Louis van Gaal: the Biography by Maarten Meijer, book review: Portrait of a Dutch master that's right on the ball


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If Louis van Gaal is Manchester United's saviour then how come, in all the years of speculation about who would eventually succeed Sir Alex Ferguson, the "Iron Tulip" was seldom mentioned? Had United stuck with David Moyes, the Dutchman, who steered the Netherlands to this summer's World Cup semi-finals, would probably now be managing Tottenham.

Maarten Meijer's clear, comprehensive biography offers a clue as to why Van Gaal wasn't always top of the Old Trafford wanted list: his career has been characterised by fluctuating fortunes, with remarkable triumphs earning him respect as one of the world's greatest coaches and miserable failures leading commentators to write him off as stubborn and abrasive. Van Gaal is United's right man at the right time: a comeback king to restore glory following Moyes' disastrous reign.

Van Gaal's successes include winning the Champions League with Ajax and league titles with Bayern Munich and Barcelona. Sackings by Barcelona and Bayern are among his disappointments, as is failing to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in his first stint with the Netherlands. Now 63, he has expressed forthright views since the days when he taught PE at the same time as playing in midfield for Ajax reserves and Sparta Rotterdam where, according to his manager: "He gave the impression that he personally had invented the game of football."

Meijer, who has written books about managers Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat, draws on a broad range of sources to create a thorough portrait of his "control freak" subject. It will whet the appetites of United fans who were encouraged by Van Gaal's management of the Netherlands in Brazil, but they shouldn't expect immediate miracles, as Van Gaal made slow starts at Barcelona and Bayern. Both teams, however, gelled before Christmas and went on to win league titles in his first seasons in charge. For Van Gaal, teamwork is everything: "I don't need the 11 best, I need the best 11." He has jettisoned big name players in the past, so watch out, Wayne Rooney.

Van Gaal champions youth and has developed the talents of several world beaters, including Andrés Iniesta and Thomas Müller. It will be intriguing to see if he unearths stars from United's junior ranks. He gets on "quite well" with Ferguson, who remains influential at Old Trafford, but if the paperback edition of this biography appears with an afterword about Van Gaal winning the Premier League, nothing else will matter. Everyone connected with United will probably echo what one journalist says about this Dutch master: "He is a little full of himself, but who cares?"