Louis van Gaal’s first act as Bayern Munich manager was to shut himself in a monastery for a month. Inspired by its ascetic ethos, the Dutchman totally immersed himself in the intensive German lessons offered by enterprising monks and emerged with more than a decent grasp of modal verbs.
Van Gaal is a supreme strategist whose blend of industry and innovation has helped him to choreograph four teams in three countries to 18 major trophies, the latest with Bayern’s 4-0 demolition of Werder Bremen in the German Cup final this season.
Aware that Bavarians expect Bayern’s manager to speak their language, he typically mastered essential German in the fastest possible time. Next up was the initially vexing, ultimately successful mission to become the first Dutch coach to win the Bundesliga and now he is attempting to squeeze even greater job satisfaction from his inaugural season at the club dubbed “FC Hollywood”.
On Saturday in Madrid club football’s most glittering prize is up for grabs when a martinet capable of accruing enemies even faster than silverware aims to mastermind a Champions League triumph at Internazionale’s expense.
Already, a German media bearing scars inflicted by the former Ajax, Barcelona, Holland and AZ Alkmaar coach’s infamous sarcasm has dubbed a clash that pits him against his one-time assistant at Barcelona, José Mourinho, as “God vs the Son of God”.
Despite both boasting outsize egos, the pair remain good friends, regularly exchanging warm texts as they bask in the European limelight.
“This is going to be one Champions League final where the coaches, rather than the players, dominate attention,” Glenn Roeder says. In 2007 the then Newcastle manager was “Van Gaaled” when AZ knocked his side out of the Uefa Cup after an extraordinary second leg in Holland. It began with the sound of a high-volume recording of Winston Churchill’s “We shall never surrender” speech crackling over the stadium loudspeaker as kick-off beckoned, as the home manager, trailing 4-2, sought a psychological advantage.
“You can never overestimate Van Gaal,” Roeder says. “He’s one of the world’s great coaches; José Mourinho won’t be complacent.”
Mourinho says that although the late Sir Bobby Robson taught him the value of shrewd man-management, Van Gaal highlighted the importance of preparation and strong defence.
If both finalists are very much systems men, sharing an almost evangelical belief that, by dint of tactical ingenuity, the manager is king, they remain far from footballing soulmates.
Van Gaal remains considerably more attack-minded than his Portuguese rival, permitting significantly greater scope for improvisation within the parameters of any tactical framework, but Mourinho’s man-management is considerably more evolved. Many would say it possesses the emotional intelligence lacking in his unashamedly old-school mentor, who was required to rebuild a reputation shattered by a disastrous stint in charge of the Dutch national side, culminating in the so-called Clockwork Oranje’s failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup.
You would certainly be unlikely to catch Inter’s coach emulating Van Gaal and screaming insults in the face of Franck Ribéry after the over-heated winger dared to sit down and take his boots off during a scorching training session last summer. Or to see Mourinho spot Luca Toni slumping in the canteen over lunch and immediately stride over, angrily pull one of his ears and order him to sit up straight.
Although Toni is now on loan at Roma and Van Gaal’s relationship with Ribéry remains uneasy, the realisation among Bayern’s players — particularly younger homegrown ones — that he is capable of improving them beyond recognition permits him to take some breathtakingly Clough-like liberties.
It is no coincidence that the 20-year-old forward Thomas Müller and the 21-year-old defender Holger Badstuber have emerged from the youth ranks to keep Ribéry and company unexpectedly on their toes during a season when Bastian Schweinsteiger also surpassed himself in midfield.
Roeder says: “Van Gaal generally has more success with younger players who fully appreciate what he’s doing for them than with more cynical older stars; maybe that’s why his time in charge of Holland didn’t work out. But he’s a brilliant coach and even difficult players respect that.”
At Bayern it also helps that he is not Jürgen Klinsmann. Supporters had come to loathe their former manager’s Americanised obsession with image and swiftly realised Klinsmann’s slickly spun, relentlessly positive soundbites, plastic smiles and careful placement of Buddhist statues in training-ground lounges masked clay feet.
Tactless and taciturn, Van Gaal was eagerly embraced as an “authentic” antidote.
In return Bayern’s so-called Tulip General is seeking to relight the flame of perfection he first sparked when his Ajax team — which featured, among many other extravagant talents, Jari Litmanen, Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and Edgar Davids — effectively redefined Total Football.
“We play very attractively at Bayern,” says Van Gaal, a stickler for formal manners, who faced the sack last autumn after indifferent results. “We are always looking to attack and put opponents under incredible pressure.”
It has been much the same since Aloysius Paulus Maria van Gaal exchanged life as a slow and stocky, but eye-catchingly sweet-passing, Sparta Rotterdam midfielder for a coach’s tracksuit at Ajax.
“I have my own ways, I’m not going to change and I have no desire to,” says the unusually unmaterialistic multimillionaire, who, to his wife’s dismay, disdains fancy restaurants, designer watches and male fashion. “My way is a footballing philosophy more than a system. A system depends on the players — I’ve played 4-3-3 with Ajax, 2-3-2-3 with Barcelona and 4-4-2 with AZ — but a philosophy is for life.
“The coach is the team’s focal point, so preparing the tactical formation is essential. Every player must know where he has to be and support his teammates. There has to be absolute discipline and mutual understanding. Discipline is the basis of creativity and flexibility.” — Guardian News & Media.