Bringing the Coaching Philosophy of Louis van Gaal to Old Trafford

Louis van Gaal

The Philosophy

One of the most prominent discussions within the world of football over the past season is the philosophy of Louis van Gaal. Often an outspoken individual seen as a crazed dictator, he has often been vocal in regards to how he believes football should be played and how best to implement this style of football.

What most people think of when Van Gaal’s philosophy is talked about is the tactics that he implements, however this is not what Van Gaal believes defines his philosophy. In an interview conducted in 2008 on the FIFA website, he was asked to describe the Van Gaal System his response was:

“It’s a footballing philosophy more than a system. A system depends on the players you have. I played 4-3-3 with Ajax, 2-3-2-3 with Barcelona and I can play 4-4-2 with AZ. I’m flexible. The philosophy stays the same though.”

When you start digging deeper into what Van Gaal defines as his philosophy you start to uncover not only his philosophy of football but Van Gaal as a person. When growing up his father was a strict disciplinarian who organised the family along a rigid division of labour, this can be seen as the first trace of where his philosophy grew from, as discipline forms the foundation for his Philosophy along with Communication and Team-Building.

So what do these three elements of the philosophy actually consist of? I’m going to use extracts from the book ‘The Coaching Philosophies of Louis Van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches’ wrote by Henny Kormelink and Tjeu Seeverens, to explain what the three elements consist of.


A speech Van Gaal gave in his early career epitomizes his views of discipline within his philosophy. ‘Soccer is a team sport, and the members of the team are therefore dependent on each other. If certain players do not carry out their tasks properly on the pitch, then their colleagues will suffer. This means that each player has to carry out his basic tasks to the best of his ability, and this requires a disciplined approach on the pitch. In my opinion this can only be achieved if there is also discipline off the pitch.’


The second element of the philosophy is communication. Van Gaal states that he has to engineer situations in which players are obliged to communicate with each other and the staff. Examples of these situations include extended medical treatment sessions as he noticed this is where most of communication between the players happened. Another quote from the book that explains how importantly he regards communication is the following ‘Each training session is a form of communication. The drills themselves are not so important it is more a question of what you do with them. During training sessions the players see what a coach wants. I often stop the practice games and challenge the players to think about the soccer problems they are facing.’


The third and final element of the philosophy is team building. Team-building naturally occurs when discipline and continuous communication are applied. Van Gaal sums his view on team building in the following quote ‘In soccer everything depends on the team aspect. It is therefore important that each player knows what the others can and can’t do. You have to discover each other’s skills, and this automatically leads to a good mutual understanding, which is the basis for the result. All players have to learn to put the team’s interests first. Team-building is not ensuring that you all like each other, but that you learn about each other’s skills and can talk to each other about them.’

So what can we take from knowing what the three elements of the philosophy consist of? It is clear to me that Van Gaal fully believes that the best way to win in football, is to be the best team. It is clear in everything he has changed at Manchester United that the team always comes first. He puts the team ahead of any individuals. When you look at his record with clubs you see that wherever he has managed he has won titles, except national honours with Holland. These clubs range from AZ Alkmaar to Bayern Munich, both different clubs with a different quality of players but both the same outcome National Champions.

Van Gaal, the Pioneer of Modern Management

Van Gaal as long been associated with been the pioneer for modern football management. When you see the amount of great modern managers that Van Gaal has helped shape it can’t be denied that each one of them has taken fundamentals from his footballing philosophy managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Luis Enrique.

What seems quite normal now was unheard of and laughed at back when he was in charge of Ajax in the 1990’s. Van Gaal has introduced a number of methods in management from the use of a notebook in the dugout, to the way he handles post match team talks. They have been extremely effective in the management of the players and staff.

Innovations include the use of an Exercise Physiologist who convinced Van Gaal to change the way he trained is players. Training was to not be endurance based as this created a different type of muscle tissue, which isn’t useful for footballers. This was something that went against the norm in football at the time, Pep Guardiola is a coach who has adopted this approach to training, and this is covered In Pep Confidential a book written about his first year at Bayern Munich.

So with all we have learned about the philosophy of Louis van Gaal what changes have been made at Old Trafford to aid with the implementation of his philosophy.

There have been many changes at the club that will help him implement the discipline, communication and team-building he requires at the club these include:

  • One of the first changes Van Gaal made was to install video surveillance around the training complex. This will encourage the players to behave as expected knowing that their every move has been tracked by the cameras.
  • Double Training Sessions have been introduced with the new implementation of a different playing style. Players train in the morning and then are encouraged to have a sleep in the brand new state of the art sleep pods which have been recently introduced, before training again in the evening. The installation of flood lights will allow this even when dark. Along with the introduction of double training sessions and flood lights state of the art training pitches which are designed to replicate the playing surface of Old Trafford have been introduced.
  • Louis van Gaal believes Medical treatment sessions provide an excellent opportunity for the players to communicate with each other to help achieve the atmosphere Van Gaal wanted he has increased the size of the medical room.
  • Players have been ordered to eat together with a change of table layout which encourages the players to communicate more. They have also been given a strict deadline of 1pm to be in the canteen with players being fined if they are even one minute late. The players are also under instruction to speak only English when communicating with each other.

These are just some of the changes that have been implemented in the first season that Van Gaal has been in charge, I’m sure there is going to be many more innovative ideas which will be introduced along the way as Van Gaal strives to create his football Utopia.

The System

With the philosophy of Louis van Gaal explained we now need to establish why Van Gaal is so intent on the philosophy.

In an interview with a Portuguese coach named Pedro Sousa, Van Gaal sets outs his vision of how football should be played. Within this interview he outlines everything from his preferred formation to what players he wants in certain positions. All the below quotes unless stated are from this Thesis written by Pedro Sousa about total football.

One of the questions asks – What characteristics do you want that your team shows in the field?

His reply ‘I want 8 lines… 8 lines… so many as possible… because then the occupation of the pitch its better… the best occupation of the pitch is this system… 1,2,3,4,5,6,7… and with this dynamic one line more (Figure)… but depends where is the ball… when the ball is here he has to go here… so also form a line to pass, but when you play that system you have always triangles… you have always two options for here… here… two options…also more… it’s the same here… two options… in the middle it’s always more… here it’s also a triangle… a triangle… so that’s why 4-3-3, in my opinion, is the best system and you can play with a defensively player or an offensive player (triangle of midfield) it’s dependable of the quality of your players’

From this statement you learn from the very mouth of Van Gaal that the 4-3-3 is the favourite system for his teams to play, occupying the pitch with seven lines. As shown in the image below.


Characteristics to be shown in Louis van Gaal’s team Credit: Live Life United

We know that Van Gaal likes to have as many lines as possible on the pitch creating passing combinations with triangles, but why does he like to create this shape. He plays in this way because as he states “You decide how the opponent play their football and not that the opponent decides where we have to play” he says “I have always played very offensively as a trainer with my teams because I like that. You have to deliver a product for the public’ and to best do this he has chosen the formation to give him the best opportunity to allow his team to circulate the ball and dominate possession.

Everybody knows this is the way Van Gaal likes to set out his team however to fully understand his thinking we have to look into the fundamentals Van Gaal use when constructing an attack. Van Gaal states he has four phases of play the attacking phase, defensive phase. transition from attack to defence and the transition from defence to attack he says I divide also the attacking moment in the first phase, second phase, thirst phase and fourth phase… The first phase it’s the construction, the second is the… circulation of the ball to create the pass… this is the third phase… the creative… and the fourth phase is the finalization.’

So what does Van Gaal mean when discussing his four phases of attack? The first phase is always with the goalkeeper, Van Gaal loves to build his attack from the goalkeeper and instructs the goalkeeper to pass the ball short.

The second phase is the circulation of the ball, circulation of the ball is there to create disorganisation in the opponents, moving the ball from one part of the pitch to the other Van Gaal also states that the verticality of the circulation is fundamental in breaking up the organisation of the defending team, when is this phase Van Gaal prefers his players to not take any risks when circulating the ball, he explains vertical passes don’t pose any risk however passes out wide pose a great risk and need to be carefully calculated before attempting them. .

The third phase Van Gaal describes as the creative, the creative is that pass that unlocks the space in and around the opponents box, which allows for a cross or a player to get sight of goal.

And finally the finalisation which is the fourth phase, this is the attempt on goal which leads to a goal set piece or return to the defensive phase.

When you look at the sides coached by Van Gaal, they all play offensive football trying to keep possession of the ball. It’s one of the most important characteristics of a Van Gaal team.

Possession is no guarantee that you are going to win as the recent game with West Brom shows, however it does have a very big advantage. Having possession of the ball forces the opposition to use a lot of energy trying to run after the ball. In contrast the team with possession of the ball use much less energy circulating the ball with quick incisive passing. Van Gaal instructs his players to keep their shape and maintain lots of triangles on the pitch. This was one of the reasons to why Ander Herrera initially struggled to get a place in Van Gaal’s starting XI.

Whilst at Ajax in the book The coaching philosophy of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax coaches Louis Van Gaal stated that ‘lots of coaches devote their time to wondering how they can ensure that their players are able to do a lot of running during a match, Ajax trains its players to run as little as possible on the field. That is why Positional games are always central to Ajax’s training sessions.’

Now we can see what kind of framework Van Gaal utilises when constructing play from the goalkeeper to opponent’s goal. We now need to look at what certain positions need to do within this framework.

When looking at the team Van Gaal describes the he gives certain players fixed positions and other player’s greater mobility. The players given the greater mobility are the two wingers who are asked to hug the touch-line making the pitch as big as possible to create space, the two Laterals (full-backs) and the two central midfielders which he states have to offer width when attacking ‘When we have the ball they (midfielders) have to open… always at the sides, it’s very important… because of that they (opponent) have to defend width and then we have more space…’ these players need to offer a lot of quality because ‘these players need to play inside and outside, inside defensively and outside when we have the ball and they have to dribble and then they have to be orientated for a lot of things when we attack’ the type of player Van Gaal likes in this position are players he describes as thinkers. ‘Brain. But a lot of trainer coaches want to be here defender… always with me… thinkers. Guardiola, Xavi, Jong… always that kind of players.’

Along with the mobile players Van Gaal has fixed positions these include the striker, the striker Van Gaal describes as a player wanting to run allot however he would rather have the striker being stationary in his position. Rooney describes Van Gaal’s striker role in this article. The number 10 who Van Gaal describes as more of a midfielder that attacks rather than a striker who drops deep, is seen as more of a thinker in Van Gaal’s system, he has number of functions in the teams attacking and defensive phases, but above all he is expected to score 20-30 goals a season. The centre backs and goalkeeper are also expected to be more thinkers, building play from the back.

When looking at what Van Gaal would like from his back four he wants one of these players to step into midfield to create a man advantage when in the second phase (Ball circulation) ‘Always, I want to create one man more… so, always one of the four (defenders) has to enter in the midfield… doesn’t matter witch… but one enter they (the other three) have to close.’ So this states that only one of his defenders can step into the midfield line at any time, this is linked with his defensive organisation when in the attacking phase which means that at least three defenders stay back compact with a midfielder also staying back allowing the second central midfielder freedom of supporting the attack.

So that is what Van Gaal expects from his 11 players but how does he want them to function as a team, he normally expects his team to be tight together in the lines he expects them to occupy which means the defence pushing up, he doesn’t want his team been exploited with the amount of space left if the team loses the ball, so if the ball is in one part of the pitch he expects his entire team to occupy spaces near to the ball. Within the interview Van Gaal explains that he wants his players ‘Always together…When they are here…they have to contact… I already said to you… not space between… so when they go down, they have to go down…but not with space between the lines because the opponent want to take benefit of that… but then you have more space behind you… you have to know that… and therefore it’s very important when the ball it’s here he is covering…’

So there you have it within this article I have covered Van Gaal’s philosophy, his innovative ideas used to put his philosophy into practice and I have touched upon how his tactical system works and a little insight into what Van Gaal describes as his football utopia.

Within the next two years, we should expect Van Gaal to keep teaching his players the system into which he expects his players to fit into. Hopefully this will result in a legacy of success at the club. What is certain is the philosophy is starting to be embedded into the minds of his players, as can be seen in the performances near the end of the season. For me this has been a pleasure to watch the transition from a fairly boring side to one that I am excited to watch.

This article was researched and written by Billy Pearson. You can follow him on Twitter.

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