Only a few coaches reach the top level, and fewer still are as successful as Louis van Gaal. The 62-year-old has won league championships in Germany, Spain and his native Netherlands, as well as the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup.
Now, having led his country to the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ via an unbeaten qualifying campaign, Van Gaal finds himself pitted against current world champions Spain, in-form Chile and Australia in Group B.
However, FIFA.com steered away from World Cup issues when chatting to the man from Amsterdam. In an in-depth interview, we discussed his coaching philosophy, his reinvention of players such as Bastian Schweinsteiger, why Pep Guardiola made a great captain at Barcelona and why international management can be frustrating.
FIFA.com: What would you say sets you apart from other coaches?
Louis van Gaal: I think it’s my philosophy because it binds players with my training, and in my career, I have had a lot of players who are fascinated by that philosophy. They find it nice to take part in it because it's attacking, technical and tactical. They can show their qualities more than ever.
What characteristics do you look for in your players?
The characteristics come back to my point on vision. You have to play as a team and not as individuals. That's why I'm always going back to the vision, then the team, and then which players fit in my system, a 1-4-3-3, because I'm always playing that. If a young player can do it, then I select him. If it's an older player, it doesn't bother me; it's not the most important factor. Age is not important.
At Barcelona you gave debuts to the likes of Xavi and Iniesta. Do you get any particular pleasure in seeing how their careers have blossomed?
Of course. When I see Barcelona playing with four of my players, and Bayern Munich as well, it makes me happy and proud. But the Xavis, Iniestas, Mottas, Mullers or Alabas fitted in the profile of the position. For example, I talked with Alaba about the left full-back position. He didn’t want to play there. He was educated as a midfielder, but I had a vacant position for him because I had injuries and thought he could do the job. After a lot of talking, in the end, he played there because he wanted to help the team. Where is he playing now? Left full-back!
I used to be a physical education teacher because I loved communicating with young people. Now I have to select, watch, observe and I only have contact with my players about eight times a year.
What can you say about the tactical evolution of Bastian Schweinsteiger?
He did not fit in the position of left-winger for me. When I arrive at a new club, I talk with every player about his position, his personality, the team, and how he works with his team-mates. I told Bastian, 'I think you have to play in the midfield.’ At that time, we played with two holding midfielders and a No10, which was [Thomas] Muller. Then he played in a holding role and found he liked the game more than ever. Now he's playing at No6 with Guardiola. There are not many players who have a wide orientation. When you have a wide orientation then you can fit in the profile of a No6 or No10. But then you have to train. Schweinsteiger never played there, so after two weeks of training sessions and two matches, he felt he could do more than ever. That's why the philosophy is the binding factor.
Another of your protégés at Bayern Munich, Thomas Muller, was playing in the club’s amateur and U-19 teams - and then a couple of years later he wins the Golden Boot and Best Young Player Awards at South Africa 2010. What did you first see in him?
When I go to a new club, I always want to keep one coach from the existing staff and that person was Herman Kerland, who is still working under Pep Guardiola. I wanted to know who was coming through the youth system – and he is the man who said to me: “Muller, Badstuber and Alaba. These are the players.” So I let them train with the first team, I observed them – and then I decided where they were going to play. Also, Badstuber was originally a left-back and I put him as a left central defender.
What were the qualities you saw in a young Carles Puyol to make him captain, and what are the qualities you look for in the captain of your team?
This is more based on characteristics, which is very important for me. I choose the captain, not the players. I’m always choosing the captains of my team. I have to live with them and give them more responsibility. I have to admire him also because of his personality, his identity. My captains are very professional, but also very ambitious and honest. You can see these qualities in the captains I have chosen.
And age is not important?
Age is not important. When I moved to Barcelona, Guardiola was 27-years-old. Traditionally in Spain, the captains are the eldest players. I wanted to give him responsibility and transfer my philosophy. I have to click with my captains. I told Pep, ‘You have to be my captain.’ He said, ‘No, no.’ I told him, ‘I choose the captain and you understand the game how I understand the game.’ That’s why I made him my captain. You can see what he is now.
Do you miss the aspect of working with players on a daily basis?
Every day. I used to be a physical education teacher because I loved communicating with young people. Now I have to select, watch, observe and I only have contact with my players about eight times a year. That is what I don’t like. But now we can start preparations for the World Cup!