It’s Vienna 1995. An 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert is scoring the decisive goal in the Champions League final for Ajax, defeating the mighty AC Milan in the process. Lifting the trophy aloft is a fantastic achievement for Kluivert and his teammates, but also for the man who took them there, Louis van Gaal.
Twenty years on and Van Gaal is embarking on a new European mission, this time with Manchester United. Should his team overcome their opponents in the final qualifying round of this season’s Champions League, as they will widely be expected to do, it will be the first time the club play in Europe with a manager who is not from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. So what can we expect from such an accomplished manager on the European scale to bring to one of the world’s biggest clubs?
For a start we will be seeing a manager who is incredibly experienced in some of Europe’s major leagues. Van Gaal is a coach who has won domestic titles in Holland, Spain and Germany. His young aforementioned Ajax team, who had an average age of just 23 in 1995, reached the UEFA Champions League Final again in 1996 only to be beaten by Juventus on penalties. His time on the continent has afforded him a vast knowledge of different footballing styles, which he has used to his benefit in setting up his own teams while also preparing for the opposition. This has already had an effect in Van Gaal’s first year in English football and fans are hoping that this will materialise in his maiden season in Europe with the 3-time champions.
We hear a lot of pundits and ex-players these days talk about how there are not enough English players moving abroad, where they can gain experience in different systems, thus increasing their overall knowledge of the game. Jamie Carragher said recently in an interview for Graham Hunter’s podcast, that “English players are technically very good, but they are lacking a lot more in the understanding of the game”.
This theory also works in reverse to an extent when a European manager comes to an English club. Players are then exposed to a different methodology or “philosophy” on how the game can and should be played. There is evidence of this in the way in which he has vastly improved the quality and footballing knowledge of some of the players at the club, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Ashley Young in particular. The former highlighted this last week when he told the Guardian’s Dominic Fifield:
“We take more risks at United than the majority of teams but the manager wants us to play. That is something we have fully taken on board, because that is his style, and I think that has helped me when playing in the games.”
While no one is adamant that Smalling is now “the complete player”, and United fans will still want to see a central defender of excellent quality come in this Summer, the improvement has been there for all to see and it’s clear he and his teammates are adapting to methods in which they were never exposed to before.
Add to the mix Memphis Depay, who has already worked under Van Gaal in the Dutch national team. The young forward will already be very aware of Van Gaal’s methods and should slot in nicely to his ideology. With the right additions to the squad this Summer, United will be better equipped not just in the Premier League but on the European stage, and this is where Van Gaal can really thrive. The 63 year-old will relish the chance to pit his wits against the best in Europe once again, and you sense it is this challenge he prefers, rather than say, trying to find a way to score against eleven players in West Brom shirts all back behind the ball.
After the departure of the great Sir Alex Ferguson, many have considered Manchester United to be a fading European force. While many United fans won’t necessarily be thinking of a trip to the San Siro in May of next year, with Van Gaal at the helm they will be hoping the rest of Europe will at least be given reason to fear them again.
This article was researched and written by Shane Connaughton. You can follow him on Twitter.