No one can say Louis Van Gaal isn’t a successful manager. His trophy cabinet includes league titles from around Europe, a Champions League title and a third place finish in the 2014 World Cup. But his current spell at Manchester United has been anything but impressive. To be fair to Van Gaal, the current United squad is far removed from the teams that Alex Ferguson managed in the 90s and 2000s. With the ever increasing pressure being put on Van Gaal it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he won’t have his job for much longer. Given that fact, it might be worth looking at what teams have generally experienced in a post-Van Gaal world, and see if the Dutchman has done enough to leave United with a lasting philosophy.
Van Gaal is a classic Dutch coach. The 4-3-3 is, and will probably always be his bread and butter. Van Gaal likes to build around his system rather than build a system around his players.He trusts youth, sometimes even more than established vets. He is unwavering in his dedication to his philosophy, which in the end usually results in a messy breakup with players, management and fans.
In 1997, Van Gaal started his first stint in charge of Barcelona. Just a year before Dutch legend Johann Cruyff had left the Catalan club. They were big shoes to fill for the young Van Gaal, but he had just won a Champions League title with Ajax. His time in charge at Barca was successful, apart from a major dispute with Rivaldo that forced the Brazilian out. Van Gaal’s philosophy was a continuation of the one that Cruyff was teaching at Barcelona, and with a great youth Academy, Van Gaal could introduce some youngsters who would one day become Spanish Legends.
Xavi was one player that Van Gaal loves to take credit for. Xavi made his debut in 1998 for Barcelona’s first team, he never looked back. Van Gaal’s style of beautiful football above all else was a big reason for Xavi’s success. He was a brilliant possession player during his years at the Neu Camp. Andres Iniesta was another youth player to make his debut for Van Gaal. Iniesta made it to Barcelona in Van Gaal’s last season in charge of the club. These players success isn’t solely due to Van Gaal. That being said, they played a style that suited Van Gaal. He wanted them because they were round pegs that Van Gaal could put in round holes. After leaving Barcelona, the club has only managed to win four Champions League titles. His time at the club, while in part due to a long legacy of Cruyff, set up a dynasty in Europe.
At Manchester United Van Gaal has looked to youth as well, but it’s been different. He hasn’t had the same kind of academy to draw from. He’s had to go out and buy players for large sums of money, and throw them into the deep end. Between the likes of Memphis Depay, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson and Anthony Martial, only Borthwick-Jackson is an academy player. The three are all promising players, but it’s hard to say if any of them will reach the same levels as the likes of Xavi or Iniesta.
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Taking over at Bayern Munich years later was a different kind of challenge. Bayern, in recent years, has been looking to develop a kind of on the pitch philosophy that is unlike what they have had before. Van Gaal was really the beginning of that philosophy and Pep Guardiola is really just a continuation of that. He wanted wingers, speedy ones that could score and supply a striker in the middle. He had Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. He wanted a central midfielder that could control the tempo and a number ten that could run and disrupt opposing defenses. In stepped Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Müller.
His rebuild of Bayern Munich was actually quite impressive, apart from a few strange transfers. He moved Schweinsteiger from a winger to a holding midfielder, a move that had repercussions all the way up to the 2014 World Cup win for Germany. He also moved David Alaba, just a kid back in 2010, to a left back position. Alaba is now arguably the world best left back. But Müller was the big one. Müller might not look like much but Van Gaal trusted the young Bavarian. Five years later Van Gaal was trying to throw buckets of money at Bayern for the German international’s service.
Bayern only managed one League and one cup under Van Gaal, but they made a run to the Champions League final that shocked many people. A few years later they made it back to the Final, the team’s third in four years, and that time they won. Albeit with a different man on the bench. But a lot of what makes Bayern a great team is still there. They still are their most effective with scoring wingers that can feed an imposing striker, and a strong possession game. Just now, Van Gaal’s philosophy is being evolved by Guardiola, a player that used to play for Van Gaal.
So what does all this mean for United? To know for certain would require access to a time machine. But, historically, teams have faired pretty well after Van Gaal has left. There are just a few things about this United team that raise a few questions. The first is, who in the midfield is a long term option? It’s not Schweinsteiger, he’s getting too old and his body is letting him down too often. Morgan Schneiderlin is talented, but is he good enough defensively? Van Gaal hasn’t uncovered the next Xavi or a younger Schweinsteiger. The next manager can find one, but if we’re talking about a lasting philosophy, it’s hard to see that coming from Van Gaal. Another question is, who is the term’s future striker? Martial is looking like a good bet, but you have to feel like United want someone more established to come in.
There are still a lot of holes in the United team, but to be fair to Van Gaal there were still holes in Bayern Munich and Barcelona when he left. The important thing now for United, if Van Gaal is no longer in charge by next season is finding the right man to step in. Barcelona had Frank Rijkaard come in the following season. Bayern Munich replaced him with Jupp Heynckes. Both managers took their respective clubs to the top of Europe. They did so by using the tools that Van Gaal left behind.
One last thing, it might be tempting to name Jose Mourinho to the job if Van Gaal is let go, but be careful what you wish for. If the tools Van Gaal left behind at Barcelona and Bayern were to build anything, it would be a sports car. If Mourinho comes in he’ll use those same tools to build a very different kind of vehicle. If that’s the case, Van Gaal might look as his stint in Manchester as a waste of time.