New Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal is one of the most eccentric characters in soccer.
Grantland’s Brian Phillips wrote an article filled with tons of great anecdotes about the 62-year-old, including but not limited to: the time he slapped a camera lens during an interview, the time he whipped out a flying kick on the sidelines, the time he pulled down his pants at Bayern Munich practice, and the time he told the very first team that hired him, “Congratulations on signing the best coach in the world.”
All of this would be a problem if Van Gaal wasn’t actually one of the best and most influential coaches in the sport.
Before taking an unheralded Netherlands team to the semifinals of the World Cup this summer, he won league titles with Ajax, Barcelona, AZ Alkmaar, and Bayern Munich.
Van Gaal’s fingerprints are on much of what you see in contemporary soccer. The Guardian’s Brian Wilson credits him with developing the high-pressing tactic that has became one of the central elements of a wide variety of playing styles — from Barcelona’s tiki-taka to Chile’s relentless pressure at the 2014 World Cup. As Phillips points out, he mentored Jose Mourinho, groomed Pep Guardiola, and installed the core of the Bayern Munich team that’s now arguably the world’s best.
During his first stint at Barcelona from 1997 to 2000, Van Gaal and his assistant made a 78-slide presentation defining the team’s philosophy and style. It outlined the three guiding principles he wished to instill in the club:
“The philosophy of FC Barcelona is that the team is most important
“The team is more important than any player (individually)
“The players have the obligation to meet and defend the idea of the club”
Van Gaal took this team-first idea to its extreme. When asked which players have made an impression on him in his career in an interview with FIFA in 2008, Van Gaal said, “I’m not going to single out a name. Players count for nothing, the team is everything.”
The Barcelona presentation also outlined the system he wished to play. He wrote: “The system is based on a set of positions, lines and triangles for perfect coverage of the pitch at different stages of the game.”
It looked like this:
The interesting thing about Van Gaal, though, is that he doesn’t have a specific system that he takes wherever he goes. His teams have played everything from a 2-3-2-3 to a 4-4-2 to a 5-3-2.
“A system depends on the players you have,” he told FIFA.
Whereas some coaches come into clubs and immediately impose their preconceived notions about formations and tactics, Van Gaal has shown a willingness to adapt.
Wilson summed him up well, “His only interest, he says, is winning, a pragmatism that, in the Dutch context, makes him as radical as ever.”
There’s a reason a lot of coaches have one system — it’s hard to adapt. It takes an ability to recognise your own biases, suppress your idealism, and possess a genius-level degree of tactical knowledge. While Van Gaal only sees players as cogs in an 11-man machine, he recognises that different guys have different strengths, and he’d be wise to utilise those strengths to make that machine run more efficiently.
Here’s Van Gaal he described his overarching philosophy in 2008 (via FIFA):
“The coach is the focal point of the team but you need to have an open mind, and so do all the players. Everyone needs to work together to achieve a common goal. Preparing your tactical formation is essential. Each player needs to know where he has to be, and that is why there needs to be mutual understanding because you need absolute discipline. This is a sport played by 22 men, and there are 11 opponents out there playing as a team. Each individual needs to know who he has to beat and be there to support his team-mates.”
We’re already getting a taste of the full Louis van Gaal Experience at United. A few days after taking over, he declared that his team was “broken” and forced $US50-million signing Luke Shaw to practice by himself.
But he also conjured this bit of play out of his team:
United is coming off its worst Premier League season ever. The roster isn’t as strong as that of Manchester City or even Arsenal. Van Gaal has already said it will take his team 10 weeks to figure out how to play together.
Van Gaal’s history, though, suggests that he’ll figure out the personnel dilemmas that stymied David Moyes last year, and develop a unique system that gets the most of out his team.
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