Gaal’s involvement a matter for ‘what if’ consideration.
While it is now unlikely that Van Gaal (62) shall ever grab the managerial reigns of Manchester United, he does retain some vibrant common features with his Scottish contemporary. Both men are admittedly evident influences on the world’s current leading football manager: Pep Guardiola.
Van Gaal’s lack of exposure in the British Isles over the last decade is not an altogether surprising state of affairs. As the crow flies, the closest Van Gaal has come to a managerial post in England was represented during the heady days of unprecedented success that he enabled while manager of AZ Alkmaar in the second half of the 00’s. His Champions League success with Ajax in 1995, coupled with the defeat to Inter Milan he oversaw as manager of Bayern Munich in the final of 2010 are littered with consistent domestic success across three countries and the further glittering of lesser valued European success at Ajax. Yet, despite being a manager of such revered success, his lasting legacy on the face of football could equally find itself defined by his impact on Guardiola and the Barcelona of 2008/12 that he would create.
In Guillem Balague’s Pep Guardiola – Another Way of Winning, Van Gaal shares the merits of particular praise with the initial instigator of Barcelona’s great ascent under Pep; Johan Cruyff. Alex Ferguson’s influence on Guardiola instigated itself from afar. Apart from a few irregular meetings in the years during which both men built teams that would ultimately battle one another, Ferguson’s impact was never that of master and student, but more so peer and budding starlet.
With Van Gaal, and Cruyff before him, Guardiola experienced firsthand how these two colossal figures of Dutch football enabled a philosophy amicable to all formats. Cruyff initiated the process of playing football that would inevitably define Barcelona, while Guardiola would become the man to ultimately perfect it. The Van Gaal years of 1997-00 act as a fascinating conduit between the artistic intent of Cruyff and commercial validation of Guardiola. He would carry Cruyff’s philosophy but with a detrimental determination to never be questioned by either media mogul or one of his players.
What Van Gaal did was not necessarily wrong, but it was wrong for Barcelona, a point that becomes glaringly clear when Balague dissects Guardiola’s attempts to adapt Van Gaal’s stern approach when he himself took control. Guardiola, far from distancing himself from Van Gaal’s style, merely tinges it with a local touch that allowed him to prosper as he did.
Guardiola similarly took from Van Gaal the desired importance of vision. Be it the vision of one’s employers, of one’s co-workers or in this case of one’s players, his move to Van Gaal’s old club Bayern Munich was nothing if it wasn’t predictable. Guardiola shall flourish in Munich and the hard work of Van Gaal and Heynckes before him will offer him the perfect foundation on which to do so.
What though of Louis Van Gaal? It may have escaped the radar of many given the predictable nature of how qualifying usually goes for them, but Van Gaal has returned to the one managerial post in which success so blatantly eluded him : Louis Van Gaal is back in the Netherlands’ hot-seat.
Looking noticeably lean and healthy, Van Gaal has guided his countrymen to eight wins and a draw – although but for the grace of a last minute penalty it could have been a loss in Estonia – across the initial nine games in this ten game series of qualification. Already quite soundly qualified for the events of next summer’s World Cup in Brazil, Van Gaal’s side have done so in a manner befitting the strength of his philosophy; they have conceded few, scored many and remained beautiful on the ball, but more tellingly; ferocious with it.
The events of what will be four years before come the 2014 World Cup in Brazil are not likely to be so easily forgotten by fan and media alike. Even though Van Gaal was not the manager during their 2010 campaign in South Africa, the occasionally devilish manner of the Dutch performance won them few fans on the road to the final. Nigel De Jong’s chest height attempt to claim a ball at the expense of Xabi Alonso’s well-being was epitomised as a moment of sheer recklessness, the like of which would mar the entirety of their efforts in South Africa. How ironic it is however that the very system the Dutch players were trying to compress at the hands of their Spanish conquerors would never have materialised if not for the Cruyff/Van Gaal influence at Barcelona in the 1990’s. 2010 witnessed Dutch football taking on a honed version of a system they once implored. 2014 under Van Gaal may see Netherlands taking it back.
Perpetual underachievers, Netherlands will now look into a World Cup with a team that perhaps boasts the fewest bona fide superstars that a Dutch side is likely to possess. Of their recent squad selections, experience is rarely lacking – see Robben, Van Persie, Sneijder, Kuyt, De Jong and Van der Vaart – but perhaps more comforting is the club situations of these established international players. Robben and Sneijder, so often at the crux of difficult club scenarios appear settled. Robben in particular, given the heroics of his performances for Bayern Munich last season is finally looking to be a player upon which a legitimate amount of expectation can be lauded and yet not pollute. Van Persie has similarly enjoyed domestic success but perhaps more excitedly for Netherlands; he has been so readily free from injury and has prospered as a result.
Harmony is so often a complex state of mind to stabilise in a Dutch camp, but Van Gaal has so far appeared to implement it. While the events of next summer could yet be preceded with unexpected twists and turns, Van Gaal’s side should certainly be a threat. They noticeably lack a superstar in his prime, but perhaps this will be to their good fortune. Few will expect that they can overcome other contenders such as Germany, Spain, Brazil et al, but similarly few felt that Italy could do what they did in the World Cup of 2006.
Few will expect the Dutch to leave Brazil as World Champions, but fewer still will consider the one unsuccessful blot on Louis Van Gaal’s managerial record. He often goes unrecognised despite the success he rendered. In the Maracana stadium next summer he may just force everyone to take a much closer look.