Sifting through the numerous plaudits which have been bestowed upon Louis van Gaal since his appointment as Manchester United boss, it’s a hard task to discern if the Dutchman has ever actually done anything wrong.
The 63-year-old has enjoyed success at virtually all of the clubs he has managed, and his tactical nous has been celebrated by many esteemed managers and players. However if there’s one thing you can be sure of it’s that the words of those who have served under him should carry the most weight.
Van Gaal praise
It’s one thing to reap the benefits of a manager’s style and ability from the stands as a fan, or even as a chief at boardroom level, but it’s another thing entirely to work with him day in, day out on the training ground and still have positive reviews.
Arjen Robben’s comments on Van Gaal, which emerged earlier today, appear to fall into such a category, with the Bayern Munich man lauding the United boss’s techniques, and tipping the Dutchman to take the Red Devils back to the Champions League at the first time of asking.
Robben, who played under Van Gaal both for Bayern and The Netherlands, offered a glowing reference which to some degree rejected the claims from Manchester City star Martin Demichelis that United’s new manager made the German giants ‘stink’ during his time there.
Van Gaal's appointment
The relationship between the likes of Robben and Van Gaal, who also enjoyed a healthy period in charge of Barcelona, was one which no doubt played a part in United’s decision to appoint him as David Moyes’s successor. The veteran coach has esteemed connections all over Europe, and the sway and know-how to land the sort of players that Moyes simply couldn’t.
That’s why it was no real surprise to see half of The Netherlands’ most valuable assets linked with big-money moves to Old Trafford, with Robben one of a host of players being supposedly lined up to join Van Gaal as he undertakes his most ambitious project yet.
In the end Daley Blind was the only compatriot Van Gaal decided to spend money on and, though he may have flirted with the idea of launching an audacious offensive for Robben, the plot never really got up and running.
Yet that won’t have stopped certain sectors of the United faithful being left to rue an apparent missed opportunity. Robben ranks firmly amongst the world’s most talented playmakers and if there had been any coach possessive of the knowledge surrounding how to prise him away from Pep Guardiola, it would have been Van Gaal.
From the embers of disappoint however so often rise possibilities which can be harvested to realise perhaps an even better future than was otherwise possible. In this case it was Van Gaal’s decision to distract himself from a futile attempt to convince Bayern to part with arguably their most influential player until another one of similar ability became available.
Di Maria move
For at the beginning of the summer the prospect of Angel Di Maria leaving Real Madrid to join the Red Devils’ revolution was one which bordered on being unrealistic at best and, had it not been for James Rodriguez’s fine World Cup showing, he might not have ever been within Van Gaal’s grasp.
Florentino Perez’s recent admission that Di Maria was only sold because it was not economically viable to keep him makes it clear that Los Blancos didn’t force him out. In this respect United being able to land him is quite the stroke of luck.
As with all fortuitous events however there’s some sort of genius lodged behind it, and in this case it’s Van Gaal’s decision to bide his time and wait for the opportune moment to add to his squad in a position which was crying out for a revamp. He may have foregone any chance of landing Robben but ultimately he was successful in enticing Di Maria to the Premier League which, in my opinion at least, has left him in a better position.
Di Maria better than Robben?
There may be those who argue but I firmly believe the deal for Di Maria was one which renders any would-be criticisms of Van Gaal’s approach this summer pointless, particularly that of the targets he was rejected by prior to the World Cup.
Robben is a world-class winger, of that there can be little doubt, but his purchase would have represented a buy very much for the here and now, whereas Di Maria will go on improving for at least the duration of his first Old Trafford contract.
The stats from last season also back up the theory that the Argentina international is at least sitting on the same page as his Dutch counterpart with regards to their respective ability. In his 34 appearances for Madrid in La Liga, Di Maria recorded 17 assists and 73 key passes - as per Squawka - whereas Robben only managed six and 45 in his 28 Bundesliga outings.
Accordingly Di Maria appears to have hit the ground running at Old Trafford, and a layover period wherein foreign players usually need to adapt to the English game doesn’t look like it’s going to be necessary. Van Gaal, at least at this stage, seems to have lived up to his reputation as a wise and forward-thinking coach. United fans will be praying his decision to wait for Di Maria is indicative of a style which promises glory down the line.