Louis van Gaal’s World Cup campaign has proved the perfect calling card as he prepares to officially start work as Manchester United’s manager. The Dutchman has made a convincing play to be considered the coach of the tournament through his impressive leading of an uneven Holland squad to the semi-finals, where they lost in the penalty shootout lottery to Argentina on Wednesday.
Back in Manchester, the watching United players will be desperate to find favour when Van Gaal rolls into the club next week, possibly as early as Tuesday. Wayne Rooney and the rest of those who left Brazil after the group stage last month are said to have no grumbles over joining up, after shorter than the customary four-week break, for the flight to Los Angeles on 18 July for their summer tour, so keen are they to start working with Old Trafford’s new Dutchman.
Like all of the squad they are desperate to forget last season’s debacle under David Moyes, when United finished in a humiliating seventh position after a traumatic campaign. What better, then, than the sight of the new manager’s tactical fluidity in switching from his preferred 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2 with Holland just before the World Cup? Or, to witness the cojones of the “Iron Tulip” when throwing on goalkeeper Tim Krul in place of Jasper Cillessen for the quarter-final shootout with Costa Rica.
Holland won 4-3, as Krul saved two penalties, and Van Gaal made the smart move of later stating that if the gamble had backfired he would have shouldered the blame. This worked as an exercise in long-distance man-management administered by Van Gaal, via South America, to Manchester. It sought to get United’s players onside, by saying: “Believe in my methods, and I will always take ultimate responsibility.”
With Southampton’s Luke Shaw and Athletic Bilbao’s Ander Herrera already recruited, Darren Fletcher, who has been at United since he was 11, confirms the manager is already impressing.
“It’s an exciting season with the new manager coming in,” he says. “There are some new signings and a real buzz around the place again. Everybody’s looking forward in great anticipation to the manager coming in and him getting his ideas across. I’m desperate to do well for the fans and to get the team back to where we belong.”
Ryan Giggs, the new assistant manager, is leading training until Van Gaal arrives. But it is the Dutchman who is planning every session from afar. Since being appointed on 19 May, the 62-year-old has moved United forward each week despite leading Holland’s World Cup campaign.
Marcel Bout, as the opposition chief scout, and Albert Stuivenberg, as the assistant coach, have been hired. Alexander Büttner has been sold, Antonio Valencia is the recipient of a new deal, and Van Gaal has accepted Patrice Evra’s desire to depart despite United having taken up a one-year contract option for the veteran left-back.
On choosing Giggs to be his No2, Van Gaal informed the Welshman which players he admires, who can leave and who should be targeted this summer. In what may be the greatest rebuilding of the squad in a generation, Van Gaal has handed his A, B and C transfer lists to Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, to pursue.
While Juventus’s Arturo Vidal, Real Madrid’s Ángel di María and Mats Hummels of Borussia Dortmund head Van Gaal’s preferred recruits, of this week’s training Giggs said: “Everything’s been planned off Louis. Albert and Marcel know how he works so the blueprint has been prepared by Louis and we’re just following his plans. I think we’ll find out [soon] when he arrives. It will be sometime early to middle next week.
“I’m looking forward to working with Louis and I’m tremendously proud to be assistant manager. It was disappointing to see them [Holland] go out but it’s been a fantastic campaign for him, starting with a result nobody could have foreseen. The 5-1 against Spain was maybe the standout performance of the tournament. Obviously it’s been great for the United fans to watch and for the players to see him do so well.
“I’ve spoken with him a couple of times and swapped a few emails, but it’s been hard as he’s been preparing for games or travelling. But we’ve been in contact with Louis and Albert and Marcel joined us here on Monday. The preparations have gone well and he’ll now join us next week when he’ll get to meet the players and the staff.” Of how Van Gaal has managed Holland in Brazil, Giggs said: “It’s excited everyone. He’s mixed up his formations, he’s juggled around the players. To get to the semi-finals of the World Cup is a great achievement. He’d have liked to have gone further but it wasn’t to be.
“The group they were in – to get out of that was an achievement in itself, so to go so far I’m sure he’ll be pleased.”
As Holland progressed Van Gaal conjured more magic moments, such as the bold decision to replace his captain, Robin van Persie, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar when Holland trailed Mexico 1-0 late in their last-16 tie.
Exit at that early stage with a team featuring Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder and the tournament post-mortems for Van Gaal would not have read so well. Instead, Huntelaar played a part in Sneijder’s equaliser before scoring the late penalty that took Holland through.
Van Gaal: managerial genius or just plain lucky? If he can make United title challengers again then supporters will hardly care and may consign a new nickname to him. The Iron Tulip could soon become genuine United royalty in the form of “King Louis”.