Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal has fiery rival in his path

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

When Ronald Koeman was first asked about his relationship with Louis van Gaal at Friday afternoon's press conference he described it as "good", explaining that "if we see each other we shake hands and that's enough".

When asked at the end of the press conference how it had become good, he corrected himself. "I don't say 'good,'" Koeman said, searching for the right term. "It's correct. And that's the best word."

Even correct is better than bitter, though, and there has certainly been some healing since Koeman and Van Gaal's explosive falling-out at Ajax 10 years ago.

They are back on speaking terms, in part thanks to their co-operation last year - not that Koeman was desperately keen to discuss it.

"He was the national coach and I was the coach of Feyenoord and we had contacts about the international players," Koeman said. "But too many questions about him."

Van Gaal, whose Manchester United side face Koeman's Southampton at St Mary's this evening, sounded a similar note of reluctance. He did not want to talk about the man he has worked with - and against - on and off over the years.

"I don't have to describe my relationship with the opposition manager," insisted Van Gaal. "That's more private, I think. We play against Southampton and we have to speak about Southampton and not their trainer or coach."

If it sounds cool, then that is for a reason. Van Gaal and Koeman have history.

Dutch football is a small place full of big personalities, few bigger than these two, who have dominated the game in their country and beyond for a generation.

This is not an ideological issue but a personal one. Van Gaal and Koeman see the game fairly similarly.

Asked whether the match would be a clash of footballing styles, Koeman insisted that he and Van Gaal were in broad agreement. "We are both Dutch managers," he said. "We like to play offensive football, we like to dominate the game."

What came between Van Gaal and Koeman was office politics, not philosophy.

"We had some problems in the relation between his job and my job," said Koeman at the start of the season.

Ten years ago, Koeman was coach of Ajax when Van Gaal arrived as technical director. Having just finished his second term as coach of Barcelona, Van Gaal did not see himself as someone to work delicately and discreetly behind the scenes.

So while Koeman took training, Van Gaal would sit on a white plastic chair by the side of the pitch and watch.

Even though Koeman had earlier worked as Van Gaal's assistant at Barcelona, Van Gaal did not like Koeman's methods. Koeman did not like Van Gaal's interference in what he saw as his own domain.

Van Gaal started to give specific instructions to players - advising

a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic on his movement in the box - much to Koeman's annoyance.

Ibrahimovic was the subject of their biggest disagreement, in August 2004.

Koeman liked the then 22-year-old striker far more than Van Gaal did, but as technical director Van Gaal oversaw transfers. Van Gaal tried to sell Ibrahimovic, saying that he was a not a "team player"; Koeman tried to stop him, but Ibrahimovic joined Juventus for €16million.

Koeman said it would appear cheap in retrospect, and it did.

That was the summer when the relationship between the two men really fell apart. Van Gaal, never averse to voicing his opinion, told Koeman of his plan to evaluate his performance.

"I don't know if you've read my contract," Koeman responded, "but the only person I have to justify myself to is the general manager."

That was the man, Arie van Eijden, who eventually decided the issue.

It became clear late in 2004 that Van Gaal and Koeman could not work together, especially after Van Gaal criticised the team, saying that they lacked identity, following Ajax's failure to qualify from the Champions League group stages.

Van Eijden knew he could only choose one of Van Gaal and Koeman to continue at the club and - contrary to the expectations of some - he sided with Koeman. Van Gaal resigned.

Van Gaal was not happy with the way his brief tenure had ended, and he held Koeman responsible.

"Ronald Koeman engineered my departure from Ajax with support from within the club and help from the media," Van Gaal later said in a television interview.

"I asked him whether he had deliberately used the media to his advantage and his answer was yes."

If there is one difference between the two men it is that. Koeman is canny and astute, said to be good at "opening doors" for himself. Van Gaal is a brilliant coach - with a managerial CV that far outstrips Koeman's - but he is not as good at the office politics, as he found to his cost at the Amsterdam Arena.

Koeman and Van Gaal were compelled to speak again last season, when Van Gaal was readying his Dutch squad to take to the World Cup in Brazil. Koeman's Feyenoord side were chasing down Ajax for the Eredivisie title, which they just missed out on.

Van Gaal ended up building his World Cup team around that Feyenoord team, taking not only five of Koeman's players, but also the 3-5-2 system Koeman had been using.

That produced a rapprochement of sorts, and the pair are back on speaking terms. At St Mary's tonight they will shake hands and, as Koeman said, that will be enough.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph