Criticism followed David Moyes in the manner praise seems to bless new Manchester United coach Louis van Gaal. The Iron Tulip’s magic touch kissed this summer’s World Cup as it had, for better and sometimes worse, at Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AZ Alkmaar. There was little about Moyes to spellbind. Two weeks on the job and van Gaal has instigated significant chance at United: improvements at Carrington, a rethink on commercial strategy, and double training sessions. The Dutchman has done so without a hint of criticism, from within or out. Moyes forced through change too – only to draw ire from every direction.
Even in the backroom, where van Gaal has ripped and replaced United’s coaching staff, the veteran’s choices have gone unquestioned. Or, to phrase that differently, van Gaal’s way is – for the moment – the right way. It is, one suspects, the effect of gravitas; the Dutch coach benefiting from any doubt, where Moyes simply could not.
Roles have been found for Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt in van Gaal’s coaching team – the Welshman as United’s assistant manager, while Butt has retained his job as assistant to Under-21 manager Warren Joyce. Yet, van Gaal has also brought five Dutchmen into his coaching setup, while leaving United stalwarts Paul Scholes and Phil Neville without defined roles. Where Moyes’ Evertonisation of United backfired, van Gaal seems to have caught the right mood.
The manager’s decision to bring his own team is a choice that is unlikely to run bad, at least not while United’s trajectory remains on the up. After all, the failed experiment with Moyes has left the club vulnerable and in need of a trusted hand.
Parachuting friends into Old Trafford is not without risk though; one that van Gaal has experienced before when he came under sustained criticism for the Hollandisation of Barcelona during the Dutchman’s first spell in charge at Camp Nou from 1997 to 2000.
Indeed, van Gaal brought eight Dutchmen into the Barcelona squad during his time in Catalonia: Winston Bogarde, Ruud Hesp, Michael Reiziger, brothers Frank de Boer and Ronald de Boer, Phillip Cocu, Patrick Kluivert and Boudewijn Zenden. As his relationship with Barcelona’s board broke down, the manager’s decision to flood Camp Nou with players from the Netherlands proffered an agitated Catalan press significant ammunition.
In Manchester, van Gaal will be given the benefit of the doubt, not least because his team has the clout that Steve Round and Jimmy Lumsden appeared to lack. While there is acknowledgement of Chris Wood’s class as a goalkeeping coach, few will remember Round’s PowerPoint tactics with joy. One suspects that Frans Hoek, Albert Stuivenberg, Marcel Bout, Jos van Dijk and Max Reckers will not suffer similar ridicule.
On the field United’s squad boasts a single Dutchman in Robin van Persie, although it has been a summer when almost every member of van Gaal’s World Cup party has seemingly been on the verge of joining the Reds. The club could yet follow up tentative interest in Daley Blind, Stefan de Vrij or Kevin Strootman. All three would add much to United’s talent pool.
Indeed, it is not just talent that van Gaal seeks in his countrymen, and certainly not a partisan zeal, but the cultural norms among Dutch players and coaches that are familiar and philosophically empathetic.
“Dutch players are very strong technically and tactically,” observed former United assistant Steve McClaren. “It comes about from the way they are brought up by the clubs from an early age,”
“At Twente, the 11-year-old youth players would watch first-team games on video and be set homework on a certain tactical aspect. It develops a very strong tactical understanding of the game from a very early age. Everybody in the Netherlands is a coach. The Dutch admire the mental strength of English players and the physicality of the game. But there is not a lot of respect for the coaching cultures and systems in England.”
van Gaal wasted little time changing both his squad’s training methodology and the tools with which they work. Floodlights and synthetic grass may improve the training experience at Carrington, double sessions late into the evening are designed to improve technique in even the most gifted of United’s squad. It is the Dutch way.
The dividends will be assessed in time, although the speed at which United passed against LA Galaxy, in a nuanced and complex tactical system, will surely please the Dutchman. It was, in truth, lightyears ahead of Moyes’ one-dimensional approach.
There was also no surprise when van Gaal’s assistant, Giggs, noted the technical advancements made by players who have trained under the regime over the past fortnight. Especially those who returned earlier having missed out on the World Cup.
“You would argue that the quality of the [World Cup players] should be a lot better, but the ones who’ve been doing it [longer] are better. It was the same for them when they started,” said Giggs. “Gradually they will get better the more and more they do it.”
For his part van Gaal has been impressed with how quickly his group has adjusted to the new approach. “They are anxious to follow the instructions of my assistants,” he said. “The focus I have seen in the training sessions is top-level.”
After the near mutiny under Moyes it had to be. And where the players often resented Moyes’ endurance-based running sessions – and openly mocked the Scot’s coaches – there is unlikely to be complaint about the Dutchman’s methods. At least not yet, and not if this failing squad plans to remain at Old Trafford much longer.
In the meantime van Gaal’s squad is set to benefit from a little bit of Amsterdam at Carrington. It’s a new experience for the players and supporters alike.
United’s five new Dutch coaches
Frans Hoek, 57, goalkeeping coach
van Gaal who took the credit for substituting Jasper Cillessen in the 119th minute as rival ‘keeper Tim Krul saved two Costa Rican penalties to win Netherlands’ a place in the World Cup semi-final. It was, however, Hoek who devised the strategy. The former Volendam stopper has been van Gaal’s goalkeeping coach for more than 20 years. Widely regarded as one of the finest goalkeeping coaches in the business.
Albert Stuivenberg, 43, assistant coach
Stuivenberg is a rare breed among van Gaal’s team in that he has been with the veteran for little more than a year. After a modest career with HFC Haarlem and SC Telstar, Stuivenberg has taken coaching roles with both the Netherlands Under-17 and Under-21 sides. “He has so much talent this boy. He was my coach for the Under-21s and worked as my scout in the World Cup. He did a remarkable job,” said van Gaal.
Marcel Bout, 51, opposition scout
Bout has worked with van Gaal since 2006 at AZ Alkmaar. Bout was a youth team and fitness coach at Feyenoor between 1995 and 2004, assistant coach at Volenddam from 2004-2006 and Alkmaar youth team manager from 2006 to 2009. He was appointed head coach at SC Telstar in 2010.
Jos van Dijk, 57, fitness coach
van Dijk is a sports scientist, fitness trainer and physiologist who puts together van Gaal’s training programmes having worked with the veteran for the past six years – at AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national team.
Max Reckers, 34, performance analyst
The man van Gaal describes as a “computer guru,” Reckers is charged with running United’s substantial data science and analysis programme. Like many of van Gaal’s staff, Reckers has followed the veteran from Alkmaar, via Bayern Munich and the national team.