Sport Soccer

Tuesday 28 January 2020

No room for humility as king Louis exercises his divine right

Jose Mourinho's managerial style has borrowed much from his old mentor Louis van Gaal, writes Dion Fanning

I f Jose Mourinho was inclined towards public displays of introspection, he may glance across at Louis van Gaal next weekend and consider where it might yet go wrong.

As part of his constant construction of a monument to himself (the work is as constant as the painting of the Golden Gate Bridge), Mourinho likes to outline the next 20 years of his career with a clear-eyed assurance.

There will be no faltering, no detours and no regrets. It is not a life and it is not even a biography. It is just an imagined cv. It has often been overlooked by some that Mourinho was brought in as an interpreter under Bobby Robson at Barcelona but he stayed to study under Louis van Gaal.

Louis van Gaal was as certain of where he was going once and it hasn't taken him long to sound assured again. But getting back to where he believes he should be hasn't been as easy as he once assumed it would be.

Van Gaal's genius doesn't seem as assured but that is as much to do with short-term memory loss as anything else. The Ajax team he built 15 years ago was considered by Terry Venables, among others, as good as the Real Madrid of Di Stefano and Puskas and the Milan side of Gullit and Van Basten.

Van Gaal built it with devotion and an attention to detail which he shares with Mourinho. He watched as the team of Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and the rest was broken up and arrived at Barcelona expecting to do the same again.

He inherited Mourinho there and may have seen more in him than Bobby Robson who, for all his qualities, was never able to make the leap of imagination that would allow him to define the Portuguese as anything more than a non-footballing asset.

Van Gaal had a different background to Robson and, while his playing career was better than Mourinho's, which was non-existent, he also had the non-conformity of the Dutch. In that regard, at least.

In the modern age, there may be need for coaches sometimes to stress footballing truths that in other eras were unspoken.

In an individual era, Van Gaal has always emphasised the importance of the team. "The media frequently portray me as an authoritarian figure, who thinks he knows it all. The people who work with me daily know better."

He is prepared to be collegiate with his staff on the assumption that they understand he knows it all.

Van Gaal has an attention to detail that may, at times, serve as a distraction from his brilliance as a coach.

When he was at Barcelona, he once showed up at a UEFA meeting with only one concern. The time between the players' pre-match warm-up and the kick-off was a minute too long. Van Gaal pressed until it was changed. This attentiveness didn't help Barcelona win the European Cup.

At Barcelona, despite winning two league championships, the hostility from the media who always wanted more, particularly wanting more in Europe, exposed the prickliness of the conceited who don't expect to be challenged.

Mourinho offered no threat at that time, but Van Gaal gave him more and more responsibility. "His analysis was good, even then you could see he understood football," Van Gaal said recently. "But at that time he was very humble and it's great to see how he has evolved, he gradually became a personality."

There might have only been room for one personality at the Nou Camp but when Bayern won the league last Saturday, Van Gaal was quick to praise his staff but also mention his accomplishments.

If Bayern had been knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage, Van Gaal was in danger of quickly losing a job which he had announced on his arrival last summer suited him perfectly. "The Bavarian lifestyle fits me like a warm coat. Mia San Mia [the Bayern slogan] -- we are who we are -- and I am who I am. Self-confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, industrious, innovative. But also warm and familiar."

Van Gaal had returned to the top after a decade of wandering. When he left Barcelona to coach the Dutch national side, it seemed that he would re-assert the values that had made him coveted.

When he arrived at Lansdowne Road in 2001, it appeared that it would just be an inconsequential stop-off on the way to the World Cup for the Dutch. Van Gaal considered the possibility of defeat in the build-up, but only in relation to Mick McCarthy who, he suggested, would be under pressure when Ireland lost. McCarthy would prickle on a bed of goose feathers but he was understandably irritated by the comments.

Only the simplistic and naive would suggest that the remarks had any bearing on the performance of the Irish team and Roy Keane, in particular, who would probably have agreed with Van Gaal if asked.

Whatever the reason, Van Gaal's cerebral philosophies were worthless at Lansdowne on a day when wildness prevailed and logic was dumped. He seemed desperate, probably because he was, and unsophisticated as he sent on forward after forward in search of a goal. Ireland, crazed and uncontrollable, held on and Van Gaal's record was tarnished.

Since then, things have not appeared easy (he would dispute that they ever were). It has taken him a long time to return to where he believes he belongs. He had an unhappy return to Barcelona before heading back to Holland, briefly as technical director at Ajax. That ended in acrimony and his arrival at AZ Alkmaar was seen by some as an example of how hubris can be punishing.

In 2008, Van Gaal handed in his resignation only to be persuaded to change his mind. A year later, AZ were champions of Holland, an astonishing achievement, and again Louis van Gaal was in demand. His arrival at Bayern suggested nothing could humble him.

Last December, he seemed lost again. If Juventus had beaten them in Turin, Bayern would have been knocked out of the Champions League and the familiar patterns of behaviour would have been given as the reason for Van Gaal's dismissal. He had fallen out with a number of players. "In training no-one is laughing. Everything is too serious," Franck Ribery said.

Bayern won and were blessed in getting past Fiorentina in the last 16. Alex Ferguson would see it differently, but Munich deserved their 'victory' at Old Trafford as it highlighted a perseverance that was a testament to Van Gaal's coaching.

He will believe that the European Cup is something he deserves; Mourinho might believe it has already been written. Neither man will do much to deflect praise. When he left Barcelona, Van Gaal announced, "I accomplished more with Ajax in six years than Barcelona has ever done in a hundred."

When Bayern were struggling in the long winter this season, the German press reported that Van Gaal was proclaiming in the dressing-room, "I am like God. I never get ill and I'm always right." Some time later, Van Gaal acknowledged he was not God. If he beats Mourinho on Saturday, he might want to correct the impression of modesty.

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