Manchester United's new manager, Louis van Gaal, is many things, but above all he is experienced. He has coached for nearly 25 years across three countries, and has won the league title with every club he's taken on, from Ajax and AZ Alkmaar in Holland to the European aristocracy of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. He has also, along the way, managed to contribute to the development of some of the finest footballers in the world, as well as irritate pretty much everybody he's ever met.
Having served as assistant to Leo Beenhakker, Van Gaal took full control of Ajax in 1991 and delivered immediate success. As a youth coach, he had noticed that a young winger called Dennis Bergkamp, viewed by the then-head coach as "useless," might be better deployed behind the striker. When Van Gaal took the top job in 1991-92 — congratulating the board on hiring "the best coach in the world" — Bergkamp top scored in the league and inspired the club to victory in the Uefa Cup.
Bergkamp left for Italy in 1993, but the best was yet to come. Under Van Gaal, Ajax flowered into one of the finest club sides in the history of the modern game. Anchored by the veteran Frank Rijkaard, a staggeringly talented group of young players — Clarence Seedorf, Jari Litmanen, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Finidi George, the De Boer twins — won three consecutive Eredivisie titles along with the 1994-95 Champions League, beating Bayern Munich 5-2 in the semi-final before overcoming Fabio Capello's AC Milan in the final. Ajax reached the final the following season too, but lost to Juventus on penalties, and the squad, exposed by by the newly-introduced Bosman rule, was picked apart by richer clubs.
When Van Gaal arrived in Catalonia he stated, diplomatically, that "I have come here to do a job, and that is to deliver a system that will operate over the long term. We will be looking to win trophies from the very start, but to complete the project may take several years." He also said "I have achieved more with Ajax in six years than Barcelona has in one hundred years," which was perhaps less wise, particularly since his side crashed out of the Champions League in the group stage. However, Barcelona went on to win the league by 9 points and completed the double, beating Mallorca on penalties in the final.
During his time at the club, Van Gaal was widely disliked for a process of over-Dutchification: he brought nine compatriots to the club, six players and three coaches, and according to Simon Kuper compounded this by "treating the other players as though they were Dutchmen". At times the football was incoherent and at others it was beautiful but flawed, and he never escaped association with the president who appointed him, Josep Lluís Núñez, who was engaged in a vicious backroom political battle with Johann Cruyff. Nevertheless, when they clicked, they clicked to the tune of two league titles in three seasons. And, as if to complete the project he promised, he gave Xavi his debut.
Replacing Frank Rijkaard after Euro 2000, Van Gaal took over a Dutch side featuring many of the players he'd worked with at Ajax and Barcelona, along with Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy. He was characteristically bullish upon appointment, declaring that his six-year contract would give him time to win the World Cup twice. However, his side failed to qualify for the tournament in Japan and South Korea, losing out in a tight group to Portugal's Golden Generation and a Roy Keane-inspired Ireland. So impressed with Keane was Van Gaal that he nominated him for the World Player of the Year; he also, naturally, resigned.
Never go back, they say, and they're right. Appointed by Núñez's replacement Joan Gaspart, Van Gaal's second stint at Barcelona lasted just five months. Though they won a then-record ten consecutive games in the Champions League, their league form was inconsistent when it wasn't dreadful, and he was mutually consented in January with the side 20 points off the top and just three above the relegation zone. That's what you get when you play Juan Román Riquelme on the right. Still, he did give Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes their debuts.
After a brief, unhappy spell as Ajax's technical director — he resigned after clashing with head coach Ronald Koeman — he returned to the Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar. After finishing second and third in his first two seasons he offered to resign partway through the third, but was persuaded to stay by his squad. They "wanted to show that they are worthy of Louis van Gaal," said, er, Louis van Gaal. After losing the first two games of the 2008-09 season he switched his tactics, abandoning the traditional Dutch model of pressing/possession for the joys of the counterattack, and his team embarked upon a 28-game unbeaten run that saw them to the title. They were the first title winners from outside the big three — Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord — since 1981.
Bayern Munich (2009-2011)
On arrival in Bavaria, Van Gaal pronounced that Bayern fitted him "like a warm coat," and a hugely successful first season saw him win the domestic double and reach the final of the Champions League, where he ran into Jose Mourinho's Inter. In the second season, however, his failure to address Bayern's defensive weaknesses left the aristocrats struggling in the league and out of Europe, and after announcing in March that he would leave at the season, he was sacked in May. He left the club in a very un-Bayern-like fourth place and in danger of missing out on the Champions League.
Van Gaal being Van Gaal and Bayern being FC Hollywood, this downturn in results had not been a quiet business. He clashed spectacularly with the president Uli Hoeness, ignored the advice of almost everybody, isolated a large chunk of the playing squad and dismissed critical journalists as "parrot music". But again, he left behind him not just chaos and recrimination; he also promoted Thomas Mueller, Toni Kroos and Holger Badstuber through to the first team and, in an echo of his reinvention of Bergkamp all those years ago, relocated Bastian Schweinsteiger from the left wing to central midfield, and transformed David Alaba from midfielder to full back.
Never go back, they say, but sometimes it doesn't go too badly. Taking over from Bert van Marwijk following the Netherlands disastrous Euro 2012 campaign — three games, two goals, no points — Van Gaal qualified for Brazil without too much trouble from a not-too-testing group. Robin van Persie scored 11 goals along the way to become his country's all-time top goalscorer, which bodes well.
However, Van Gaal is realistic about the prospects for his young, inexperienced squad, whose defensive players are mostly based in Holland, whose key midfielder, Kevin Strootman, is injured, and who start the competition with a repeat of the 2010 final against the holders Spain. "There are eight to ten teams better than we are," he has calculated. "The chances of reaching the quarter-finals are 20 per cent."
Season by season
1991-92 Eredivisie: 2nd, Uefa Cup: Winner, KNVB Cup: QF
1992-93 Eredivisie: 3rd, Uefa Cup: QF, KNVB Cup: Winner
1993-94 Eredivisie: 1st, Cup Winners' Cup: QF, KNVB Cup: SF
1994-95 Eredivisie: 1st, Champions League: Winner, KNVB Cup: QF
1995-96 Eredivisie: 1st, Champions League: Final, KNVB Cup: Last 16
1996-97 Eredivisie: 4th, Champions League: SF, KNVB Cup: 1st round
1997-98 La Liga: 1st, Champions League: Group, Copa del Rey: Winner
1998-99 La Liga: 1st, Champions League: Group, Copa del Rey: QF
1999-00 La Liga: 2nd, Champions League: SF, Copa del Rey: SF
2000-02 World Cup qualifying: P10 W6 D2 L2, 30 scored, 9 conceded
2002-03 (at time of sacking) La Liga: 12th, Champions League: 2nd group, Copa del Rey: 1st round
2005-06 Eredivisie: 2nd, Europa League: last 32, KNVB Cup: SF
2006-07 Eredivisie: 3rd, Europa League: QF, KNVB Cup: Final
2007-08 Eredivisie: 11th, Europa League: Group stage, KNVB Cup: 2nd round
2008-09 Eredivisie: 1st, KNVB Cup: QFs
2009-10 Bundesliga: 1st, Champions League: Final, DFB-Pokal: Winners
2010-11 (at time of sacking) Bundesliga: 4th, Champions League: Last 16, DFB-Pokal: SF
2012-14 World Cup qualifying: P10, W9, D1, L0, 34 scored, 5 conceded