After months of speculation and woeful results, Manchester United have finally taken charge and sacked David Moyes. No one can say this comes as a surprise, Moyes was given plenty of time – he lasted longer than the likes of AVB at Spurs and Benitez at Chelsea, both of whom did a better job – and the cries for stability and trusting Fergie’s ‘chosen one’ had been growing fainter by the day. Although there is much to be said about Moyes’ failures, the real question is, who’s next?
The exact opposite of Moyes, the Dutchman has extensive experience, he has won domestic leagues with Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, as well as the Champions League and the UEFA cup (both with Ajax in the ‘90s). Temperamentally as well, whereas Moyes has come across as soft-spoken, with a distinct lack of leadership skills, van Gaal is notorious for being outspoken and an uncompromising disciplinarian. In this sense he is the perfect choice for a beleaguered United team, bringing the confidence and experience of previous titles as well as the familiarity of playing under a manager who, under no uncertain terms, knows what he wants from his players and how he wants them to get it done.
Tactically, van Gaal is a known proponent of Total Football, the high pace attacking game of a ‘70’s era Ajax. This can be clearly seen in the Ajax dream team of the early 90’s as well as the changes he brought to Bayern Munich between 2009-2011. It can even be reasonably argued that the treble-winning Bayern Munich of 2013 owes a huge part to the changes van Gaal instilled during those two years. Not just in the high-pressing, quick paced passing game that has become their trademark, but also in the formation and line-up. Van Gaal brought in a wealth of youth players, such as Müller and Badstuber, to the starting 11, he signed Arjen Robben (who scored the winning goal in the CL final) and shifted Schweinsteiger from a winger to a defensive mid-fielder, where his eventual partnership with Javi Martinez in the double pivot position gave Bayern Munich the best defensive record in the league. It is this ability to build a winning team, from promoting and buying individual players, to creating a viable formation that will be invaluable in the rebuilding of Manchester United.
His belief in youth development, tactical pragmatism and no-nonsense approach fits neatly into the Manchester United philosophy. However, the self-same iron fist that Sir Alex was known and respected for could cause van Gaal numerous back-room issues. His footballing vision, though clear and ingenious, usually needs time and patience to be implemented properly, and he needs (and expects) players to follow his vision completely; he has been known to drop and even sell important players when they don’t fit or refuse to commit (see Luca Toni and Wesley Sneijder). And he most certainly does not deal well with egos in the dressing room. His uncompromising self-belief and no bullsh*t approach to communication (in addition to the traditional Dutch bluntness) can cause him to come across as blunt and rude.
This is what has caused him problems in the past, with players, staff, intra-club politics and, perhaps most memorably, with the press. If he does get this job, he will have to deal with the dressing room politics while still managing to get the best out of his players, though I expect there will be a tenuous relationship with certain players (whose names may or may not rhyme with ‘Moony’..).
The Theatre of Dreams is a difficult and stressful stage. Is he the best man for the task at hand? Probably. Will he succeed? Ask me again in a year.