Whether he’s storming off the set of a live Dutch football show, benching Rivaldo just days after winning the 1999 World Player of the Year award or revealing his testicles at half-time to the entire Bayern Munich dressing room, Louis van Gaal’s incorruptible self-assurance has never been in doubt.
But quite how confident in his own beliefs, bold and daring the Manchester United manager is prepared to be has only truly come to light since officially ascending to the Old Trafford throne after his escapades with the Netherlands at Brazil 2014.
The 62 year-old has brought the philosophy that saw Oranje unexpectedly claim third place at the World Cup with him to Carrington, reshaping the United first team around a 3-5-2 system. The historical importance of this cannot be overstated; not only have the Red Devils forever been a back-four-double-wideman side, but three-man defences are widely considered alien and arguably incompatible with the Premier League – especially at its summit.
The sheer audacity is a statement within itself to Manchester United’s rivals, and in many ways illustrates the vast gulf between van Gaal and misfortuned predecessor David Moyes as managers.
Perhaps overawed that he would be taking the reins from one of the greatest managers in modern footballing history, perhaps following the mantra of not fixing what isn’t broken after the Red Devils had claimed their 13th Premier League title, the subliminal soundbite of the former Everton manager’s appointment was ‘continuity’.
During his ten months at the Carrington helm, Moyes made a mere two additions to the United first team, Marouane Fellaini and Juan Mata, whilst the retiring Paul Scholes was the only notable departure. van Gaal has already far exceeded the Scot’s remodelling of the Old Trafford roster, welcoming youthful duo Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw whilst saying goodbye to defensive veterans Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra, who had amassed 1134 games for United between them.
Tactically too, Moyes refused to step out of Ferguson’s shadow – arguably his biggest failing as United boss. The formations never branched far from a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1, the same systems that saw the Red Devils stroll to the Premier League title the year previous.
Moyes didn’t turn up to Old Trafford with his own vision, possibly due to the fact he was continuously compared in management style, personality and philosophy to Ferguson. That isn’t to say changes weren’t implemented – the Scot hired an entirely new backroom staff – but the overriding theme was to maintain the blueprint set out by his predecessor’s illustrious reign.
You could describe it as evolution over revolution, but in truth, United regressed into something less sophisticated under Moyes.
The problem was a lack of leadership – mimicking Ferguson so closely left Moyes a hollow figure; Ferguson-lite, filled with synthetic sweetener to accommodate for a lack of genuine, original and unique substance. It gave the players nothing to believe in. After all, could the Scot really be expected to execute Ferguson’s ideas better than the man himself?
The situation under van Gaal however is remarkably different. The very conscious buzzword of his short tenure thus far has been ‘philosophy’. He remarked in his opening press conference that a ‘strong philosophy’ was the decisive factor in United’s decision to hire him, and has used the phrase in almost every public interaction since.
At the moment, LVG’s philosophy is 3-5-2. Debates can well be had over its suitability, but essentially that doesn’t matter. The importance lies in the fact van Gaal has turned every philosophical tradition on its head at Manchester United – something Moyes was never prepared to do – modernising the club with a formation that took international football by storm just a matter of months ago. It’s unique, it’s vibrant, it’s current; it’s as challenging for United’s players as much as it is for their opposition.
More than anything else, Van Gaal’s entrenched belief in his own ideals gives the Red Devils direction. Rather than simply maintaining the status quo, there is a new sense of movement and progress around Old Trafford. The players, the manager, the boardroom and the backroom staff are all working towards a very specific vision.
A club of Manchester United’s magnitude needs a figure so imaginative and self-assured – someone prepared to ignore its entire history for the benefit of their own ideas. After all, Ferguson’s greatest gift was the boldness to deconstruct several title-winning teams, regardless of their prior contributions to the trophy cabinet, for the sake of continuous progress.
Moyes had the opportunity but was never willing to do that. He was too busy coming to terms with his surroundings. The fact van Gaal is already writing his own rule book at Old Trafford rather than merely adding a post-Ferguson epilogue speaks volumes about the differences between himself and his predecessor.