Louis van Gaal: My coaching secrets
As Manchester United prepare to unveil the Holland coach as their new manager, the man himself offers an intriguing insight into his tactics and football philosophy.
Extracted from ‘The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax coaches’, by Henny Kormelink and Tjeu Seeverens. Published by Reedswain, it offers more of an insight into the Dutch manager.
Monday is an important day. At Ajax, the medical treatment sessions on this day were extended when I took over, because this is one of the occasions when players talk to each other spontaneously.
There is also a detailed post-mortem of the last match. In the early days, the discussion was more of a monologue by the coach - i.e. myself. Thanks to my approach, the first reactions quickly followed and genuine dialogues were soon taking place. Progress was very fast in this field.
Each training session is a form of communication. The drills themselves are not so important, it is more a question of what you do with them. During training sessions the players see what a coach wants. I often stop the practice games and challenge the players to think about the soccer problems they are facing. Thanks to my 11 years as a teacher, I have enough experience to know whether I need to step in or keep quiet. Naturally, I explain more to youngsters than to an experienced player of 30, who is set in many of his ways and is probably incapable of changing them.
The media frequently portray me as an authoritarian figure, who thinks he knows it all. The people who work with me every day know me better. I learn something new every day from the people around me – from the players, medical staff and my assistants.
On Thursdays we discuss each individual player with the whole support team. I also ask everyone to say what he feels about the previous game and what he thinks about the next opponent. I talk to players every day. It is then my task as leader of that team – and I very definitely count the players as part of it – to make a selection from all the information available and to decide on the course to be taken.
I then expect everyone to support this course in public, because to do otherwise is simply asking for problems.
We also do a lot of video work: when I play European clubs, I regularly use these in preparations. It’s useful to use tapes to demonstrate important details like, for example, fixed patterns of play. I don’t just pick out specific details from a game: for example, watching a tape of a whole first half is usually more worthwhile than just picking out a few highlights. In that way, you can figure out why a team adopted certain tactics and then you can examine them.
I don’t place much value on the popular videos showing the best goals scored by strikers. I always look at strikers in relation to the team as a whole. When is a striker most alert, how does he react in certain situations, and what are his fixed patterns of play? I try continually to get players to watch games in this way. If you make them aware of this as often as possible, they automatically start to look at games on television differently.
When I introduced the term ‘team-building’ to the Dutch soccer world in my first season at Ajax, a number of journalists made fun of me. One newspaper, for example, published a photo in which the players and I were holding hands in a ring while playing a game of headers. The caption was accompanied by a mocking remark about the term ‘team-building’. But carrying out such an exercise is no more than a small cog in a large wheel.
In soccer, everything depends on the team aspect. All players have to learn to put the team interests first. At Ajax, on the evening before an important European Cup game against Gent, I asked my striker John van Loen what he thought was the best system to play against this solid Belgian team. John replied:
“4-3-3, coach.” He knew very well that he would not be picked if we played this system, but at such an important moment, John put the interests of the team first. That gives a coach huge satisfaction.
I have my own ideas about fitness training. The good physical condition of the side as we approach the end of the season is no coincidence. But I first had to stick my neck out. It is important how you train: do you want players to be mentally fit or do you just aim to ensure that they are in good condition?
We used to be taught that endurance was ever so important as a basis for soccer players. You acquire a different type of muscle tissue if you concentrate too much on endurance. It is important to avoid excess acidification at the start of the preparation period, and to allow players to do interval training (in doses) at an early stage.
The players find it very enjoyable. It’s less strenuous and boring than all that endless running. I should know: I remember my own days as a player. I was always at the back when we did endurance training. On a good day I could just keep up. On the field, however, I used to run more than other players.
THE LEGENDARY ‘NOTEBOOK’
The notebook I always have with me in the dug-out attracts a lot of remarks. For me, it’s an extremely valuable aid, so it’s not important what other people think. First I always jot down the collective mistakes that go against the pre-planned tactics. That’s the most important aspect.
Next, I always note down individual mistakes, of course. This way I have a logical sequence of aspects about which I can talk to the players during the interval. That’s why I find a list so useful. The chance of forgetting something important is negligible.
In addition, I use my notes for the post-match team talk and for other forms of communication with players and, of course, for putting together the drills for the training sessions after the game is over. If you don’t put pen to paper, you’ll forget something.
I believe that a team-talk after the game is also important. You can indicate exactly what went well and what went badly. You can pick out individuals, but you can also address the group as a whole. Above all, the group process is important to me. If, in the team talk, I pick out the strengths of a given individual, the other players must be able to accept this. Only then does the whole become more than the sum of the parts.
In an important game against Bayern Munich, my Ajax player Frank de Boer told off the young Patrick Kluivert in no uncertain terms in front of millions of viewers, and Kluivert reacted strongly. In effect, De Boer was right. By not sticking to the agreed game plan, Kluivert risked the team’s prospects.
Kluivert reacted very emotionally, which is fine by me. After all, soccer is about emotion. The next day, however, I expected Kluivert to be able to respond in a rational way again. He’ll then admit he was wrong. At that moment, it is a question of forgive and forget.
Extracted from ‘The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax coaches’, by Henny Kormelink and Tjeu Seeverens. Published by Reedswain.