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What would Louis van Gaal's Manchester United look like?

Louis van Gaal is widely rumoured to be David Moyes' chosen successor, but what exactly would his Manchester United team look like?

Alexander Hassenstein

This morning's rumours suggest that Dutch national coach Louis van Gaal has agreed to become David Moyes' successor at Old Trafford once the Netherlands are eliminated from this summer's World Cup. But who is van Gaal, and what would a van Gaal Manchester United team look like? Hopefully TBB will help to address a few questions here.

The 4-3-3

van Gaal has tended to prefer the 4-3-3 throughout his career, from his earliest successes in charge of Ajax. It's not a shape he's stuck to rigidly; using the 4-4-2 while in charge of AZ Alkmaar and often opting for a 4-2-3-1 at Bayern Munich and with the Dutch national side, but we can loosely expect to see United follow the van Gaal 4-3-3 model.

van Gaal has described his style of play as an "attacking philosophy, a technical philosophy, and a tactical philosophy." His sides have traditionally tended to dominate possession, with positional training the key. While at Ajax, he coached his players "to run as little as possible on the field," through the use of positional drills. "Running is for animals. Soccer is all about the brain, ball and opposition," in van Gaal's own words.

The offensive phase

van Gaal usually likes his teams to build moves out through the defence, though it's certainly not tiki-taka. Moving the ball at a high tempo is important, whether that's through accurate long passes from a ball-playing defender -- hello Jonny Evans! -- or quickly switching the play from one side to the other if confronted by a disciplined defensive unit.  He also likes a defender to step up into midfield when in the attacking phase, meaning the system becomes something of a 3-4-3 when in possession, dominating the game in the opponent's half.

Differentiating between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 is difficult in van Gaal's system, as he's traditionally used one midfielder ahead of the others in a number 10-type role. Dennis Bergkamp and Jari Litmanen had notable success in this position at Ajax, with these players usually the main goalscoring threat, running beyond the main centre-forward into space. It's a role which could well be suited for Wayne Rooney, though whether he has the discipline off the ball remains to be seen.

Interestingly van Gaal usually likes his wingers to hug the touchline during build-up play in order to create space for the shuttling runs forward from midfield. That brings up an interesting question over how -- and, indeed, if -- Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata would fit into his plan. He says that if you "have midfielders who can make the right choices in a small space, this is an advantage," so he certainly won't be averse to trying to accommodate them.  Don't expect them to be given the freedom to wander, however, as he's keen for players to master their own area of the field. "For the left winger, for example, it is the space between the penalty area and the centre line on the corresponding side of the pitch."

The defensive phase

van Gaal likes his teams to press when out of possession, and, according to the authors of book Dutch Soccer Secrets, "all players must be ready to do something." He's quoted Barcelona's pressing as how he'd like his teams to play, by looking to squeeze their opponents out onto the flank and compress the play onto one side of the pitch. It's a compact style in which the lines between the players should be no greater than five to 10 metres, which ensures the players need to expend as little energy as possible in covering.

Rather worryingly, for fellow Rafael lovers, he seems to put an emphasis on the defensive solidity of his full-backs rather than their attacking prowess. Precise marking of their opponents and tactical awareness are fundamental characteristics of these "killers." Oh dear. Elsewhere across the back four, the playmaking defender given the freedom to wander forward is seen as the defensive leader of the team, dictating pressing and positioning to his teammates. Experience and awareness are key attributes.


van Gaal is perhaps most famous for his strict regimes. "I am the way I am and I've not got an easy-going manner. But I'm not going to change my personality just because some people want me to," he's said. Arrogant? "In the Netherlands, being arrogant just means having a lot of self-confidence."

Certainly the United players shouldn't expect an easy ride. van Gaal expects nothing but the best from his players, both on and off the field.  That includes being in the dressing room half an hour before the sessions start, tidiness, and not reading a newspaper when sat at the table with the team. At Ajax, van Gaal didn't even permit players playing with low socks or untucked shirts. "You stand out from other players by virtue of your performance," he says.

However, while he may seem like an evil tyrant, that's probably (just) a step too far. He sees himself as a leader of a team, rather than a distant director. "I learn something new every day from the people around me. From the players, the medical staff, my assistants ... I talk to players every day. It is my task as the leader of the team -- and I very definitely count the players as part of it -- to make a selection from all the information available."

Team over individuals

Such an emphasis on ‘team' occasionally comes at the neglect of players themselves. Make no mistake, in team selections van Gaal makes unemotional, technical decisions. Fan or player favourites shouldn't expect special treatment, and Rooney might have a nasty surprise if he sees he's going to have to do a little more than score the odd wondergoal to become a cog in van Gaal's system.

"The characteristics are the last point in my vision, because the vision is football; is the game. You have to play as a team, and not as an individual. That's why I'm always looking at the vision rather than the team, and who fits the profiles I make in the 4-3-3," he says.

Does his focus on the team occasionally come at the expense of individuals? Perhaps. Certainly Luca Toni would think so, who worked under van Gaal at Bayern Munich. "Van Gaal simply didn't want to work with me, he treats players like interchangeable objects," in another quote in the Independent, defender Lucio left the Bavarian club saying "van Gaal hurt me more than anyone else in football."

However, at this juncture it's probably worth pointing out that Bayern are now the best team in the world. He may not win many friends -- though he apparently gets along with Robin van Persie like a house on fire -- but if that's what it takes to restore United to the top, then so be it. Let's just hope it happens ...

Additional quotes from P. Hyballa and H. te Poel, Dutch Soccer Secrets (Meyer & Meyer, 2011) and H. Kormelink and T. Seeverens, The Coaching Philosophies of Louis Van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches (Reedswain, 2003).