The worst-kept secret in football is finally official. Manchester United are going Dutch. In employing one of the big beasts of European football, the club heads down an avenue of great change. Louis van Gaal will be its first coach not from Britain or Ireland; a mainland mentality is being adopted after proof that not all Glaswegian managers can be great.
David Moyes was a parochial choice by a club that believed an ancient formula could sustain it forever. The new arrival signals a desire to rip it up and start again; unlike Moyes, van Gaal has a proven track record and a clear philosophy. He has been at three of Europe’s great clubs before; United becomes his fourth, though it may be his toughest rebuilding job yet.
Should the Dutchman bring success, United can file Sir Alex Ferguson’s legacy into the history section, which might well be the aim of the club’s owners. There is an ongoing power struggle at Old Trafford, and the former boss is being pushed to the fringes. Van Gaal, meanwhile, is not a man to defer to anyone. Even if his new director might be the most successful manager of all, van Gaal’s nature is to make himself the biggest figure. He likes a challenge, thrives off them, in fact. Ego is rarely to be kept in check.
Back in 2001, when Ferguson planned to walk away from United at 60, only van Gaal put his head up to signal public interest in succeeding him. His application was unsuccessful; Sven-Goran Eriksson was the choice of the United hierarchy until Ferguson went back on his decision. A failure to qualify Netherlands for the World Cup probably cost van Gaal his chance anyway, but in the years since he has enhanced an otherwise glittering résumé.
It is the foundation work that he carried out at superclubs Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich that has attracted executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward to the veteran coach. Van Gaal won the European Cup in 1995 with Ajax, and lost the 1996 final against Juventus on penalties. After Moyes’ fumbles, United needed someone who has proved himself in European competition, and though those achievements came almost two decades ago in a rather different football era, van Gaal’s achievement of taking Bayern to the 2010 final provides relatively recent proof.
That Ajax team was broken up after 1995’s Bosman ruling opened up the free movement of players, and van Gaal’s brood bolted across the continent to be the bedrock of Europe’s biggest clubs. AC Milan, Arsenal, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona poached his protégés. With the exception of Milan, all achieved success. His disciples remain legion. The continent is now littered with coaches who played for van Gaal, with Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Clarence Seedorf, Frank de Boer and Patrick Kluivert all star players who learned at van Gaal’s feet.
Van Gaal’s time at Camp Nou saw him win two titles in his first spell. Even if his second tenure was disastrous and short, he had been able to bring through the likes of Xavi, Carles Puyol and Andres Iniesta into the first team. Things fell apart at Bayern quickly, but he did win a double in his first season (2009-10), missing a treble by losing the Champions League final in Madrid to Jose Mourinho’s Inter. He also lifted the Eredivisie title with unfashionable AZ Alkmaar, a four-year spell that showed off his abilities in club-building.
Mourinho himself places van Gaal as a leading influence on his career, from when the Portuguese pragmatist was learning his trade as a Barcelona underling. The pair’s football philosophies are poles apart -- van Gaal is a devotee of the Ajax system and Total Football -- but they share an ability to achieve in spite of running battles with club hierarchies, while usually maintaining the faith of players. Of those who have worked with him, many speak of van Gaal as the best coach they have worked with, though there are those who have suffered from being frozen out. The Dutch master has little time for those players he feels are little use to him.
Though United’s 2013-14 season was a frightful mess, and the squad is a cocktail of diminished returns and unproven fledglings, van Gaal inherits at least one good thing from his predecessor. Moyes lowered the bar below United’s previous expectation of annually winning the Premier League title, and a lack of European football allows van Gaal greater time to drive his rigorous coaching techniques into his players. A radical approach may take time to sink in, though United’s business so far this postseason has been a notable clearing of the decks; old dogs like Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will not be around to learn new tricks. Ryan Giggs stays, but the "Class of 1992" has been held back a couple of years to complete their studies.
Van Gaal’s age -- he will be 63 by the time of his first competitive United fixture -- and peripatetic career suggests that he cannot be seen as a long-term appointment, though City’s crosstown success with 60-year-old Manuel Pellegrini suggests that age may not be such a barrier. The aim of the appointment is achieving quick revolution to restore United to their rightful place at the top table of the European game.