Monday 19 February 2018

James Lawton: Louis Van Gaal showed a new face this week by tapping into the rhythm of old glories

Louis van Gaal is hoping to finish third
Louis van Gaal is hoping to finish third
James Lawton

James Lawton

Enchanted by a female saxophonist, profoundly happy that he had delivered on his most basic promise to return Manchester United to the Champions' League elite, Louis van Gaal showed a new face this week.

It was so engaging that there had to be the strong suspicion that it had origins not in a quite weird section of Planet Football but the one most of the rest of us inhabit.

An extraordinary, almost novel impression was created. It was that there might be still be something left in football that meant more than rich living and a reputation to defend. It could, after all the years, still inspire a spring in the stride and an unbreakable yearning to win.

Whether the 63-year-old's performance at United's annual awards ceremony quite justified the rapturous acclaim of such as Old Trafford old boy Gary Neville or the former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan is not really the issue.

After a season of intense pressure, and ultimately impressive achievement, Van Gaal's revelation of at least some of his inner self was as refreshing as a breeze coming in from the Zuider Zee.

It was about, above all, his belief that professional football should mostly concern a fierce commitment, a resolve to seek out only the highest levels of achievement.


He made clear, with some tongue-in-cheek subtlety, his disappointment that, in a club packed with such expensive outfield talent as Wayne Rooney, Angel di Maria, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, the player of the year award should go again to outward-bound goalkeeper David de Gea. Then he gave the Spaniard his considerable due.

De Gea had performed prodigious acts of defiance as United recovered from a dismaying total of just 13 points from their first 10 games to the stage where captain Rooney was brandishing his fist and calling for a charge for second place.

United, though, will happily settle for the fourth place which guarantees a return to Champions League action - that, and the overwhelming belief that in the wake of David Moyes' implosion last season they found a man perfectly equipped to re-create old ambitions.

There was, of course, a time for serious scepticism despite the Dutchman's superb steering of the Netherlands to third place in last summer's World Cup.

Along with the poor start, United fans had to be somewhat confused, if not seriously underwhelmed, by the eccentric style of their new saviour.

Arriving at games in the manner of a prissy schoolmaster, brandishing his man-bag and notes, to some he might have been chairing a seminar rather than a football revolution.

Yet the hard content of Van Gaal's work became apparent soon enough.

If United were still plainly a team in need of major renovation, despite some heavy investment, it was plain that the players had been convinced that they were indeed fighting for their professional lives.

Van Gaal says that he was stunned by the loyalty of the Old Trafford following. And its patience.

Here, maybe, is the key connection the hugely experienced and successful coach has achieved with the United tradition.

He has made it clear how much he cares about the difference between winning and losing and maybe the least surprising rumour of the week was that he has set his eyes on World Cup-winner Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Schweinsteiger might of course, have been modelled according to the specifications of his old Bayern boss. He is one of those players for whom the first whistle is invariably a call to arms.

That competitive thrust, so implicit in everything that Van Gaal says and does, is vital to the coach's belief that United can move into an authentic title challenge as early as next season.

That would be an impressive achievement in a Premier League that has seldom looked so jaded but it would also be a natural extension of what has already occurred.

United have found an old intensity and it is impossible not to compare the state of morale, and competitive tension, at Old Trafford with the situations at Liverpool and Manchester City.

Twelve months ago City were champions and Liverpool were reflecting on how close they had come to their first title win in 25 years. Now both clubs cry out for major injections of new spirit - and new troops.

At Anfield, the reality was savagely enforced last weekend. Steven Gerrard made a stagey, sentimental exit, but the emotions which flowed could not obscure a brutal truth.

It was that the man who had represented the deepest of their ambitions, was leaving a club that had rarely looked quite so lost.


Crystal Palace's victory was not so much a rebuke as a football morality tale. It was most garishly illustrated by the sight of a dandified Raheem Sterling striding out of Anfield with a wheely bag and a destination no-one quite knew where.

Sterling certainly seemed at least a thousand miles away from the kind of culture Van Gaal appears to be creating at Old Trafford. Or, on other strata, his compatriots Ronald Koeman and Dick Advocaat.

Certainly all three Dutchman have done much to illuminate this season with some of the reasons for their football nation's extraordinary record of over-achievement.

Both Koeman and Advocaat have performed remarkably in rescuing, respectively, Southampton and Sunderland from their accumulated follies. Koeman inherited a summer training field emptied of key players, then made a series of brilliantly hard-headed investments.

That he was drawing deeply from his players became increasingly visible through a season of extraordinary achievement.

In its way, Advocaat's rescue act was no less remarkable.

He gleaned 12 points from 24, a life-giving ration, and at the Emirates he too produced a rare show of emotion.

This tough, much travelled veteran wept after his Sunderland players battled for the point which saved their Premier League lives. He wept at the knowledge that he was still able to engender nerve and passion in players who a few months ago seemed to be broken quite irreparably.

Koeman, no more than Van Gaal, had cause for any form of tears, joyful or otherwise. He had laid out his ideas - and his values - and he had met with an uplifting response.

For Van Gaal, the special exhilaration was that long after he had made his name he had taken on one of the most demanding challenges of his career and had come to believe that he had a very good chance of beating it.

That, we could suddenly be sure, was as sweet as any note hit by the lady with the sax.

Irish Independent

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