Towards the end of my 45 minutes with Louis van Gaal, his eyes lit up when our conversation turned to his great 1995 Ajax side. The sternness disappeared from the new Manchester United manager's face as he pointed to his tactics board and recited the names in his young Champions League-winning team of 19 years ago.
He spoke of Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf and how his young stars from that era glided around the pitch as one. I had taken him back to his football heaven: young players, all products of his "philosophy", performing in perfect synchronicity. "I actually played with 17-year-old players in a [Champions League] final," he reminded me. "So don't say to me that youngsters cannot play football. When you are fitting in a philosophy you can do a lot. And of course Seedorf was playing at 17 in a final. And Seedorf was a fantastic player. [Patrick] Kluivert was 18 - and he scored a goal." The winning goal in a 1-0 victory over AC Milan.
The first 20 minutes of our conversation had been a sermon to which I listened intently. I had five aims in mind on my first trip to my old training ground at Carrington for two years: 1, To listen to a great coach; 2, To ask what he has found out about United in the past five weeks; 3, To see what message he has for fans who are desperate for signings; 4, To discuss the big tactical change to 3-5-2; And 5, To learn what ambitions he has for United for the three years of his contract.
The best-laid plans go out of the window. This was no old pals' act. There I am, with my notebook of questions, walking towards the long table where Louis van Gaal sits. He is an imposing figure. The light is low. Only one person is going to be in charge of this interview and it's not going to be me. This man is not going to be pushed.
Once the informal conversation had ended, I asked Van Gaal if we could chat in a more structured, journalistic way. "Chat? Not any more, because I have other work to do, also," he said. I thought I was out on my ear. But he relented: "I never have secrets, so you can ask what you want." As I leave he tells me: "Three-quarters of an hour is too much, normally."
Before I can start with the questions, Van Gaal beats me to it. He lays his palm on the desk. "I have a notebook, for you," he says. "It's always what I show my players. You can make the system that we're playing now."
He is inviting me to prove to him that I understand how United now line up. I'm on the back foot. The gauntlet has been thrown down.
"You want me to?" I say.
"Yeah, of course," he says. "You can do that. Or not?"
By now I feel a prickly heat. I say: "I'll have a go, but you're going to tell me I'm wrong."
Van Gaal gives me a penetrating look: "You are a little bit?... Shy?"
Three-quarters of an hour later, I leave his office feeling drained. This was the first time in 30 years I had been called "shy". But what followed was a series of fascinating insights into Van Gaal's philosophy on football and his plans for United, which are based on youth, "always the long-term", and guiding the players through a three-month crash-course in how he wants them to operate.
Every great coach is resolute about their philosophy. Van Gaal is entrenched. It must be his way or no way at all. Last season, I confess, I was worried about United after a disastrous campaign. I was concerned about where the club would go next. There was talk straight after David Moyes left that a foreign manager would come in.
I had seen what had happened at other clubs, where a 60-year philosophy is ripped up in favour of three-year cycles, with each new manager turning the culture upside down. I left Carrington feeling that Van Gaal is, in fact, true to the traditions laid down by Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson. I'm not saying he will stay 25 years. But he holds to the same principles. He offers reassurance: "My teams shall improve through the season," he says. "That is not a question," meaning - that is not in doubt. "They shall improve."
They say that in interviews you should "grab the room". Well, Van Gaal, and not me, grabbed the room. Rising to switch a light on, I was again beaten to it by the new boss.
"You want lights? Oh, you know [where the switch is]," he joked. "You are the manager. Already?..."
We get down to business. The fans want signings, I tell him. Can he reassure them? "I have to discuss that with my board, not you," he fires back. But he also yields a little: "You have to buy what can improve your team. That's why I bought [Marcos] Rojo, because he can play here and here [in two positions]. So for us he is very good. No, no, we shall buy maybe more players. You never know. I don't think it is fair for me to come here and fire all the players. So I give them a fair chance, I think." He makes it clear that those who took part in the pre-season tour of America had already been evaluated, while the rest have also now been assessed: "Now [or then] you can say something."
To understand Van Gaal you have to know that he sees his first job as instilling his ideas in his players. In a corridor at Carrington at 3pm, I came across Tyler Blackett sitting on his own, with a computer on his lap, studying clips of his performance in the 2-1 home defeat to Swansea.
Wearing my England coach's hat, I could absolutely see that Manchester United is going to be a fine place for young English players to develop.
"I think Tyler was playing his best match of the whole preparation [against Swansea]. But in his inexperience he gave the ball back too quickly," said Van Gaal, who clearly likes Blackett. "That's not good, but he shall not make that error again, because of that. The impact of an error is much bigger."
The learning process is "always with video", Van Gaal says: "Sometimes I speak with them interactively because you want to know what the players are thinking. I ask questions and then they speak. Not only me but also Ryan [Giggs, his No 2] and Albert Stuivenberg and Frans Hoek [his assistants].
"Ryan gives the analysis of the opponent for example, Albert will do the evaluations and I do the tactics before the game. I'm always present and I always interrupt my assistants."
After the Swansea game, Van Gaal spoke of the team's confidence being "smashed". When I heard that, I wondered whether he had meant "suffered a setback", and used a stronger word, in a foreign language, almost in error.
He now says he saw the confidence drop earlier, "after the game against Valencia, because it was a very big decline in that game. We beat Valencia also but Valencia were better. More comfortable on the ball.
"We have lost [against Swansea]. It always depends in football on the result. But I know it's not like that. It depends on the process, with the information at the end - we shall improve. But now it's difficult."
Even the self-assured Van Gaal, full of beans after the World Cup, has had a reality check. The method will not change. The players will hear, he says, "only the contents of my philosophy. I evaluate the game with all the players. I always did that. I also picked up the midfielders and defenders for extra sessions [after the Swansea defeat]. But it is only the contents of my philosophy. So, where [Juan] Mata has to play, or where the defenders have to play, and communicate, and cover the space. That's the only way to improve."
Will it work? "It always depends on the level of the players. I'm not a magician. It depends on the personality. At the end of the three years we shall have that kind of player. And I shall select them through. I say that to the players."
I want to get to the heart of his belief in youth.He corrects me: "That is not belief, it is seeing and observation. So when you see a young player has talent, and he fits in the profile of the position, then he can do the job. Maybe my eye is very good, that I can see if they can do it. But I don't believe only in experienced players, because you have to fit in the profile of the system. I'm here not because I'm a very nice person. I'm here because of my philosophy.
"I want my players to perform that philosophy. And I know which players are fitting in my philosophy. And when it is a young boy, it's good. When you are 26 or 27 you are more than when you are 21. But when you don't give them any chance then nobody can come in the team. When you see my curriculum, you see I played with Xavi, Iniesta, Motta - he is now at PSG -Puyol: I gave them all their debuts. Also in Bayern Munchen: Kroos, Mueller, Alaba, Badstuber, and they're playing still. Not a bad eye, I think?"
Along with Ajax's class of '92, Xavi brings a glow to Van Gaal's face when I ask him to name the best young player he has coached: "Xavi and Iniesta. Maybe Iniesta because he is a more explosive player and that's the way football is played now. But Xavi."
Van Gaal explains the educational process: "I have said from the beginning - I have not shouted - 'We shall be the champion'. We need time to build up a new team, and that cannot be in one day. It's a process, and the process is starting now. All my teams in the beginning were not good. They have to switch from instinctive to thinking. Brain. It's very difficult. I train in another way to the former coaches [Moyes and Ferguson], and that's difficult."
One huge part of that change is the switch to three centre-backs, which Van Gaal believes his defenders have embraced. Why 3-5-2, or its variations?
"Because it's more easy to defend. You have to defend the space and the player who is coming into it. When you play like that it's always less than 15 metres [between the three centre-backs], and then it's more easy to defend when you communicate good.
"And there are always wide players. And they are always free when they move good, in the right tactical way at the tight tactical time. When I play with three strikers, they are also wide. When you play with full-backs, they are also wide, but they cannot always go. When you play with three defenders, they [the wing-backs] can always go. Both at the same time. That is a risk, but I am a risky coach."
Changing systems is often met with resistance, and Van Gaal remembers winning his fight at Bayern Munich to adopt a new formation against the wishes of the directors: "I could also play 4-4-2 [at United], which I played at Bayern Munich in the beginning. They wanted me to play [the traditional] 4-4-2, but then I played in a window [or diamond] because I liked that more, between the lines, because I had Gomez, I had Klose, I had Olic. Gomez was 35 million - at that time a lot of money. After two months I changed it in spite of the 35 million, and played 4-3-3. I bought Robben for that reason, because he could play that way."
But how long will it take United to become a fully-fledged Louis van Gaal side? "It depends on the personalities in the squad. I cannot say it - but mostly it's two or three months. I've said it in press conferences." What will he leave behind? "A very good basis. After three years? A very good basis, and a very balanced selection." But the Premier League title. What about the Premier League title? He gives me that look: "Of course."
'You have to buy what can improve your team. That's why I bought Marcos Rojo (right), because he can play in two positions. So for us he is very good. We shall buy maybe more players.'
Speed of change
'All my teams in the beginning were not good. They have to switch from instinctive to thinking. Brain. I train in another way to the former coaches [Moyes and Ferguson] and that's difficult.'
'I evaluate the game with all the players. I always did that. But it is only the contents of my philosophy. So, where Mata has to play, or where the defenders have to play, and communicate, and cover the space. That's the only way to improve.'
Winning the Title
'I have said from the beginning - I have not shouted - 'We shall be the champion.' We need time to build up a new team, and that cannot be in one day. It's a process, and the process is starting now.'
(© Daily Telegraph, London)