Louis van Gaal: the manager who would be king

He once claimed to be top of United's wish-list to succeed Ferguson. Tonight, with Bayern Munich, he stands on the verge of masterminding a stunning victory over them
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The Independent Online

Louis van Gaal declared yesterday, "It would always have been an honour to replace him," when tackled about the story he once told of Manchester United having lined him up to replace Sir Alex Ferguson when it seemed that he was destined to retire at the end of the 2001-02 season. Whose honour it might have been – Van Gaal's or United's – the Bayern Munich coach neglected to say.

The Dutchman with a manner as imperious as his Michael Portillo quiff was in his press conference pomp in Manchester yesterday, blinding with medical science the Argentinian journalist who dared to suggest that Diego Maradona was less than happy that defender Martin Dimechelis had been put through a full game on Saturday, rattling from German to Dutch and German – and back again – in response to those questions he deemed worthy of a response. If you thought Ferguson, a knight of the realm since 1999, is the ultimate high-and-mighty manager, then try Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal, awarded the Order of the Oranje-Nassau in 1997, for size. This is the individual who, the day after his Netherlands side beat the mighty Andorra 3-0 in 2001, provided the first sense that he considered himself someone United would come looking for again. "I knew I was first on the list to succeed [Ferguson] last year," he said. "I don't have any contact with them now because I am coach of the national team but I can imagine that a club like Manchester United are still interested in Louis van Gaal."

The use of the third person form is always suspect in a sportsman but Van Gaal can afford it. The 58-year-old, who when told a few years back that appearing on Sky Sports as a pundit might help his profile – "I am quite happy with my bad profile," he declared – was never much of a player. Flabby and fairly slow, he never made it out of the Netherlands with a ball at his feet, despite playing for the memorably named Telstar Beverwijk in his native country. But coaching was something else. His mind for the game has always had the capability of turning a match into 90 minutes of pure rhythmical movement.

Van Gaal became coach at Ajax in 1991 and, with a creed based on his players passing the ball endlessly until they found any space the opposition provided, had reached two Champions League finals by 1996, beating Fabio Capello's Milan with something resembling a boys' team in one of them. Even amid those prodigious beginnings, there were hints of the infernal pomposity to come. "Are you so dumb or am I so clever?" he famously asked one journalist and this manner translated onto the training ground. At Barcelona, who came calling for him in 1997, he fell out with Rivaldo, part of a stellar front three with Luis Figo and Patrick Kluivert, having insisted that the Brazilian forget his dribbling and focus on his own belief that dreamy passing patterns won matches.

Rivaldo wasn't the only one with his nose out of joint, though Van Gaal's Barça won two Spanish titles and a Spanish Cup inside three years, with two of the managerial prodigies to have emerged from that period now among the favourites to emerge triumphant from this week's quarter finals. Pep Guardiola, Barcelona's captain under Van Gaal, observed his immaculate attention to detail. "He really notices every detail," Guardiola said in an interview last month. Jose Mourinho, a young interpreter in Catalonia in the late 1990s, wrote scouting reports for Van Gaal. But there were more enemies than friends, more tiffs than trophies and after three years, with seemingly no one left to alienate, he had left to manage the Dutch national side.

Van Gaal flopped badly in that role, failing to take a squad containing many of Europe's greatest footballers to the 2002 World Cup, and when a return to Barça brought only more rows, he began the remarkable rehabilitation which tonight takes him to Old Trafford – and the possibility of delivering a German side to the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in nine years. First came success with little AZ Alkmmaar – whose Dutch title last season, by an 11-point margin, made them the first team other than Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord to take the crown for 28 years. Then the move to Munich, which has not been an entirely smooth one. The stories go that his arrival, armed with a Dutch-German dictionary and an intent to teach his new charges a different way last summer, was a source of supreme irritation and though Bayern stand within touching distance of a famous win this evening, it was a different picture as the Champions League group stage reached its conclusion.

Defeat at Juventus back in December would have put a manager entrusted with €70m on players out of work again and his side into the Europa League. The club's newly-elected president Uli Hoeness and his predecessor Franz Beckenbauer were both distancing themselves from Van Gaal. Some of the problems were familiar to those who have tracked his career. There was a spectacular falling-out with striker Luca Toni, Van Gaal having pulled the Italian's ear in front of the squad in training because he objected to the way he was slouching at the lunch table. Toni is now on loan at Roma. Some miscalculations preceded his arrival – the decision to spend £28m on Mario Gomez when Bayern already had Toni and Miroslav Klose as target men, and when Van Gaal prefers one striker and two wingers in a 4-3-3. Others were of his making. Moving Philipp Lahm, arguably the club's best player, from left to right-back has not worked. Neither has his new goalkeeper Michael Rensing, forcing Van Gaal to turn back to 35-year-old Hans-Jorg Butt, who had not played regularly since 2006-07.

But an aggregate win tonight would put all that in the past and leave Bayern believing that they can be back in the final for the first time since 1999. The German tabloid press reported soon after the new coach's arrival that he liked to march around the dressing room declaring, "I am like God! I never get ill and I am always right." A few months back Van Gaal put the record straight. "I am not God. If I were God I would win everything all the time." Responding to intimations of his own divinity is something Ferguson has never had to do but Bayern would accept Van Gaal's received wisdom if he can help them clear this obstacle.

Louis van Gaal: Coaching highs

With Ajax

1992 Uefa Cup

1993 Dutch Cup

1994, 95, 96 Dutch title

1995 Champions League

1995 Super Cup

1995 Intercontinental Cup

With Barcelona

1998, '99 Spanish title

1998 Spanish Cup

1998 Super Cup

With AZ Alkmaar

2009 Dutch title