Monday 28 May 2018

Analysing Louis van Gaal: The man with a history of unrest at football clubs

Jonathan Liew investigates whether the discontent around Louis van Gaal’s career at Manchester United was mirrored at other clubs he has managed in Europe

Manager Louis van Gaal of Manchester United Photo:Getty
Manager Louis van Gaal of Manchester United Photo:Getty

Jonathan Liew

"Football should be enjoyable, but there has been nothing enjoyable about football at FC Bayern for a while now. Problems were created which were totally unnecessary and which have ripped the club to pieces."

You can generally rely on Uli Hoeness, the former president of Bayern Munich, to supply a decent quote. But five years after they were spoken, his words may carry an added resonance for Manchester United fans, who are now grappling with their very own Louis van Gaal dilemma.

After a successful first season, Van Gaal's second at Bayern disintegrated into a sort of slow-motion disarray: a perfect storm of dressing-room rows, political ructions, poor results and general dysfunction.

Eleven months after winning the double, Van Gaal was fired.

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This is generally how Van Gaal leaves a club - in a cloud of smoke and a chorus of rancour. Not always, as we shall see. But over his quarter-century in management, there are certainly identifiable patterns of behaviour that may well be recurring at Old Trafford.

"He always has a good start," says Sjoerd Mossou of Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. "When he starts at a new club or a new country, he tries to be polite. After a few months, things are the same as ever."

Friends of the press

Louis van Gaal walks out of his press conference yesterday. Photo: John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images

There was the odd raised eyebrow and plenty of confected outrage when Van Gaal described a tabloid journalist as "fat man" during a press conference last week. But Van Gaal has been picking fights with the media ever since he first stepped in front of a microphone. This is just the first time he made it personal.

So why does Van Gaal always seem to fall out with the press?

"First of all," Mossou explains, "he is a socially complicated character. Not just for the media, but for friends and family, and people he works with.

"The second thing is that he can't stand people making an opinion about him. People who have an opinion about him need to know everything. That's impossible, so there's always a frustration.

"When he worked at Ajax and Barcelona, the only journalists he took seriously were the ones who went to every training session."

At Barcelona, Van Gaal alienated the local press almost from the start.

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Hampered by his lack of fluency in Spanish, his press conferences were frequently blunt and antagonistic. He reduced access and complained incessantly about coverage of the team. "Always negative, never positive!" was a frequent complaint.

When the Dutchman was finally sacked in 1999, he departed with a withering barb: "Friends of the press, I am leaving. Congratulations."

"The third thing," Moussou explains, "is that he's a bit of an actor as well".

So he hates the media, but he also wants to create an enemy for his team. Strengthen from the inside, fight from the outside.

"Rinus Michels, the former Holland coach who Van Gaal liked very much, did the same."

With Van Gaal, it is always hard to tell where the tactical vitriol ends and the genuine vitriol begins.

His disdain for those who pass comment on his week is simply too heartfelt to be entirely theatrical, and yet too theatrical to be entirely heartfelt.

The dressing-room and the boardroom

Over the years Van Gaal has turned down numerous money-spinning offers from Russia and the Gulf states, and refused a huge pay-off when he left Barcelona out of respect for the club.

Few could question Van Gaal's honesty or loyalty. But he does not always pick his loyalties with the greatest of judgement.

At Barcelona, it was president Josep Nunez, a man widely disliked amongst Barcelona fans for forcing out Johan Cruyff in the mid-90s, and who of late has been serving time behind bars for embezzlement.

At Bayern Munich, he made a number of powerful enemies, including Hoeness and chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, who were ultimately instrumental in forcing him out.

At United, his growing perception as Ed Woodward's man has contributed to his unpopularity with supporters.

Politically, Van Gaal has developed an unerring knack for hitching his wagon to the wrong horse.

Van Gaal's particularly tact-free style also has an impact in the dressing-room.

As manager of a young, impressionable Ajax team in the '90s, his demand for unstinting discipline - shirts tucked into shorts, no towels on the floor, no newspapers at breakfast - served him well.

But modern players have proved less responsive to his schoolteacher approach. Rivaldo at Barcelona and Luca Toni at Bayern are just two examples of star players who refused to conform and fell out with Van Gaal as a result.

The upshot of all this is a sort of background turbulence that ultimately threatens to exhaust even the most resilient of clubs.

"The atmosphere was crazy, something different every day," remembered Roberto Bonano, who played for Barcelona during Van Gaal's second spell there in 2001-02.

"Every day I tried to be happy when I went into work. But it was hard."

The End

Van Gaal is not a man who likes to be caught on the hoof. In his manner and manoeuvres, you can spot the same lust for control that defines his fellow manager-patriarchs Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola.

It is why, in an age where managers generally cling on until they dismissed, Van Gaal seeks to determine his own destiny - a man constantly plotting his next move.

In October 1996, he announced his departure from Ajax a full seven months in advance. Eight years later, as their sporting director, he flounced out in a delightful huff after a very public spat with coach Ronald Koeman.

Even when he took an unfancied Dutch side to the World Cup in 2014, his future was already secure, a contract from United in his back pocket.

Occasionally, however, even Van Gaal is still outflanked by events.

In December 2002, with his second stint at the Nou Camp hanging by a thread, he led Barcelona into a must-win game at Real Mallorca.

They were two points above the relegation zone. His position at boardroom level was weakening. Van Gaal knew that if he lost, he would probably be sacked.

In this most crucial of matches, he took the boldest of gambles, throwing in an untried teenager for his first La Liga start.

It paid off handsomely - Barcelona won 4-0, and the following day's newspapers were not discussing Van Gaal's future or covering the latest round of boardroom unrest, but raving about an 18-year-old midfield prodigy called Andres Iniesta.

The Exception

There is one club where the normal rules of Van Gaal entropy did not apply.

In the autumn of 2008, AZ Alkmaar were in crisis. After a poor start to the season, the vultures were circling.

Pundits and columnists ridiculed him as yesterday's man, playing an ideological 4-3-3 system with neither the skill nor the pace to carry it off. Fans were bemoaning the style of play.

All the elements for a classic Van Gaal implosion were in place.

Instead, something strange happened. Van Gaal switched from a 4-3-3 to a more pragmatic 4-4-2, the dressing-room responded and all of a sudden results started to pick up.

They remained unbeaten from September until April, wrapping up the title by an unthinkable 11 points. With the odds stacked against him, Van Gaal had pulled off his greatest triumph. He savoured the moment and promptly left for Bayern Munich.

Wherever he goes, Van Gaal seems to be accompanied his own unique soundtrack of chaos and discord.

But the parable of AZ explains why, despite the seemingly inexorable misery around Old Trafford at the moment, this is a man you can never quite write off. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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