It feels dangerous to suggest that opening press conferences alone can give an insight into how a management tenure might pan out. How much can we really take from an obligatory, partially-staged public interaction where questions from journalists are often agreed and negotiated beforehand?
Yet, from Louis van Gaal’s opening press conference as Manchester United boss, held last week, you already get the sense that he’ll be far more comfortable at Old Trafford than his failed predecessor David Moyes.
It did not contain the fireworks of Jose Mourinho’s ‘special one’ performance, where he appeared to be drunk on his own arrogance from his historic Champions League title with FC Porto. It did not facilitate the intrigue surrounding then-unknown Arsene Wenger, attired like a maths teacher, way back in 1996. But van Gaal’s opening press conference, surprisingly understated all things considered, came with a healthy dose of self assurance and ambition that his predecessor’s tellingly lacked.
This time last year, the Scotsman was fulfilling the same obligatory duties as the 62 year-old, answering questions from enquiring journalists that could only expect rather clichéd answers. But the difference in tone between Moyes and van Gaal is certainly notable – here are just a few examples:
The first question posed to Moyes was regarding how he felt on being the new Manchester United manager. Already sweaty-browed, wide-eyed and surprisingly cautious in manner, considering the Scot had always demonstrated a strong self-conviction as Everton manager, he ventured into an anecdote, stating his surprise and honour of being considered for the role:
“I knew nothing until Sir Alex gave me a call and asked me to come to his house.. I went in and the first thing he said to me was ‘I’m retiring’. I said when because he was never retiring and he said next week. And his next words were “you’re the next Manchester United manager”. So I didn’t get the chance to say yes or no. I was told that I was the next Manchester United manager and that was enough. As you can imagine, the blood drained from my face. I was really shocked. “
An endearing, genuine tale of a historic moment perhaps, but the undertone was a feeling of undeserving, as if Moyes was still coming to terms with the fact he had swapped Goodison for Old Trafford and his surroundings, his aims for the season, the attention on him and the overall pressure, had significantly increased in magnitude. It did not feel like a man completely comfortable or confident in himself, or one who planned to have an immediate impact.
Van Gaal in contrast, started boldly and brightly, although remaining unceremonious, by outlining why he thought he was the best candidate for the job: “I have a strong philosophy. Sir Alex also had a strong philosophy yeah? He was always confirming that because he won a lot of titles with United. I hope I can do that.”
Stating your ambition for further glories is always a good start. LVG soon followed it up by stating; “For me the challenge is always to come first, not fourth,” after a journalist enquired into his seasonal aims.
But most important is the word philosophy. Perhaps because they had just won their 13th Premier League title, perhaps because he saw Ferguson’s philosophy as too entrenched and monolithic to simply start anew, perhaps because he didn’t trust his own ideas over that of his predecessor, but during Moyes’ opening press conference, the overall tone was maintaining the status quo -especially in terms of style of play.
Van Gaal on the other hand, arguably privy to more accepting circumstance, immediately made it known that his ideas now drove Manchester United, not that of the players, the inherited coaching staff, the class of 92, or the club’s history.
Perhaps his ideas are superior to David Moyes’, and their contrasting careers are simply a result of that. It certainly feels like, a quiet, unprivileged man from Merseyside becoming the fall-guy of a sticky wicket and soon shafted with his reputation in tatters, the former Toffees boss had become the main character in a screwball comedy. As if Ferguson, or at least the United board, had planned it all along.
But there are other instances from theopening press conference that suggest van Gaal’s self-belief will strive him to significantly better his predecessor as Manchester United boss. Last year, Moyes remained ever-praising of Wayne Rooney, despite the England international’s rumoured intentions to move to Chelsea, indirectly comparing him to Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law.
In sharp contrast, the Dutchman remained coy on the subject of the most luctratively paid player in Premier League history; “You have to know that I’m not always convinced of the experience of players. Because I have said a lot of times a boy like Clarence Seedorf he was 16 years old… he was sometimes more experienced than a player of 30. It’s always the personality. You named Rooney but for example Michael Carrick he has been injured the last few days. In my opinion that is a big blow because he is an experience player.
The scarcity in subliminal tone cannot be overstated. Moyes keen to keep Rooney happy, van Gaal stating in no uncertain terms that nobody, no matter how experienced or well paid, enjoyed privilege status over anyone else. You get the feeling that if the 28 year-old demanded either a transfer or a new contract, as he has done twice in the last four years, LVG would happily direct him to the door.
The former Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Ajax boss even dared to take on the biggest threat to his survival at Old Trafford – the growing power of the corporations behind the scenes. “Also this club is guided in the commercial way and we have to fulfil that also and that is not always possible to fulfil the commercial expectations and the football expectations,” van Gaal quipped. He followed up yesterday afternoon during Manchester United’s tour of the USA: “We have to prepare the season and when you have commercial activities and dreadful distances, having to fly a lot and the jet lag, it is not very positive for a good preparation.”
It appears, if business interests intend to depose the Dutchman any time soon, as they allegedly had a significant and potentially the final say on David Moyes’ fate, they will have a fight on their hands.
As previously stated, a press conference alone isn’t enough evidence to suggest Louis van Gaal will be a success at Old Trafford, and following his impressive World Cup campaign with Holland, many have forgotten that his second spell with Barcelona and his Bayern Munich tenure didn’t end particularly amicably.
But in comparison to David Moyes’ inaugural press conference at Old Trafford, the 62 year-old, cool, witty, self-assured, his personality filling the room – in many ways reminiscent of how Sir Alex Ferguson handled the British media – already feels like a perfect fit for Manchester United.