Sunday 17 December 2017

Vincent Hogan: Heart-on-sleeve Klopp winning the love that Van Gaal has never had

'Today, it's easy to believe that Klopp is perfect for the city. Perfect for the insanity, the humour, the desperate, clinging love' Photo: PA
'Today, it's easy to believe that Klopp is perfect for the city. Perfect for the insanity, the humour, the desperate, clinging love' Photo: PA
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

When Louis Van Gaal was manager of Barcelona, the Spanish equivalent of Spitting Image depicted him as a stack of bricks with a mop of hair on top, barking out endless, indecipherable demands.

Van Gaal was never loved by Catalans and Guinoles wasn't slow to exaggerate wildly the cultural differences between Barcelona's manager and his audience. He had been brought in to be the next Johan Cruyff, another guardian of so-called 'Total Football', but was seen as too regimented, too authoritarian to honour that philosophy.

Despite winning two La Liga titles and a Copa del Rey in the first of two stints at the Nou Camp, Van Gaal was thus never taken into Catalan hearts. His media briefings radiated suspected condescension and a mistrust of flair. He coveted discipline, compliance, order.

Van Gaal struggled to work with individualistic talents like Rivaldo, the Brazilian frustrated at being used as a left winger when he yearned to play as a No 10. In the manager's eyes, Rivaldo simply lacked the basic humility to conform. To the Brazilian, Van Gaal was a clown.

Or, perhaps, "a pompous arse" as Zlatan Ibrahimovic described the Dutchman during his time at Ajax in I Am Zlatan.

Van Gaal's history in football is one of remarkable but unromantic achievement. He invokes respect, yet little enough affection.


For a man who gave the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol their debuts at Barca, it has been remarkable to see caricature overtake him again in recent weeks. When your own supporters cheer ironically at the novelty of witnessing a shot on goal (as against Sheffield United in the FA Cup last weekend), it's fair to say that you're losing the battle for their hearts.

He has, then, the air of a man who knows this isn't working.

Yet Van Gaal brings his team to Anfield tomorrow for a fixture that, effectively, buried Liverpool last season. The home side went into it on the back of a league run yielding 33 out of a possible 39 points since their 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford in December. Brendan Rodgers seemed to have Liverpool smoking again.

But Van Gaal's United won at Anfield in a game almost overtaken by the sulphurous back-story of Steven Gerrard's dismissal just 40 seconds after his introduction as a second-half substitute. Liverpool would win just two of their remaining eight League games, losing four while, of course, Aston Villa mugged them in an FA Cup semi-final.

Events at Anfield on March 22 just left a wretched scar that, ultimately, Rodgers could not heal.

So, Jurgen Klopp gets an introduction to the vicious intimacy of Liverpool-United against a manager 16 years his senior and one palpably in trouble. The German's first three months in charge at Anfield have been ablaze with all the wild optimism, jolting morbidity and black humour that the modern-day Liverpool tends to visit upon its people.

Klopp fatigue will, inevitably, set in. For now, he has the cushion of tolerance and patience, but fast-forward 12 months. Imagine a Liverpool team still lost in the outer suburbs of top four contention. Say the West Hams and Newcastles and Watfords are still pushing them around?

Judgements will, inevitably, stiffen then and that booming, cabaret-hall laugh might just seem an innocent memory.

But, today, it's easy to believe that he is perfect for the city. Perfect for the insanity, the humour, the desperate, clinging love. Klopp isn't infected with the natural irrationality of fans, but he does seem a manager who can communicate with it.

His celebration of Joe Allen's late equaliser against Arsenal on Wednesday night seemed far more in tune with the heartbeat of his community than Rafa Benitez's famous impassivity or, dare we say, Rodgers' stiff-arm fist-pump to the Heavens.

Some personalities radiate light, others diminish it.

Van Gaal's aloofness, his bulldog solemnity, his iron grip on that ever-present clipboard articulate an intellectualisation of the game that can seem a hopeless conceit when the opposition goalkeeper is among those looking bored. True, his CV makes Klopp's look faintly one-trick and parochial, but crisis management clearly isn't Van Gaal's forte.

This morning, United are three points above Liverpool in the table, yet spiritually it's as if they lag some distance behind.

Because there is no sense that United's manager today is expected to be their manager next season. No real evidence of a broad appetite for him to stay.

Yet United are just two points outside the Champions League positions and, despite Tuesday's defensive aberrations in Newcastle, they've conceded the second fewest amount of goals in the Premier League.

Trouble is, they haven't exactly been free-flowing either. Of the top six, they are easily the lowest scorers and, for a club conditioned to expect cavalry charges towards the opposition goal, Van Gaal's tactical obduracy is clearly a matter of disquiet at all levels.

That said, there seemed something utterly perverse in the recent, widely reported criticism of Van Gaal by the chief executive of United's shirt sponsor, adidas. Herbert Hainer suggested that United's style of football under the Dutchman was "not exactly what we want to see".

Some now believe that Hainer's comments might even have triggered a tactical change in Van Gaal recently, with board members uncomfortable that a £750m, 10-year partnership might not have an all-singing, all-dancing dynamic.

Yet is it really feasible that the aesthetic quibbles of a company brought to task in 2012 for its exploitation of impoverished workers in China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines might have found traction at one of the biggest football institutions in the world? Only the klieg lights shone on their Olympic contracts brought about this year's shutting down of 13 adidas factories in Asia.

Yet rumour survives that Hainer's words may have been presented to Van Gaal as a rebuke best not ignored.

If this is so, United are in maybe bigger trouble than a succession of scoreless draws could ever indicate. More pertinently, if Van Gaal has in fact felt a need to tactically adjust because of sponsor's misgivings, it begs a question as to whether he himself is now suffering some chronic loss of nerve.

He looks miscast at Old Trafford, a perspiring Gene Hackman in the role of debonair romantic. Van Gaal palpably hates the scepticism and resents the scrutiny. This week's party trick was to address one of his media questioners as "fat man".


Klopp, maybe, hasn't had time yet to turn sour, but he does seem less precious, less easily offended.

He also seems to understand that in the big football houses of England's North West, the game will never simply be about that last line in the ledger. On Wednesday night, Liverpool's first 20 minutes against the league leaders were astonishing.

They went after Arsenal with such high-tempo attacking intent, it seemed scarcely credible that the sides were level after 25. But injuries have exposed the wafer-thin nature of Liverpool's defensive cover and there was further evidence that the new five-year contract mooted for Simon Mignolet may be, at best, unwise.

No matter, this chronically flawed, hopelessly inconsistent Liverpool side can still offer thrilling glimpses of the vision Klopp might have of his Anfield future. It took him three years to get it right at Dortmund and it might take at least that long on Merseyside.

But there is, at least, already a sense that he understands this proud old port city. Forty miles away, Van Gaal looks to be searching for his keys.

Irish Independent

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