Louis van Gaal: Inside story of the Manchester United dressing room meltdown

The Dutchman's heavy-handed style of management led to him losing the confidence of his players and, subsequently, his job, as Mark Ogden reveals

Mark Ogden
Chief Football Correspondent
Monday 23 May 2016 23:32
Van Gaal lost the respect of the Old Trafford dressing room
Van Gaal lost the respect of the Old Trafford dressing room

Louis van Gaal’s two-year reign at Manchester United has come to an end after the Dutchman lost the respect of the dressing-room with eccentric management that extended to brutal video dissection of players’ performances, critical emails to squad members and the imposition of "straitjacket" football on the team.

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Senior players have also grown exasperated by the "special treatment" afforded to German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has made just four appearances since suffering a knee injury against Sheffield United in the FA Cup in January.

Van Gaal, who led United to the FA Cup glory with Saturday’s 2-1 Wembley victory against Crystal Palace, is set to be replaced by Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford after failing to secure Champions League qualification this season.

But The Independent has been made aware that such has been the breakdown of the relationship between Van Gaal and his players this season, the 64-year-old is unlikely to have survived in charge for the final year of his three-year contract – even if a top four finish had been achieved.

From the first week of Van Gaal’s spell in charge, when he succeeded the sacked David Moyes after guiding Holland to the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup, United’s senior players have struggled to adapt to the rigid demands imposed by the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach.

Having inherited United’s summer tour of the United States from Moyes, Van Gaal was so angered by the arrangements in place – the Beverly Hills location of the team’s Los Angeles hotel in relation to the training camp and venue for the game against LA Galaxy – that a budget Holiday Inn was hired for the players to sleep close to the training ground in between morning and afternoon sessions.

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One source close to the players claims that Van Gaal’s strict regime of "training at 8.30, sent to rooms for a couple hours rest, training after lunch, back for video meetings and tactics discussion, back to rooms, supper of toast and then bed at half ten - every day for 14 days" left the squad shattered and ill-prepared for the start of the 2014-15 season, which saw United endure their worst opening to a campaign for 25 years.

But it has been Van Gaal’s refusal to alter his heavy-handed management style, honed at Ajax in the mid-1990s,that has led to his inability to foster unity behind his methods.

Under Moyes and Sir Alex Ferguson, the first-team would regularly be given a day off on a Monday following a Sunday game, but Van Gaal has insisted on his players reporting for training on Mondays, when they would sit through a video replay of the previous game.

But such was the critical nature of the analysis – ‘he would crucify players in front of each other,’ according to one source – that captain Wayne Rooney and vice-captain Michael Carrick sought out Van Gaal to urge the manager to soften his approach in order to avoid breaking the confidence of his players.

The alleged 'special treatment' of Schweinsteiger has exasperated other squad members

Van Gaal accepted the advice and acted upon it by instead sending emails to players with clips and notes attached.

The majority of the players would not open the emails, however, knowing that inside lay a raft of criticisms, prompting a tracker to be attached to reveal when the emails had been opened.

The players have since begun to open the files on their phones, ignoring the contents, but ensuring that the email shows up as having been read.

Van Gaal’s prescriptive approach to the game has also alienated his players, with one senior figure confirming the manager’s instruction, as revealed in The Independent in February, not to shoot at goal with their first touch.

Players regard Van Gaal’s football as too slow and methodical – "they are not allowed to think for themselves" insisted one source close to the players – and the strikers have grown exasperated by seeing so little of the ball.

When Rooney was dropped for the game at Stoke City on Boxing Day, the United and England captain accepted his demotion, but only after making it clear to Van Gaal that he wanted to play his natural game when he returned to the team having lost his place after following the manager’s instructions on how to play.

Van Gaal, who has earned admiration in the boardroom for promoting youngsters such as Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and FA Cup matchwinner Jesse Lingard, is also regarded within the dressing-room as having failed to control a group of different personalities.

Van Gaal is blamed by some players for allowing Schweinsteiger to "take the piss" since his injury, with the former Bayern Munich midfielder’s regular absence from the club in between games becoming a source of annoyance to many.

And Memphis Depay, the £25m summer signing who was dropped from the FA Cup final squad, is regarded as being allowed to waste his talent due to Van Gaal’s mis-management.

Depay arriving for training last December in his Rolls-Royce

The Dutch winger was dropped to the reserves after making a mistake in the draw with Chelsea in February, but then surprised many at the club by turning up at the second string game in a Rolls-Royce.

Despite being urged to leave the car at home by senior team-mate, who warned of the negative message it would send to supporters by projecting such an ostentatious image of wealth while the team were struggling, Depay nonetheless continued to drive the same car into training.

And while Rashford is regarded as a huge positive of Van Gaal’s spell in charge, with the 18-year-old viewed as a grounded character and a "good kid," the story of one player asking the club chef to cook him two hard-boiled eggs to take home as he did not know how to boil them himself underlines the sense within the squad that too much is now done for the younger element of the team.

If Van Gaal’s departure is followed by that of Ryan Giggs, there will be sadness at the loss of the Welshman, however, who has the backing of many senior players to become the club’s manager.

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Giggs has impressed the squad with his coaching and his tactical analysis of opponents – the specific job he has been assigned by Van Gaal.

There is a belief within the squad that Giggs has kept his own counsel on Van Gaal’s approach in order not to rock the boat, but he retains the respect and admiration of the players, many of whom feel that a major rebuilding job is required to make the team competitive again.

But that task will fall to Mourinho rather than Van Gaal and, after two years of attempting to grasp the Dutchman’s philosophy, the vast majority of the squad he leaves behind will not mourn his departure.

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