Louis Van Gaal reveals a young Guardiola’s obsession with tactics
‘If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,’ says LvG
Is football bigger in England, Germany, the Netherlands or Spain?
Football will miss Louis van Gaal. From singing The Beatles and raving about Chinese cuisine in press conferences, to clipboard-in-hand imitations of kung fu kicks and play-acting, to calling Chris Smalling ‘Michael’ and ‘Mike’, to those roaring, rival-rattling victory speeches, the former gymnastics teacher was one-of-a-kind.
A tactical emperor, LvG’s 14 full seasons in club management – including four at uber-underdogs AZ – exceptionally yielded seven league titles and a UEFA Champions League, while he masterminded the Netherlands’ upset of Spain and run to third at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Shortly after announcing his retirement, the 67-year-old chatted to FIFA.com about his career.
FIFA.com: Louis, what are you doing in your spare time? Louis van Gaal: I have developed a strategy for getting old with my wife and children and grandchildren. We are selling the houses we lived in, and buying new houses with hotel facilities. And in the best locations. Then I play a lot of golf and a lot of tennis. And I follow the football world. I watch the Premier League, the Spanish and Dutch leagues, and a little bit of the German league.
And you must have seen Ajax’s elimination of Juventus in the UEFA Champions League? The second half was outstanding. Creative football with a good balance between attack and defence – this is the trick. Ajax have such a lot of creative players. I said it after seeing the matches against Bayern Munich in the group stage: Ajax can go all the way, although the best teams are still in the race.
Louis van Gaal and his Ajax squad celebrate victory over Torino in the 1992 UEFA Cup final. Stanley Menzo, Danny Blind, Frank de Boer, Bryan Roy, Dennis Berhkamp, Stefan Pettersson and Co overcame on away goals a side comprising Luca Marchegiani, Rafael Martin Vazquez, Enzo Scifo, Gianluigi Lentini and Walter Casagrande.
Louis van Gaal.
The next FIFA World Cup is in 2022. If a country came to you a short while before the tournament and asked you to coach them, would you consider it? A World Cup is always special because it is the highest podium on which you can show your abilities as an individual player or coach, and as a team. I shall consider every offer – I’ve already done that over the last three years. Last year I had a few big opportunities that it was very difficult to say no to. So, yes, I would consider it, but now it’s easier to say no. If it’s a big chance, maybe I’ll do it. It’s also dependant on how I feel at that moment. Right now I’m enjoying our new lifestyle.
Edwin van der Sar, Danny Blind, Frank de Boer, Frank Rijkaard, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Ronald de Boer, Marc Overmars, Finidi George, Jari Litmanen, Kanu, Patrick Kluivert… just how good was the Ajax side of 1994/95 that won the Eredivisie-UEFA Champions League double? You had to see that Ajax side, in that era, to realise how good it was. In that 1994/95 season, we only lost one game: to Feyenoord in the [KNVB] Cup quarter-finals in extra time. We didn’t lose a single game in the league or the Champions League – I don’t think any other team has done that. We had to play Milan – the defending champions, a great team who everybody talked about – three times that season, and we won every time.
Kluivert, at just 18, got the match-winner in the last of those clashes and remains the youngest player to score in the European Cup/Champions League final. You were renowned for giving 17 and 18-year-olds chances to shine… For me it’s normal, but most coaches nowadays are reluctant to do it. There’s a difference in experience, but when a player is good enough to play, he should play. I gave youngsters a chance because I saw their quality and the inspiration they gave the squad.
When you have an older group of players, they play on automatic pilot a lot of the time, but with youngsters, you have more intuition. I’ve always preferred to have smaller squads in order to give youngsters a chance. For example, when I arrived at Manchester United, we had more than 35 players under contract.
I sold a lot of players and had a squad of 23. That created the opportunity for youngsters to play, and that is very important. It enabled Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to come out of the youth academy and the club to sign youngsters like Luke Shaw and Anthony Martial. I am very proud that they still play in [Ole Gunnar] Solskjaer’s team and that they can grow into culture guardians of Manchester United, just as [Carles] Puyol, Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta and [Victor] Valdes did for a long period at Barcelona.
During your first spell at Barcelona, you coached two of the biggest names on planet football in Luis Figo and Rivaldo. What did you think of those two? Figo didn’t just have high quality, but you could count on him in every game. He was a winner. Rivaldo was, of course, a big talent - he scored a lot of goals - but you couldn’t always count on him. It depended on the moment.
Another player under your tutelage at Camp Nou was Pep Guardiola. Back then, did you foresee him becoming a coach? He wasn’t the captain of Barcelona, but I made him my captain in my first year. He was always a captain on the pitch anyway – a real captain. Because of that, I expected he would become a coach. With Luis Enrique, I never expected he would become a coach. He was an intuition player, he didn’t speak with me about tactics. The players I foresaw becoming coaches were usually my captains.
A captain has to see not only his own position, but also the needs of the team. Guardiola did that. And when it came to tactics, he could talk for hours and hours! (laughs) He really enjoyed that. And something that I’d say about Guardiola was that he had personality. That’s one of the reasons I promoted him to captain. At one point the squad wasn’t satisfied that I had excluded [Hristo] Stoichkov from training with the first team, and Guardiola came to me to tell me. That took guts.
As well as the Netherlands and Spain, you coached in Germany and England. Of those four countries, where was football a bigger deal? I think that in England, the fans are more into the football. They live and breathe football. It’s really important to the people – more so than in Spain and Germany. In Spain it’s a little bigger than in Germany, and in the Netherlands it’s important, but not as important as in England or Spain.
Did you enjoy working in England? I really enjoyed working there because of the atmosphere, perfect pitches and stadiums full of [capacity] crowds, who were always very loud. And also because of the intense football, with a lot of pressure on the ball. That’s actually why I ended up in England. I was going to retire after my second spell as the Dutch national coach, but I started to receive a lot of offers from England and I said to myself, ‘I want to have that experience in England once in my lifetime to fulfil my dreams’, and that’s what I did. The only downside is that too many teams park the bus there.
Are there any clubs you didn’t get the chance to coach that you’d have loved to? I worked in four countries, with the number one club in all of those countries. Four of the biggest clubs in the world. I could not have wished for more. That was also the reason why I chose Manchester United above Tottenham Hotspur, because of the fact that they are the number one club in England.
At Brazil 2014, the Netherlands started out with one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, a 5-1 win over a Spain side that had won the 2010 World Cup and back-to-back EUROs. How did you come up with the tactics to unravel tiki-taka? I decided to play on the counter because Spain’s players were superior to mine. This provoked the Spanish defenders into playing high up the pitch, and in attack I had players – [Arjen] Robben and Van Persie – of the highest quality. And I knew that in [Wesley] Sneijder and [Daley] Blind I had players with the passing ability to release those two.
It was very difficult to play a different system to what we did during our qualification campaign, but the benefit was that I knew we could always revert to playing our classic style. And we managed to adapt our system in different matches. Against Mexico, for example, we were losing, so I had to change things and we scored two [late] goals to win in the classic Dutch style.
In the quarter-final against Costa Rica, can you tell us about your decision to bring Tim Krul on for the penalty shoot-out? Before the World Cup, we knew that our first-choice goalkeeper, [Jasper] Cillessen, wasn’t able to save penalties. Since, he’s saved a couple, but at that time he hadn’t stopped one penalty. We had another two goalkeepers with us, and I thought that Tim Krul, because of his stature – his height, physical power, reach – would be the best candidate. Furthermore, we thought that by bringing on a goalkeeper for penalties, we’d be putting the pressure on to our opponents. They’d see this big goalkeeper coming on just for the penalties and would think, ‘He’s a specialist, he stops every penalty’, and it would play on their minds.
The Netherlands beat Spain 5-1, Chile 2-0, Brazil 3-0 and played some exhilarating football. Do you think you were the best team at that World Cup? No… well, maybe. I believe in the power of the team, not in the power of one individual player. [Lionel] Messi was this character for Argentina. I think because of the team spirit and the tactics, we could have won the World Cup. I think Germany were deserved winners, but I think if we’d have played them in the Final, we’d have had a good chance.
Who were the best players you coached in your career? I always choose from the total human principle, so maybe not the most creative player or the top scorer, but the player who makes the team keep playing. Examples are Stefan Pettersson and Litmanen at Ajax, Luis Enrique and Luis Figo at Barcelona, Phillip Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger at Bayern, and I must also mention a Dutchman, Robben. I bought him for Bayern from Real Madrid. He was immediately very important for Bayern and later in the Dutch national team for me. He was not only creative and prolific, but he had also a very professional attitude and that is an exception for players of his stature.