By Bamidele Johnson
There are reasons to believe that Manchester United have struck gold with the appointment of Louis van Gaal as manager. Unlike his predecessor, David Moyes, who oversaw the transition of the club from champions to Premier League has-beens, van Gaal is coming in with an impressive resume. Moyes had won nothing before his appointment, something which encouraged the view an aristocrat of the European game had been handed to a C-lister.
None of today’s big names were available for hire when United wanted a coach. But many, if not most, are likely to view van Gaal as an A-lister, even if a cranky one. You are not a slouch if you have won league titles in Holland with Ajax and AZ Alkmaar; in Spain with Barcelona; a league and cup double in Germany with Bayern Munich and the 1995 UEFA Champions League with his memorably young Ajax team that featured Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu.
We also have to remember that he lost two UEFA Champions League finals to Juventus in 1996 and Inter in 2010.He also has the credit of having mentored two of the game’s biggest coaching names-Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola. That was in Barcelona, where he had two spells-one successful, the other calamitous.
By the time he was evicted in his second spell, Barcelona were three points above the relegation places, a position with which the club is unfamiliar. It should also not be forgotten that he spent over a hundred million pounds to build the Barcelona team that won the two titles. Between then and now, he has done well, not luminously, at AZ Alkmaar and Bayern Munich, the latter ending bitterly as his stays usually do.
Van Gaal, possessor of a big name and an ego as big as an aircraft hangar, is surely more attractive to elite talents than Mr. Moyes. Despite missing out of the UEFA Champions League, it is fairly safe to say he would have less difficulty attracting a few star names to United, something Moyes found difficult. That is if those players can deal with his autocratic and maverick predilections.
Certainly, his CV isn’t shabby. But does it warrant the almost unrestrained expectation that the good times are back at Old Trafford? Maybe not. Sven Goran-Eriksson, the skirt-loving former coach of England, had something resembling a stellar resume before showing up in England. League titles and UEFA Cup with Gotheburg of Sweden (when the UEFA Cup was still a fairly prestigious tournament) as well as league titles in Portugal with Benfica and in Italy with Lazio (where he spent obscene amounts of money on transfers) made him a name in demand. By the time he came to England, he had had his day. Has Van Gaal had his too? Is he some sort of retreaded tyre that we are warned against? Perhaps not.
But viewed in another context, his CV is likely to seem less impressive and could encourage the view that he is not the serial winner he is cracked up to be. After the phenomenal Ajax team he produced in the pre-Bosman days, he appears not to have done anything spectacular. League titles in Barcelona and Bayern (three between the two clubs) are unlikely to rank as exceptional in leagues where everyone else aside two teams are not more than fodders.
The lustre of the triumph with AZ Alkmaar, a thoroughly unglamorous club in the Dutch league, is somewhat reduced by the fact that a certain Steve McLaren repeated the trick the following year with FC Twente, another team outside the stratosphere inhabited by Ajax, PSV and Feyernood.
As coach of the Dutch national team, a position he is occupying for the second time, he famously failed to achieve qualification for the 2002 World Cup, when his team was ousted by 10-man Ireland. He was fired from Bayern Munich for consistently rowing with the board and putting the club in a position where qualification for the UEFA Champions looked like a mirage.
For United, much depends on which van Gaal turns up: the brilliant manager and exceptional nurturer of young talents, whose youthful Ajax side conquered Europe or the one, whose second spell at Barcelona was dire and who failed to get a talented Dutch team to the 2002 World Cup.The successful one will provoke headlines like “Van The Man”. If it goes awry, expect “Looser van Gaal.”