Much has been made of Barcelona’s tiki-taka football over the last decade or so, and of how the likes of Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola have made the Catalan giants the revered team that they are today. However, there is one person whose name has been largely ignored: Louis van Gaal.
The Dutchman succeeded Sir Bobby Robson at Camp Nou in 1997, modified – and to some extent enhanced - Cruyff’s system, won two La Liga titles, gave chances to Carles Puyol and Xavi, came back for a disastrous spell in 2002-03 during which he handed Victor Valdes his debut.
So much so that in his farewell letter, the outgoing Barcelona goalkeeper wrote: ‘Thank you to Louis van Gaal, for showing the courage necessary to gamble on a talent that only he could see. He began building this historic Barca side, which I have been privileged to be part of. My heartfelt thanks’.
Then at Bayern Munich, as former president Uli Hoeness put it, Van Gaal “cleaned up Jurgen Klinsmann's inheritance”. But he also had the vision to switch Bastian Schweinsteiger from the wings to a defensive midfield role where he is now considered as one of the best, and guided the Bavarian giants to the final of the Champions League in 2010 as well.
Both at Barcelona and at Bayern, Van Gaal left a lasting legacy of himself and also made sure that the clubs’ long-term futures are secure. His exits from Barca and Bayern have been messy and he has earned a reputation of being a disciplinarian, but years after his departure both the European giants have reaped the benefits. And now Van Gaal is on his way to Manchester United, who endured a disastrous 2013-14 campaign, and he is set to do the same.
As a matter of fact, the Dutchman seems to have started that already. Van Gaal has already asked his assistant manager and club ‘insider’ Ryan Giggs which academy players are good enough for the first team. Of course, this season it will be an introduction to them as big-name players will have to be signed to make the team competitive, but that is how Van Gaal works: manage the club, not just the first team.
At Barcelona, Van Gaal gave chances to talented young players, gave them the opportunity to show what they can do. The confidence and faith shown in the likes of Xavi, Puyol and Valdes back in the late 1990s and early 2000s has gone on to help the Blaugrana establish themselves as ‘the bastion of football’.
Something similar happened at Liverpool over 50 years ago, where ‘Shankly laid the foundations, Paisley built the house’. Bill Shankly became the Liverpool manager in December 1959 and was in charge of the Merseyside outfit until 1974. During these 15 years, he made the Reds one of the top clubs in England.
During his tenure at Anfield, Shankly won the old First Division titles three times, the FA Cup twice and the UEFA Cup in 1973, taking Liverpool off its knees and into the higher echelons of Europe. He laid the foundations, and his successor Bob Paisley built the house. Under Paisley (who was previously Shankly’s assistant), Liverpool became a European force, winning the European Cup thrice, the UEFA Cup once and the domestic league on six occasions.
United are not the Liverpool of the late 1950s – they are still England’s biggest club and arguably the most popular on the planet. However, Van Gaal could play the role of Shankly: lay the foundations of a team that could win honours in years to come. At 62 and with a three-year contract, it is unlikely that Van Gaal is going to stay at Old Trafford for 15 years, but howsoever long he manages United, one thing’s for sure: his legacy will be felt for decades to come.