Professional football is always rife with idle gossip and juicy tittle-tattle, but when I heard a whisper a few months back that Manchester United’s players were secretly calling Louis van Gaal, ‘The Imposter’, even I sat up straight and listened.
Wow, I thought. Has he made such a bad impression, that Old Trafford’s superstars are questioning how he compiled such an impressive CV?
It may of course have been complete codswallop, a naughty fabrication that grew legs and turned itself into a legitimate half-truth. That happens. On the other hand it’s a rumour that could well have been an accurate portrayal of the mood inside Carrington at the time. I genuinely don’t know.
Either way, nobody will be calling the Dutchman an imposter now.
Van Gaal has grown into the role impressively in recent weeks, and shown why he’s enjoyed such longevity at the top.
The key to his turnaround is two-fold. First, he finally stumbled upon a balanced high tempo formula that suits the side AND appeases the support; secondly (and just as importantly in my opinion) he has treated every player as an absolute equal.
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You may think that’s a given inside dressing rooms, but it’s not.
Most gaffers will try and give the impression that selection is based on a level playing field, but not all of them abide by those rules when push comes to shove.
If they’ve staked their own reputation on making certain lads the fulcrum of their side, and it’s not quite working, many are reluctant to tweak things or concede defeat. This stubborn pig-headedness is often their downfall.
Not every coach I played for was able to swallow their pride and change approach, even if it was staring them in the face as the proper course of action. The biggest signings, players on bumper contracts, and those they had worked with successfully at other clubs before, tended to enjoy preferential treatment a lot of the time.
A weak manager will have no hesitation to axe a player on the back of one single off-day - yet they may afford somebody else that’s played just as poorly plenty more opportunities. Why the contradiction? Because they are HIS signings. At Southend United and Stevenage, under Alan Little and Wayne Turner’s management in particular, I experienced this bias first-hand.
It was nothing unique. Supporters up and down the land, at all levels of the game, have endured, and are currently suffering, the same frustrations I’m sure.
Louis van Gaal has proved he’s made of sterner stuff.
He was the one that sanctioned the major signings of Radamel Falcao, Angel di Maria and Marcos Rojo last summer, and based on their price tags, salaries and reputations there is no way they would be sat on the bench watching Marouane Fellaini, Ashley Young and Chris Smalling play in their place instead.
Yet the Manchester United boss has risked their wrath by picking his team based purely on what he sees with his own eyes.
A players’ stature in the game and who signed them, plays second fiddle to his need to find the correct balance and shape. He’ll select based on suitability and performance. So, if a player wants to be picked, they will have to adapt and do what he asks them to do. If they don’t, they are out.
It’s a stance worthy of respect and it will have earned the Dutch veteran massive kudos within the confines of United’s training ground too.
Competition between individuals will always be fierce, it is at every club, but providing the criteria for team selection is clear and fair, dissent towards the manager will always be minimal.
Footballers might not have the brightest academic minds, but they are no fools when it comes to understanding the sport. If 11 players are performing well and gelling as a team, then those on the outside will know there are no grounds for complaint. It’s down to them to force a way back into the fold.
Earlier this season it was obvious that Van Gaal did a lot of things wrong, but he’s getting it right at the moment. He has created a healthy environment that puts the team before any individuals.
It didn’t seem like it at first, maybe not even to his players, but Manchester United are in safe hands with Van Gaal.
Man United are 3.80 to beat Chelsea