Wednesday 24 January 2018

James Lawton: Van Gaal built from the same mould as Fergie

Incoming manager has self-belief to fill void left by United legend

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, left, and former Bayern Munich manager Louis van Gaal speak after their Champions League quarter-final tie in 2010
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, left, and former Bayern Munich manager Louis van Gaal speak after their Champions League quarter-final tie in 2010
Twin brothers Mustafa Bilgi, left, and Hasan, right, pose for a 'selfie' with Louis van Gaal, coach of the Dutch national team and favourite to be the next Manchester United manager Peter Dejong/AP Photo
Twin brother Mustafa Bilgi, left, and Hasan, right, pose for a 'selfie' with Louis van Gaal, coach of the Dutch national team and favourite to be the next Manchester United manager
David Moyes was sacked as Manchester United manager after only 10 months
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal during a practice session for the 2014 World Cup
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal reacts during a news conference for the World Cup in Brazil
James Lawton

James Lawton

Betting is now closed on the identity of the next Manchester United manager, but not the debate on whether they have dealt themselves a dream ticket or another nightmare.

That speculation is inevitable and raging as Louis van Gaal, a football man not famous for under-selling himself, is set to be announced after the weekend friendly between his World Cup contenders Holland and Ecuador.

It is a match unlikely to come anywhere close to the vigour and high stakes brought to the contract negotiations by the prickly old warrior whose one significant concession seems to be a high ranking post in the new regime for Old Trafford's sentimental favourite Ryan Giggs.

One question is basic enough. Does the Van Gaal-Giggs equation really add up?

Not as a meeting of natural-born touchline companions, an alliance of like-minded operators, almost certainly not, but given United's desperate situation, and a following whose dismay stretches all the way to the New York Stock Exchange, Giggs' icon player status and huge popularity may just provide a re-assuring link with past success.

This part of the proposed deal is pure confection. It is a public relations exercise utterly detached from the central purpose of Van Gaal's appointment and can have little do with the player's less than full-blooded support for David Moyes.

When Giggs, who had returned to the team, and Wayne Rooney were asked if a victory which lifted some of the pressure was 'owed' the embattled manager, there was a pregnant silence before Rooney said, "The players owed it to themselves."

Van Gaal, no-one can doubt, will not be appealing for gifts from the dressing-room. He is tetchy, demanding and unswerving in his belief that he knows best. If crossed, he can be extremely spikey – a fact which provoked one Old Trafford insider to reflect yesterday, "We had that for around 27 years and it worked quite well."

DIVIDENDS

At 62 the Dutchman is 17 years older than Ferguson, when he was appointed, which given both his nature and the kind of challenge he faces may be United's best hope of quick dividends. Ferguson took the best part of five years to underpin his chance of becoming the most successful manager in the history of English football. From United's current perspective, that looks like a huge raft of time. Neither Van Gaal nor United have such luxury.

It is just one reason some of the harder-nosed United people were relieved when the four-game caretaker stint of Giggs became less than an hugely emotive advertisement for himself. At one point he confessed to being at a loss to explain a low key performance and then he resembled less an inspired miracle worker than a younger version of the defeated Moyes.

Now it is said he will provide Van Gaal with vital 'local knowledge,' an understanding of the club's tradition and philosophy, but the reality is that his new boss is unlikely to make such input much of a priority.

The only relevant tradition for him as he attempts to re-make United is the most recent one of rank under-performance, a collective failure to produce anything that might be mistaken for basic professional commitment let alone heightened passion.

Van Gaal's reported plan to make Robin van Persie – who seemed so deeply disaffected as one disaster followed another for Moyes – captain of both his club and country certainly suggests that he had made some brisk evaluation of the United squad before entertaining Giggs in his penthouse on the seashore.

Maybe he did a little research of his own, noting the breakdown of the relationship between Ferguson and Rooney and drawing from it some necessarily harsh conclusions.

Rooney, and his £300,000-a-week contract, has been painted as some great investment in a United revival, but Van Gaal is apparently more taken with the fact that United's last title win flowed from the hungry application of his Dutch striker.

What is plain enough is that Van Gaal understands the pressure on him to show a swift impact at Old Trafford. He has driven a hard bargain for what is no doubt one of the greatest single challenges in modern football and the more United's besieged chief executive Ed Woodward examined his options the more he had to see that behind Van Gaal's abrasive style there was a strong thread of achievement.

He has won the Champions League and was a multiple Dutch league winner with Ajax, picked up two La Liga titles with Barcelona and if he was fired by Bayern Munich it was only after he won the Bundesliga and laid the foundations of Champions League success.

Bayern, with their hierarchy of esteemed former players, found Van Gaal an ultimately difficult man to manage but they were bound to acknowledge that they had been dealing with a man of both strong conviction – and achievement.

Most strikingly in Munich, Van Gaal committed himself to the competitive cutting edge of young players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller. He said this was his future. It was also one committed to bold attacking football.

The parallels with Ferguson are clear enough. Ferguson re-modelled United, encouraged the superior youth represented by the class of '92 and imposed his own will and values with relentless, impatient force.

Then, after all those years, he suddenly left, leaving one last title and, as it turned out, a competitive void.

Now Van Gaal is charged with filling in some of those desperate empty spaces. He will do it with such immense self-belief and maybe, for a little while at least, that will re-assure United that they can regain some of their old strength.

Whether or not his appointment is a dream-like success is perhaps in the next few months ultimately less important than one self-evident fact. It is that the greatest nightmare of all would have been the whiff of managerial fear and inaction. Suddenly, that seems the least of Manchester United's problems.

Irish Independent

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