A Google search of “Louis van Gaal genius” returns 580,000 results, with titles ranging from “Is Louis van Gaal a tactical genius?” to “Louis van Gaal is a GENIUS!” sprinkling the first page. Of course, it doesn’t matter what others have to say. As his former Ajax colleague David Endt writes, new Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal has thought himself a genius years before Google existed.
Van Gaal’s signature moment this World Cup was replacing his starting keeper in the 121st minute of a quarterfinal match for “penalty expert” Tim Krul (never mind that Kruul had only saved two out of 20 penalties at Newcastle). Krul saved two out of five Costa Rican penalty kicks, and Netherlands went through to the semis. As the first sentence of Guardian’s match recap noted, “With a characteristic flourish, Louie van Gaal did it again.” There’s a saying somewhere about there being a thin line between van Gaal and madness.
He brings this “characteristic flourish” to the Premier League. His fingers are on the side already, with United playing three defenders at the back. Variations of this is the de facto set up in Serie A, and several teams in the World Cup employed it – but in England, the flat back four is a way of thought. Premier league teams have tried it in the past – but Wigan were relegated and Liverpool eventually switched to the traditional backline. Managers are quick to say that players dictate formations. But as evidenced by changing Bastian Schweinsteiger from winger to center midfielder, van Gaal dictates his ideas on players (this bodes well for Ashley Young in particular). Maybe the formation just needed the right personality.
Van Gaal – A Magnet for Rivalries
Van Gaal’s career has been defined by his rivalry with fellow Dutch ideologist Johan Cruyff. Their paths first crossed as Ajax youth in the 70s, and spanned countries and decades. The feud culminated in 2011 when Cruyff successfully sued van Gaal out of the Ajax director position. What was the cause of the rivalry? Was it two visionaries disputing a fundamental soccer truth? It had to be over the future of the Dutch national team, right? No, the differences began over van Gaal not thanking Cruyff for hosting a dinner in 1989. Van Gaal said his sister died so he had to leave in haste; Cruyff responded that van Gaal has Alzheimer’s. Tact and politeness transcends tactics, after all.
Free of Barcelona and Ajax ties, van Gaal should have space from Cruyff in England. Not that Premier League managers lack personality. Of course, Jose Mourinho started jabbing in regards to United’s summer transfers. Mourinho is a master of mental Jenga, turning small cracks into unstable foundations. Van Gaal parried, for now.
That’s where the debate looks to stay, at least until United and Chelsea are neck and neck in a title race. Van Gaal’s personality seems to be a magnet for this conflict. He and Mourinho are fueled by paranoia; if Mourinho is the “special one”, then van Gaal is “not the dumb one.” And between Arsene Wenger, Brendan Rodgers, Manuel Pellegrini, Mauricio Pocchettino and Roberto Martinez, there’s enough brains, paradoxical quotes, and philosophies in England this season to power the next decade of the league.
Mourinho returned to Chelsea (or was it the other way around?) last season to recreate past glory. The sequel started slowly, with Mourinho downplaying title expectations for his “little horse”. Mourinho added Atlético Madrid’s spine of Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and Filipe Luis this summer. The club also welcomed fish out of La Liga water Cesc Fabregas. And as an exclamation point, Mourinho went back to the gloried past, adding Didier Drogba. Buying world class talent is the fastest way to go from pony to thoroughbred. The greatest trick Mourinho ever pulled was convincing the world that a side with an unlimited transfer budget is somehow an underdog.
There’ll be no excuses this season for Chelsea. So how does Mourinho live up to impossible expectations? Perhaps by testing the extreme of his transitional play. The key will be Costa, who, according to Mourinho, can “make a movement” and get an “easy goal”. That will be Chelsea this season – press, never give in, and wait for Costa. It worked wonders for Atlético. But here’s the updated $64,000 question: would Mourinho replace his keeper in the 120th minute of a Champions League?
While United spent money this summer, their biggest improvements will come internally. Fixing a “broken” squad is a start. Then moving underachieving players to different roles, starting with Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia to wingback, and finding roles for Darren Fletcher, Shinji Kagawa, Tom Cleverly, and even Wayne Rooney, is the equivalent of signing new players. Shifting the pieces to maximum effect, thereby finding gems, is van Gaal’s true specialty.
It feels strange to say that Manchester United, the most valuable club in soccer, are dark horses to win the league. But this is no ordinary Premier League season. Last year’s title race came down to the final week. The quality of teams this season promises that winning will come down to the slightest details, where both Chelsea and United managers thrive. Van Gaal’s penchant for gaining the slightest advantage, even down to the 120th minute, won his side a quarterfinals match in the World Cup. This time around, it may win him the league.