By Mohamed Moallim
They say time heals all wounds.
Not for Louis van Gaal.
His grandest dream turned into his biggest nightmare which haunts him to this day. After a decade, the opportunity for redemption has presented itself.
Hours after Bert van Marwijk resigned the speculation began, with all eyes on one logical candidate: Van Gaal, one of the five prophets of Dutch football in the post-war period alongside Rinus Michels, Wiel Coerver, Guus Hiddink and Johan Cruyff.
It’s painfully obvious the direction Oranje must take: a gradual overhaul, leading to rejuvenation of the system as well as the personnel. In short, Van Marwijk’s successor needs to be a tactician adhering to the Dutch model, and capable of team building and a strong man-management ethos. He fits the profile to a tee. If the KNVB had a Van Gaal-esque bat-signal, it would be visible against the clouds.
But there’s a major obstacle in the way: his past. Critics will point to his first spell as national team manager, when Van Gaal inherited a generation of players—many with delusions of grandeur—entering their peak in 2000. Qualification for the World Cup in two years time was expected to be straightforward. It wasn’t. Ultimately two unfortunate and unforeseeable moments condemned the Dutch: throwing away a two goal lead against Portugal in Porto and Jason McAteer’s goal at Lansdowne Road.
Van Gaal is partly responsible for the results, especially for his interesting tactical decisions in those games, and for being stubborn. His dictatorial approach was outmoded, and he refused to learn from mistakes made at Barcelona where he was dubbed the “Iron Tulip”. Unconventional methods, such as hiring security guards to make sure no one broke curfew, highlighted who really was in control. These weren’t the humble players he knew. Fame had inflated their egos and sense of entitlement. He naively underestimated the situation and showed to be out of touch. Van Gaal would leave with a stain on his impressive résumé.
Fast-forward eleven years, and the state of affairs is different, with a generation on the wane and a system in need of re-invigoration. To paraphrase Ian Curtis: what’s needed is a change of style and a change of scene, with no regrets. A chance to watch, admire the distance. Van Gaal, in every major poll, is the popular choice. Whether he’s interested is difficult to gauge has he has not spoken on the matter, but one can assume his dream of winning the World Cup still burns strong. Another chance could give him peace of mind.
He’s now a more all-round coach. His credibility was restored at AZ Alkmaar—he guided them to the Eredivisie championship in 2009—and was further enhanced in his first season at Bayern Munich. Suggestions of a paranoid personality are wide of the mark, but there are symptoms nonetheless. He’s still eccentric, sensitive, fractious, hard-headed, headstrong and prone to outbursts—which cost him his job at Bayern—but these reflect his innate desire to win.
He also maintains a mistrust of the fourth estate, ironic given Van Gaal was once the eloquent media savvy representative of the players’ union during his unspectacular playing career. Everything changed however once he became coach. Van Gaal came to fundamentally believe football journalists cannot be trusted, mainly due to his conviction that most if not all are incapable of understanding tactics to sufficiently analyse his performances, and they would rather discuss insignificant matters and ask stupid questions. In short, any criticism from the press is interpreted as a professional and personal attack.
“Journalist think they know as much about football as I do, but they don’t,” he once uttered. This antipathy has often led to memorable confrontations. His retort, “Is it me that is so clever, or are you that stupid?” towards Ted van Leeuwen in 1996 after being drawn into Edgar Davids’ future, became entrenched in Dutch pop culture.
When it comes to interaction with footballers however, Van Gaal’s learned from past mistakes but still demands total respect as well as commitment from his players. Van Gaal is a bona fide team builder. While the episodes at Bayern, Barça, and his first stint with Oranje working with difficult personalities all eventually lad to conflict, his approach more often than not has been proven to be the right one. Those that listen rather than undermine him every step of the way, students at AZ and Ajax for example, have seen the impossible become possible. His defects are part of what makes him great.
Van Gaal takes great pride in his strategy, and has even published a book: Biografie & Visie. “I want my teams remembered for how they played,” he writes. His doctrine been successfully adopted by Pep Guardiola, who described his revolutionary Ajax side as ‘a reference,’ as did Frank de Boer more recently. Marcelo Bielsa is another staunch admirer. José Mourinho breathlessly credits the Dutchmen in shaping his own philosophy: “He taught me the trade.”
Van Gaal’s approach is more than a system; it’s an emphasis on collective responsibility (collectief is his favourite Dutch word) and mutual understanding, enabling the growth of the unit. Attacking football is a moral obligation. His real obsession is domination of the ball (circulation football): passing endlessly until space is found to punish the opposition, a trait he picked up from his idol Michels.
Meanwhile, for Dutch football, the penny dropped in Ukraine. It hasn’t quite reached a nadir, but supporters across the nation, after reluctantly tolerating a period of conservatism, now demand return of a more orthodox ‘Dutch 4-3-3’ allowing simple and beautiful football to flourish.
Van Gaal’s knack of getting the best out of players regardless of ability puts him above most of his contemporaries. He spotted the potential of Thomas Müller, Clarence Seedorf and Andrés Iniesta, handing them their professional debuts. Xavi, another, will never allow a bad word spoken about him. “I owe much to him. Sometimes he even preferred me over Guardiola, and I was only 18. That’s quite a bit. Van Gaal is a formidable guy.”
If he’s again bestowed with the national team job, a better coach now than he was in 2000, the main concern in the long-term will be introducing new faces and returning to a more proactive style of football.
In the short-term there’s a need to keep remaining egos in check and unifying a fractured squad, but the threat of ostracisation given the plethora of emerging talents will be to Van Gaal’s advantage. He never held that kind of power during his first stint. While the individuals who turned what effectively became Van Marwijk’s final days into chaos now seem repentant, another stunt will destroy any remnant of sympathy from a public who are starting to grow tired.
Van Gaal’s relationship with KNVB President Michael van Praag could be pivotal. The last time there was apathy towards the national team came as a result of Van Gaal’s first tenure, and in a twist of fate, he’s the people’s choice to rescue Oranje from the mire they find themselves in. It’s a challenge that, if presented and accepted, Van Gaal will not let get the better of him this time.