Louis van Gaal: What the great and good have said about the Manchester United target - 'He's always right - you are wrong'

Van Gaal has the conviction and charisma to shake up United. Those who have worked with the Dutchman tell Robin Scott-Elliot of his coaching talents – and a surprising sensitive side

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s list might not be far off that initially scribbled down by Ed Woodward: Mourinho, De Boer, Guardiola. Yet Hasselbaink is not drawing up a fantasy shortlist of candidates for Manchester United’s chief executive – his roll-call is of those who have come under the influence of the favourite to become United’s next manager. They have learnt from Louis van Gaal, a man according to Hasselbaink who sees everything and, in the words of a former team-mate, is certain he knows everything, too.

Hasselbaink is taking his own first steps as a coach at the same Royal Antwerp club where Van Gaal began his first-team career 41 years ago. “Of course,” says Hasselbaink when asked whether his formative approach to coaching is swayed by the manager who chose him for the Netherlands. It is though, Hasselbaink points out, not just about him – far better to consider who else has passed through Van Gaal’s hands over a 23-year managerial career.

“If you look at [Jose] Mourinho he has learnt from Van Gaal,” says Hasselbaink. “If you look at Frank de Boer he has learnt from him – a lot of trainers have taken a lot from him, even [Pep] Guardiola has taken a lot from him. So he must be good.”

Van Gaal would agree with that. It did not take long after his arrival at Belgium’s oldest club in 1973, having failed to break through at Ajax, for the midfielder’s team-mates to become aware of his sense of self-worth.

“When he came here when he was 18 or 19 he was already thinking and talking like a coach, and acting like a coach,” says Roger van Gool, the former Belgium international. “When he thought something was wrong he would mention it to the coach. You could see he would become a coach even then. There was something about his character.”

 

Van Gool describes Van Gaal, schooled in the 1970s Ajax traditions, as a better player than many give him credit for but limited by a lack of pace. He sat on the bench for most of his first season a run of games after injury to others. Van Gaal then informed coach Guy Thys that if he dared drop him it would mean Van Gaal’s “wife knew more about football than him.” Thys, who was later to guide Belgium to the 1986 World Cup semi-finals, dropped him.

“Louis is good company,” says Van Gool. “As a human being he is top. He has heart. The point is if you talk about football it is difficult. In football he is right and you are wrong. You can discuss football for hours and hours with him but he will never admit you are right.

“Of course, some people will not like him [because of his confidence]. But he has a very good character. He wants to help people. He can listen. Too many people have the wrong impression about him.”

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink  

Hasselbaink and Shota Arveladze, the former Rangers and Georgia striker who was Van Gaal’s assistant when they won the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar in 2009, agree it is too convenient to label him as simply overbearing. Yes he is confident, supremely so, yes he does not brook any opposition in the dressing room, but, just as with Sir Alex Ferguson, this is no one-dimensional dictator.

“Tell me a coach at the top who is not a tough man,” says Arveladze, now managing Kasimpasa in the Turkish league. “It is naïve to think you can get to that level by being soft. I don’t think Alex Ferguson won things by being a nice guy. Van Gaal is honest. He trusts himself and he believes in himself. Of course, sometimes he smashes up the dressing room or something like that. But other times he will come in and praise everybody.”

Hasselbaink too sees more than one side to a man who once dropped his pants while manager of Bayern Munich to show Luca Toni he literally had the balls for the job.

“He can be hard but he is very soft on the other side,” says Hasselbaink. “If players have a problem he is very helpful. He is big on family – if people have problems with family or something like that he will always help. But he is a big disciplinarian. He has everything, he sees everything – and I mean everything – and he does not allow people to drop their standards.”

Giggs might be forced out from the coaching side of things if Van Gaal is appointed Giggs might be forced out from the coaching side of things if Van Gaal is appointed  

Van Gaal fell out with Toni at Bayern but that was only a hiccup. The beginning of the end of his time in Munich came in early 2011 when he dropped his goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt, who had been playing well, for an untried youngster, Thomas Kraft. Bayern’s season went downhill and for the club hierarchy, already struggling to handle Van Gaal, that was the beginning of the end. Uli Hoeness, the former club president, said after Butt was dropped it all “started to get messy”.

Butt says: “[Van Gaal] has a very strong character – he wants to be the boss and he wants the players to do what he wants. Sometimes that is a little bit difficult with players who have their own ideas. As a football coach he is very good. He makes the football easy. He can explain his idea to the team and his idea for working when everybody on the field does what he wants.

“At the end at Bayern it was difficult – with the relationship between the president [Hoeness] and him. I think [dropping me] was a bad decision. It was not understandable. Until the winter break we were in every competition and successful and through that decision it changed the run of things and that was one of the first steps towards his dismissal.”

At Alkmaar, the smallest club he has managed, Van Gaal decided in 2008 he had had enough as a string of results went against him. It was the players’ fault he believed. The squad begged him to stay. He stayed and next season they won the title. “I have worked with many coaches but nobody like him,” says Arveladze. “He gets the best out of the best. He makes players better players. He has the art of making you see the way he sees the game. It is always about attack, attack, attack. He is a phenomenal coach.”

Louis van Gaal together with Robin van Persie Louis van Gaal together with Robin van Persie  

The sense from Hasselbaink and Arveldaze is players in Van Gaal’s teams run that extra mile for him. But for those outside the tent it is a notably chillier experience. Butt describes his later relationship with Van Gaal as “difficult.” Van Gool believes confrontation – which seems inevitable, given the Dutchman’s unshakeable belief – in part arises because Van Gaal is also surprisingly easily hurt.

“If you are a journalist and you write 90 per cent good about him and 10 per cent bad, it is the 10 per cent that he will talk about,” says Van Gool. “He will try to convince you you are wrong. He is oversensitive about what people say about him. That is why he is often fighting with the press.”

Hasselbaink spent the best part of a decade playing in England with Leeds, Chelsea and Middlesbrough. He has an almost Van Gaalian level of confidence that this is the right man for Old Trafford – a confidence echoed by Butt, who believes, despite their differences, he is a “good choice”. Arveldaze too sees him succeeding at Old Trafford, suggesting “he knows the culture of English football. He is a smart man.”

Hasselbaink says: “It will be great for Van Gaal and great for United. Van Gaal is somebody who can start from the beginning and Man United need to start all over again. There is no better man than Van Gaal to do that. He will be a great success in England. One thing is for sure, there will be only one boss and that will be Van Gaal. Nobody else.”

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