Dutchman took Holland to third place at the World Cup but United missed the chance to appoint José Mourinho last summer
Louis van Gaal presses all the right buttons for Manchester United now that they have joined the supercoach circus after decades of doing things their own way. It was easy to forget, amid all the hoopla surrounding the Dutchman’s arrival, that United have never really done this before. Between and around the two long reigns of Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, which take you back to a bomb-damaged Old Trafford at the end of the second world war, there have mostly been low-profile appointments and botched successions.
Tommy Docherty in 1972 or Ron Atkinson in 1981 were the closest approximations to stellar managerial material, and neither they nor United at the time were in the business of making the rest of Europe sit up and take notice. David Moyes was unable to do that either, at least not in a good way, so United have done what they perhaps should have done a year ago and gone for the type of coach who can easily slot into a big club in a new country.
Van Gaal, however, has done big before. He was previously successful with Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and as he proudly boasted at his Old Trafford unveiling, together with his time at Ajax he now reckons he has worked at the No1 club in each of the four strongest leagues in Europe.
Fair enough, though what is making the United board look prescient and wise at the moment is Van Gaal’s World Cup success, not his domestic back catalogue. He guided Holland to third place in Brazil, and was arguably one of the top two coaches at the tournament, so when Robin van Persie made a beeline for him after scoring his wonderful headed goal against Spain it augured very well for the future in Manchester. Van Gaal will begin his career in England with the total respect of all United’s players and supporters, an advantage Moyes never enjoyed, and, unlike his predecessor, he is a big enough name in the game to attract new players of the highest calibre.
Yet before Ed Woodward and the other United directors get too carried away with the self-congratulation, they ought to consider one thing: José Mourinho. If United are now in the market for interchangeable, international marquee names with the rest of the superclubs around Europe, little more than a year after rejecting that rather obvious approach in favour of grooming their own man to be in charge for a lengthy period of time, they must now concede that the strategy not only failed but cost them the services of an outstanding and available candidate.
Last summer, Mourinho’s qualifications for the Old Trafford vacancy were clear. He too had won the league in different countries, taken two different teams to Champions League success, and as an additional bonus he had already proved himself a success in the Premier League. But he was overlooked because it was felt he would stick around for only three or four years before moving on. He was the restless type, would see himself as bigger than United, and he would make enemies and trouble along the way.
Moyes was seen as the solution to all those potential problems. Then, six months later, the former Everton manager himself was a much bigger problem and United were ready to scrap the Ferguson blueprint and turn to a manager like Van Gaal, who is just as vain and volatile as Mourinho except older and perhaps not quite as good.
When Van Gaal’s Bayern reached the Champions League final in 2010, after all, they were beaten in Madrid by Mourinho’s Internazionale, treble winners in Italy that year in spite of the fact that their manager had spent just two seasons in Milan. Mourinho remains one of only five coaches to have won the Champions League with two different clubs, and his successes have been more recent than Van Gaal, who has been unable to repeat his 1995 Ajax triumph at any of the bigger clubs he has been at since. League championships, yes, and United would be happy with that at the moment, but there is a certain amount of repositioning going on due to the World Cup and the United job. Michael Owen reckons United cannot possibly finish outside the top three with Van Gaal at the helm. Others have suggested he might win the title at his first attempt. Yet no one was predicting such great things for Tottenham when they were linked with him a couple of months ago and Spurs finished five points clear of United.
At the very least it should be entertaining and illuminating to have Van Gaal and Mourinho renew their rivalry in the Premier League. There is a rivalry there, whether or not Mourinho ever coveted the United job, which was plainly not the case when Moyes was in charge at Old Trafford.
The time has come to stop talking about that unhappy period of United’s history, however, and file it with Bebé, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Massimo Taibi and other Ferguson unmentionables. The mistake was easy enough to make. United had not needed to look for a new manager for more than a quarter of a century, and had grown so far and so fast in that time that it was not straightforward from the inside to identify the type of manager to take over. Things are clearer now. United will just have the ex-Bayern Munich and Barcelona manager, thank you very much, even if they might quietly be kicking themselves for missing the ex-Real Madrid and Chelsea chap.