It’s been nearly three years since Louis van Gaal managed Manchester United in the 2016 FA Cup final, the last match he ever managed. On Monday, Van Gaal decided to remind us that he’s still around by announcing his retirement from professional football.
Van Gaal is a big enough name that even the more casual fans will recognize it. In fact, for the majority of non-Manchester United fans, if you asked them about Van Gaal’s career they’d likely say he was a very good manager.
The truth is actually far more complicated. His career reached the peaks that European managers dream of. His personality, or more appropriately his stubbornness, also led to points in his career where no one wanted to touch him.
Van Gaal broke in with Ajax in the early 90s where he relied heavily on developing talent from the club’s youth academy. He was wildly successful doing this. Ajax won the Eredivisie in three consecutive years from 1994-1996. They won the Champions League in 1995 and finished runners-up in 1996.
Following a very successful stint at Ajax he moved to Barcelona where his personality started to get in the way. He won two consecutive La Liga titles (albeit this was not the La Liga you and I know today), but clashed with the club over his style of play. This would become a recurring issue.
Louis van Gaal still had five domestic titles and a European Cup to his name. He took charge of the Dutch national team. Van Gaal’s first foray into international football was a failure. The Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, missing out on their first World Cup since 1986.
Despite that, he was still heavily linked to taking over at Manchester United with Sir Alex Ferguson rumored to be retiring.
The mid ’00s was not a decade to remember for Van Gaal. He returned to Barcelona and failed. He returned to Ajax as a technical director, but didn’t even last an entire year thanks to disagreements with Ronald Koeman. At this point his stock was so low he ended up at Dutch side AZ, where he began his resurgence by winning another Eredivisie in 2008.
What came next was perhaps Van Gaal’s greatest success, though it wouldn’t be realized until later. Van Gaal spent two years at Bayern Munich, winning the treble in his first year before being fired for finishing third the following season (again, not the Bundesliga you and I know today).
The players Van Gaal signed and developed at Bayern would last way longer. During his two years there, Van Gaal signed Arjen Robben from Real Madrid. He also established youth players Thomas Muller, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Holdger Badstuber as backbones of the squad. Those players would go on to help Bayern dominate the Bundesliga for the next decade.
His positive stint at Bayern made Van Gaal a hot name again. He earned a second stint with the Netherlands where he led them to a surprise third place finish at the 2014 World Cup. That Netherlands team was fun. They walloped holders Spain 5-1 in the opening match. They had a good mix of veterans and young guys contributing.
It was only natural for Manchester United to come calling.
That’s where everything changed.
The Dutchman’s tenure at Old Trafford was nothing short of a disaster. Over two years nearly all of his signings flopped. He gave plenty of minutes to academy players, but other than Jesse Lingard (injured for most the Van Gaal era) and Marcus Rashford (stumbled upon him) none of them are still at the club.
Under Van Gaal, United did get back to the Champions League, but failed to make it out of the group stage. They won the FA Cup, but failed to finish in the top four.
Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford will ultimately be remembered for two things. His possession based tactics which produced boring football, and his bizarre run-ins with the media at press conferences.
When Van Gaal left Old Trafford he was almost considered a pariah in the game. Despite there being numerous managerial openings Van Gaal never got a call, which is truly astonishing when you think about how many recycled managers there are in the Premier League.
He interviewed for the vacant spot with the Belgian national team but didn’t make it past the initial interview because, according to reports, his philosophy was “draining and exhausting.” That admission didn’t come as a surprise to anyone in England.
For the past three years, Van Gaal has been so obscure that had he not “announced” his retirement, most fans would have assumed he was already retired.
When it comes to how he will be remembered, it will ultimately be about where you’re from. Dutch fans will likely look back on him fondly for his success with Ajax in the 90s and the 2014 World Cup. Bayern fans will appreciate what he did for the club.
Barcelona fans will remember him as a stubborn coach who didn’t align with the club’s philosophy. Manchester United fans will remember him for that big binder which seemingly had all his plans of boring football, while the rest of English football will remember the bizarre press conferences and tumultuous relationship with the media.