Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Poor start won't faze Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal

Cool under pressure: Louis van Gaal warned United fans that he was a slow starter, and that it would take three months for United to click under him
Cool under pressure: Louis van Gaal warned United fans that he was a slow starter, and that it would take three months for United to click under him

When football's vice really starts to grip, Louis van Gaal does not stick so stoically to his dugout, in the way to which we are becoming accustomed.

After his big signing Arjen Robben scored a late winner at Werder Bremen in the depths of Van Gaal's desperate first season struggle at Bayern Munich – with which his difficult start at Manchester United already invites comparisons – he abandoned his seat, raced out towards the field and fell flat on his backside.

Robben made a beeline for him after his looping, 78th-minute free-kick had sailed straight in, only to find Van Gaal on the ground. They celebrated down there instead.

Van Gaal yesterday alluded to that treacherous start in the German capital, five seasons ago, and though he declined to make comparisons, the vitriol was certainly more immediate and more stinging back then.

The Bild Zeitung newspaper's nickname for Van Gaal was "General Sieglos" – "General Winless."

The club's president Uli Höeness had no time for his "philosophy" and the German nation also took immediate delight in the Dutchman's eccentric attempts to speak the German language.

Van Gaal's introduction of the phrase, "Der Tod oder die Gladiolen", a Dutch saying meaning literally "death or the gladioli" was a source of general mirth.

When his new side failed to win any of their first three games, the old guard all turned detractors.

A problem, as Van Gaal's biographer Maarten Meijer has pointed out, was the struggle Van Gaal seemed to have in communicating his football ideology. "Few seemed to really grasp what he was talking about," Meijer says.

United fans may be fortified to know that in the eye of that German storm, Van Gaal revealed that he has ice in his veins.

In the December, Bayern's director of sport, Christian Nerlinger, publicly warned Van Gaal that he must win the next four games or be sacked but the manager kept himself above the mudslinging.

The remarkable turnaround he engineered, which saw Bayern take the Bundesliga title and reached a Champions League semi-final that season, was built around Robben – signed by Van Gaal five years ago this week, as the United manager has twice reminded us in the past four days, hoping that the timing of Angel Di Maria's arrival will prove auspicious.

It was also built on that unflinching self-belief of his. Few managers but Van Gaal would have kept the German national team's most prolific goalscorer, Miroslav Klose, on the bench alongside a player who had just cost £8m, Anatoliy Tymoschuk, and played teenagers instead.

There is a big and essential difference between the challenge of Munich then and Manchester now, though. The Bundesliga was a far weaker competition, presenting the possibility of a long unbeaten run. The Premier League, as the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, pointed out in his Miami discussion of Van Gaal this month, presents no weekend passes. Swansea City and Sunderland have already proved that to United's new manager.

The other difference is the gulf in class between this squad and the best in the Premier League.

Van Gaal's allies in the Dutch national set-up say that one of his preoccupations is just how enviable and complete Manchester City's and Chelsea's squads seem to be.

When appointed United manager, he expected his relationships with Thomas Müller and Bastian Schweinsteiger to see them swing through the door and sign, but it has been far harder to bring such players to Manchester than he thought.

There is Di Maria of course, signed rather against initial expectations. But so many of United's central players are either injured or surplus to requirement and so little progress has been made to sign better replacements that the Dutchman has a job simply constructing a midfield for United's trip to Burnley today.

If Tom Cleverley is dropped, ahead of his possible departure to Aston Villa, Phil Jones may need to be moved into the centre, leaving Michael Keane, Northern Ireland man Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett as the three-man back line to start at Turf Moor.

The prospect of United pursuing Sporting Lisbon's William Carvalho has vanished and there has not yet been a direct approach to Juventus about Arturo Vidal, whose fitness is a worry.

It's a sign of United's struggle to recruit Europe's best that Southampton's Morgan Schneiderlin's name has surfaced. Cleverley is weighing up whether to seize immediately the opportunity to work with Roy Keane at Villa – his idol, as he has been at United since the age of 11 – or to wait and see if Everton or Arsenal come in for him.

He is out of contract next summer. Shinji Kagawa is on his way to Borussia Dortmund.

Van Gaal was unflinching when it was asked why, with so many midfielders injured and few arrivals, he is getting rid of any. "I am not a short-term coach," he said.

"I am thinking always for the long term. You have to take measures that are not good for the short-term but is better for the long-term for the club. But that may not be good for me as a coach. But I am not here for me myself as a coach, I am here for the club."

Brave talk for any manager in the short-term world of the Premier League.

His press conference also included this assessment which, though hard to follow as some of his narrative is, seemed to reflect his appreciation that he is not fireproof.

"You have to survive as a trainer/coach," he said. "You have to survive. Can I receive enough time to do all the steps we have to do? Maybe you can support Louis van Gaal when you believe in him? OK? What a fantastic end [that would be]."

He didn't reject the idea of repeating his Munich accomplishment. "We can be the champions – still, in England now – in my first year," he declared.

"Maybe you shall laugh, but also in my former clubs I have started like this, so for me it's not big news or different." But he would clearly settle for less.

"This process needs time. We are building up a new team. I hope we are in the top four this season because the Champions League suits a club like United and then maybe the next step is to be champions ... "

Van Gaal left Munich within 11 months of winning the German title.

His rejection of Hoeness' demands that he sign Manuel Neuer and his reliance on youth academy goalkeeper Thomas Kraft, who made errors, was among the judgements called into question. Bitterly angry, he later declared – in typically literary style – that he felt he had been "Schipper Naast God", ("Skipper next to God") in Germany.

It was an allusion to a Dutch bestseller of the same name, by Jan den Hartog, about a seaman who leaves Hamburg in 1938 with 750 Jews on board, took them all around the world, but found no country who would offer them asylum.

In the end, they have no choice other than to return to Germany where they all died. The sensitivity of the reference revealed the anger he felt.

Behind the soaring Van Gaal self-belief, there is a searing intensity. This is a man who cares desperately.

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