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Understanding Louis van Gaal’s philosophy and why it needs time

by Sam Peoples

Philosophy. Process. Time.

Key buzzwords that Louis van Gaal has used from the moment he joined Manchester United. Much has been made of his use of the term but not many really know what this “philosophy” entails. Is it a tactical system? Is it a technical coaching model that is soaked within the Dutch culture of football? Surprisingly, it’s neither.

Van Gaal’s approach to football has always entailed three very important aspects he sees as crucial to being successful; team-ethic, discipline and communication. If these three components are not adhered to, you may find yourself clashing with the coach (just ask Rivaldo).

But why are these so important?

Before becoming a professional football coach, Van Gaal was a teacher. He is old school. He believes in respect to authority but also mutual respect towards students. He believes in discipline, having a control over your actions and using that control to your own benefit, not a hindrance to others. He also believes in working together. Even though as a teacher he was hoping for individual successes, he knew there would always be a far greater chance of achievement if each member of the group helped each other.


But then why does he need so much time?

Surely he could walk into every job, lay down he law and expect his players to listen? No. It is far more complex than that. Rather than just showing off a finished product, Van Gaal does like to get down and dirty. He will harvest the roots of the team and plant new seeds into the players to get them working the way he sees fit. Although that can be open to interpretation, there’s quite a lot of evidence to show that indeed his approach works.

Firstly, he will look at communication.

He follows a structure where he needs a voice on the pitch. An experienced leader who he can effectively work through and gauge opinion and views of the team from. That is why his selection of captain was so important. From the outside, numerous attempts to leave may have soured the relations Wayne Rooney had with the fans but inside the club, there isn’t a player who’s respected as much. Therefore, the choice was really a straightforward one.

With that important decision made, Van Gaal will now utilise his main man and through him instil the discipline he seeks. Ever the perfectionist, ordering in circular tables into the training ground canteen is nothing. Who cares what shape the tables are? Well, Van Gaal does. Because it leads onto implementing his philosophy and that’s by the players and coaching staff all interacting, engaging and socialising with one and other. Not only to forge stronger friendships off the field but to build a team spirit on it too.

Team-ethic is a powerful tool within football, especially in the modern game, A strong unit who isn’t blessed with an array of expensive match winners can be as effective as a star-studded team because with players giving 110% and working hard for each other, they can become a formidable unit. Van Gaal seeks to create that.


He wants his teams to have a strong character. He wants and demands his teams and the individual players to work for the team and the cause. He wants everyone to have faith in his way and his philosophy and working towards success. That is why Rivaldo turned his nose up at Van Gaal when he was asked to play on the left wing at Barcelona, preferring instead to argue his case to be played in his favoured central position. Van Gaal wasn’t looking for an argument or to prove a point. He simply saw that Rivaldo would be better suited to fit into his system from the left side. Rivaldo thought otherwise.

That is why Van Gaal sees a strong team-ethic as important and expects selflessness. A story often un-told is from his Ajax days. John van Loen was asked by Van Gaal which system would be suitable to play when preparing for a UEFA Cup tie with AA Gent of Belgium in 1992. Van Loen replied “4-3-3” and Van Gaal was surprised but enormously satisfied, because by suggesting that system, he realised that the striker would probably not be picked for that game but instead of putting his desire to play first, he instead put the interests of the team first. That is what Van Gaal seeks from his squads.

Van Gaal has enjoyed the nickname of the “iron tulip” but in reality he isn’t as harsh as his critics have you to believe. He is a principled man who is stubborn within his beliefs, reinforced by the successes he has achieved working in such a manner. Discipline for Van Gaal is key to sustaining success as he believed it to be linked to complacency, attitude and motivation of a player.


A high level of professionalism and self-control are ideal traits of a modern-day footballer and with the high wages on offer; you can see why some players coast through their careers, blighted by the odd occasions of misdemeanour. But with all of that, the last thing Van Gaal wants is to fine a player for poor behaviour. Instead, he simply expects respect, both for others and the self. From this, various attributes will improve including tactical discipline and self-motivation. And it is from this final component from which Van Gaal builds his teams.

With his philosophy and all the information that comes with it in tow, Van Gaal gets to work on the long-term vision; a style of play and tactics.

At this moment in time, Manchester United is going through a evolution and change which hasn’t been seen at the club for a number of years but it is a much-needed change.

On Sunday, we will see the team come up against many people’s favourites for the title and although it wont be a barometer for the near-future, it will certainly give Van Gaal an indicator of how far his team, his tactics and his philosophy have come.

He sees things we don’t and even if United lose on Sunday, expect him to praise them and pick out improvements. Little improvements that make up the whole because with Van Gaal, the basis of his success is his philosophy and that process takes time.

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