Manchester United pre-season tour: Five things we've learnt about Louis van Gaal's Manchester United

Van Gaal's start to life at Manchester United has seen a stark contrast to the same time last year under David Moyes
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Manchester United’s pre-season tour is reaching its conclusion with a match against Real Madrid tomorrow night possibly their last. Ian Herbert, with the team in Detorit, asks what we have learned about new manager Louis van Gaal during its two-week course

He is testing Premier League player-power to the maximum

We knew that the six-figure weekly salaries would cut little ice with Louis Van Gaal but we didn’t know quite how much until now. He is an instructor – has viewed himself that way ever since his work as a PE schoolteacher at the Don Bosco Lower Technical School in Amsterdam from 1977 – but his players are finding him applying principles learned in those days to an extent unknown at other Premier League clubs.

At dinner time, the players take their place at round tables, while Van Gaal and his coaching staff sit at a rectangular top-table – 1980s school canteen style. He addresses the room and then points to tables, one-by-one, whose members are then allowed to go up for food.  He has challenged players in open training, rebuking Darren Fletcher and Phil Jones, for example, for their training session shooting in Los Angeles. It is a high wire act. Van Gaal’s former Barcelona chief executive, Ferran Soriano, who now runs Manchester City, has said of him: “He is very tough.  People don't like him.  But he wins. And one day you don't win - and when you don't win, everybody that is angry with you will come… and try to kill you.”   


He is as open-minded about players as she said he would be

It felt like diplomacy when he said he would give players four to six weeks to prove themselves to him but we are seeing a willingness in Van Gaal to look beyond a player’s established reputation. He famously turned Bastian Schweinsteiger from a forward into a midfielder and already we are seeing Ashley Young playing wing back, a position he has taken up only once in his 11-year senior career.

Van Gaal seems to think Young, whose United career seemed to be ebbing away under David Moyes, has the defensive qualities now needed in the wide roles of a 3-4-1-2. He played both left and right flank against Internazionale. Wilfried Zaha’s opportunities seemed to be more limited after Van Gaal publicly declared that he did not have the ability to play wide and only central. But he did look impressive in a new central role against Inter. “All people have a talent,” runs one of Van Gaal’s maxims. “But they often do not know which.”

He likes brainy players

One-by-one, Van Gaal is selecting players to step out with him to sit at the press conference top table and field questions. He complains when that individual is asked none, and after he had praised Chris Smalling as “the best” of his players in this realm, in Washington DC, a journalist quipped that he “must say that about all the players.” He was insistent. “No. No.” Van Gaal likes players who are articulate of speech and quick of mind.

Ander Herrera made his debut for United in the 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy

A slight abstruse, though very significant, part of his philosophy is that players should play with their brains not their instinct; being wholly aware of why they are moving into a position and not just being there intuitively. “You play football with your brain,” he has said. “Instinctive reactions are part of it but it is important to always put the intuitive in service of the rational. Then you make headway. If you play intuitively you just play your trick at the wrong moment.” This seems like a huge adjustment for a player to make; especially one in his mid-20s. We shall see. Jonny Evans, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Ander Herrera look capable of this switch.

Van Gaal and Sir Alex Ferguson do not seem likely to be close.

Ferguson has an interest in what is unfolding, of course. He has told one former United colleague to expect things to be “lively” with the Dutchman, though has not travelled out here, as had been thought. The word is that Ferguson had other commitments, rather than affected by ill health, as has been rumoured. They are very different men, though.

The two share a dry humour and a preference for wine –  red. Both hold to the principle that a body of young players coming through will “know the culture of the club and they want to defend that culture and wear that culture and transfer that culture” as Van Gaal put it, in a Fergusonesque moment this week. But where Ferguson succeeded through a more visceral type of management, Van Gaal is infinitely more intellectual – looking to change the course of the game through what he has planned before it, and almost entirely absent from the technical area.

Van Gaal has a 'Fergusonesque' moment this week

There has been polite diplomacy for the individual ten years his senior but nothing more. Van Gaal has generally referred to him as “Ferguson,” only occasionally “Sir Alec” and is presently ripping up the training ground he bequeathed. Asked if there were plans to meet Ferguson out here, Van Gaal’s sentence tailed off: “No, I’m here in America. And he is....”

He is not an autocrat

Small gestures tell a story. In Denver, Colorado, Van Gaal packed up the balls after training and carried them off the pitch, slung over his shoulder. Everyone serves everyone in the small football-focussed team, including ancillary staff, which he has pulled together, run on collectivist principles. Though he is initially doing much of the communicating, he is already beginning to invite dialogue; encouraging players to have their say on United’s work and offer solutions.

He wants people to challenge him, though expects what he calls “arguments” - as in “the reasons why” – in response. One member of the backroom staff flinched at the prospect of having to question his decision on something, early in the US tour, but having done so, was surprised to hear him say: “Yes. Good argument. I accept this.”

Van Gaal’s biographer, Maarten Meijer, reflects that there is a contradiction at the heart of Van Gaal – the “ultra-individualist devoted to collective effort.” But for him the collegiate approach means everything because the team is more important than the individuals within it. “I set more store by a player’s character than by his on-field qualities, and particularly whether he is willing to give everything for the cause,” he has said. “I don’t need the eleven best. I need the best eleven.”