Last Monday, as Frank de Boer celebrated becoming the first Ajax coach to win four consecutive Dutch League titles, he was asked a leading question:. Would Louis van Gaal be jealous of his protégé, given the older coach only won three?
"No way," De Boer smiled. "He'll be very happy. He loves to see me to do better than him!"
That is no doubt true, given their long friendship. However, that feeling may have to be put on hold. With Manchester United set to appoint Van Gaal as manager, and De Boer known to be monitored by Tottenham Hotspur despite official statements, the two coaches could find themselves in competition next season. There is a further twist: Van Gaal effectively rejected Spurs for Old Trafford, while De Boer was watched by United.
De Boer owes much of his approach to Van Gaal, who managed him at Ajax, Barcelona and for Holland. The older manager converted De Boer from a left-back to a centre-half after noticing his tactical awareness.
They both favour a tight 4-3-3, passing, hands-on coaching and youth promotion. That does not mean there aren't differences, though.
De Boer has won his four trophies since Van Gaal last lifted silverware, the 2009-10 Bundesliga trophy with Bayern Munich. Yet the 43-year-old has none of Van Gaal's vast international experience. Is Van Gaal a little past it? Is De Boer fully ready?
Patrick Kluivert is Van Gaal's assistant with Holland, and is set to follow him to United. He also played under the 62-year-old with De Boer, and is enthusiastic about both. "Like Pep Guardiola as a player, you could see Frank would become a trainer," Kluivert says. "He is a big trainer coming. Van Gaal is already a big name, a great coach."
Figures close to Van Gaal maintain he has stayed fully abreast of every football development. "You cannot call him an old-fashioned trainer," says David Endt, another former Ajax manager.
Verdict Van Gaal
Impact and effect
De Boer effectively made a mission statement when he mentioned Spurs' interest: "I would like to add something to a club like Brendan Rodgers did at Liverpool." No doubt he would be given time at Tottenham, but United cannot afford the transition season that even the Anfield boss needed, which makes their choice of Van Gaal more appropriate.
Yet while Van Gaal ensures immediate impact, and puts in long-term foundations in terms of tactics and youth, there is a price to pay for the emotional intensity required for initial success. He tends not to stay in a job long because players become exhausted, as happened at Barcelona and Bayern. Van Gaal first placed faith in many of the current stars and immediately won titles, but then lost allies because of his abrasiveness.
De Boer would have more of an eye on the long term. He was always ambitious but never rushed, opting to learn his trade at youth level. His ideas, however, are said to hugely impress his players. He is understood now to want a job where all the elements are right – including the patience to allow him to build.
Verdict De Boer
Part of the problem with succeeding Alex Ferguson was personality. United needed someone with a presence big enough not to fear the scale of the job. Van Gaal undeniably has that, and will command respect. Kluivert insists the sergeant-major image is overplayed and that Van Gaal can be warm. "He is very straight with everybody," Kluivert says. "It's a pleasure to work with him."
De Boer is more level-headed than the explosive Van Gaal, but is capable of hard decisions while sticking to the overall plan regardless of temporary setbacks.
Kluivert insists he also shares one key characteristic with Van Gaal. "He is a winner. He wanted to win everything, even card games. That's the most important thing."
Verdict Van Gaal
Van Gaal seems the better bet now, but that could soon change.
Verdict Van Gaal