“Ajax won the European Cup in 1995 but it was boring, boring! Yes, they won everything they could win but the football of Van Gaal in those years was dull football! Dull! I like Van Gaal personally but not as a coach.”
The criticism Louis van Gaal encounters tends to emanate from those players he has ditched (Rivaldo) or who have outgrown his schoolmasterly ways (Dennis Bergkamp) but the views of Jan Mulder come with a cool detachment which demands attention. Mulder was a seriously impressive Dutch centre-forward in the 1970s – the best Frank McLintock says he’d ever faced for Arsenal – and it was amid a subsequent career as a commentator, writer, polemicist and novelist that he provided an assessment of the Van Gaal philosophy which foretold the debate now raging through Manchester United.
It was the game we all love with intuitive brilliance taken out, Mulder observed: football by numbers, you might say, in which players are cogs in a football machine intent on control through possession. For the best appreciation of how it works, look for David Winner’s book Brilliant Orange, which cites an analysis of Van Gaal’s 1995 Ajax team, written by two of his coaches. “Each position is linked to a fixed shirt number for the sake of clarity,” the document states. “In turn, each shirt number is associated with several basic tasks, which the player wearing the shirt has to carry out... Ajax’s youth teams play in the same manner with the same tasks. This ensures the desired continuity.”
Here, in the black-and-white typewritten print of the document, which reads like a factory manual, is the reason why it will take far more than a few thousand supporters leaving early and a few journalists citing the proud traditions of Manchester United to make Louis van Gaal change the way United play. Though the criticism of his side’s moribund football reached a new peak after the anaemic win over Sheffield United in the FA Cup at the weekend, he was unmoved again yesterday.
Two questions in the press conference convened for him to discuss tonight’s visit to an equally uncreative Newcastle United were couched in terms that “the club” and “supporters” expect something different – a less personal kind of suggestion. “You are discussing in the third person,” Van Gaal replied to the first of these questions. “You must have your opinion and I can answer but not in the third person.” And then later: “You are telling me in the third person. You are suggesting and then I have to answer and I don’t want to answer on suggestions.”
Those who work closely with him at United will tell you that was classic Van Gaal. Though he has been wrongly characterised as a dictator, he actually possesses the famous Dutch sense of democracy in which he always welcomes argument and discussion with anyone, so long as that individual is prepared to make the case.
When it comes to the philosophy of football, however, he is trenchantly and all but immovably set in his ways. Asking Van Gaal to throw caution to the wind and let United’s individualists do their thing is like asking Sir Alex Ferguson to join a chatroom hangout. Even in United’s rare goalscoring moments this season, it has been clear that a player’s responsibilities to the collective must override individualism. The writer and journalist Jonathan Wilson has cited Juan Mata’s goal in the 3-2 win at Southampton in September as evidence. The build-up, Wilson’s analysis revealed, featured 46 passes – a mere two of which sent the ball forwards more than five yards at an angle of more than 45 degrees. The manager was elated with this overwhelming flatness. “It is a confirmation of our philosophy,” he said.
Van Gaal has briefly broken with this form of football, going in for counter-attacking at AZ Alkmaar and then with the Dutch national team at the 2014 World Cup – a response to the players at his disposal. But the football he brought to Bayern Munich – and which took that club to the 2010 Champions League final – was a reversion to type. Constant passing. Minimal pace.
What fuels the frustration of supporters is Van Gaal’s utter disinclination to step into the technical area to exhort more pace and drive from his players, though that kind of emotional input belongs less to a style of football where system is all. “I’m not Sir Alex, as you know,” he said yesterday, when it was put to him that Ferguson did arrive on the pitch-side. “Everybody is different and I don’t believe in yelling from the sidelines. I believe in communication during the week, during the preparation and I believe in my players who have to perform…”
In fact, pretty much everything Van Gaal said yesterday bore out his belief that the machine is all. To the idea that United might be more adventurous against a side ninth in League One, Van Gaal replied: “It’s how you fill in your function against a League One club.” And to the issue of United’s attacking failings which have brought nine goals in 10 games: “The stats in the attacking direction are not so good so we have to improve that part, especially in the third and fourth phase.”
It is when the system brings victory that the end suddenly justifies the means, of course. No one was complaining when Bayern went on an imperious run from December 2009 after Van Gaal’s poor start as manager. But it requires a very substantial number of victories to quell the dissent and there is very little margin for losing streaks when the football’s like this.
At least Van Gaal will not die wondering how it might have gone, had he played it differently. “You can be very negative but we are in the next round [of the Cup], won two matches out of a very bad period,” he said, convinced that he is winning this argument. “You have to be happy as a fan of Manchester United.”Reuse content