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Friday, 21 May 2010

Van Gaal Or Nothing

At risk of overkill, this blog is turning its Sauron-like gaze away from Jose Mourinho to Louis van Gaal, the man who gave the Portuguese motormouth his big break at Barcelona.

Van Gaal found himself on the ropes earlier in the season. In early October, Bayern were struggling in fifth place in the Bundesliga, eight points off the top. In the Champions League, home and away defeats to Bordeaux ensured qualification for the knockout stages rested on a final round victory away at Juventus. The Munich mafia, led by Beckenbauer, Rummenigge and Hoeness, scented blood. Theirs is a results business, after all. And with Bayern on the verge of history, the turnaround at the Allianz Arena has been pretty remarkable.

Mourinho is not the only one who currently has treble vision. Van Gaal is bidding to become the first manager in Bundesliga history to secure the European Cup in the same season as winning both domestic honours. While the Inter manager’s penchant for narcissism consistently makes it hard not to talk about him, the Bayern boss approaches the game in a markedly different way. For both men, it is the philosophy rather than the system that is key; but the Dutchman’s methodology is more offensive in nature. You cannot manage Ajax and Barcelona without such a mindset. "We play very attractively at Bayern," Van Gaal has asserted. "We are always looking to attack and put opponents under incredible pressure." Expect more of the same in the Bernabeu. With Bayern facing a side perhaps less inclined to camp on the edge of the box due to the game being a one-legged affair, it could be a more open final than many predict.

Van Gaal has achieved this season’s success with what looks, on paper, to be a fairly pedestrian starting XI. It is how he has moulded his charges into a force on the European scene that has impressed most. Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mark van Bommel have provided a solid platform from which Bayern’s wingers can be unleashed. And unleashed them they have, with Arjen Robben experiencing such resurgence in form, particularly in Europe, that he is being mentioned as one of the world’s greatest attacking threats once again. Another two homegrown talents, Thomas Muller and Holger Badstuber, have found their feet under the stewardship of the Dutchman and both have made the step up to the first team look easy. And it is perhaps the discipline that Van Gaal instills that provides the best grounding for a career in the game. Preventing young rebels without causes to go off the rails with their newfound riches, Van Gaal has been known to pull players up for slouching in the canteen.

With this no-nonsense approach, the remarkably named Aloysius Paulus Maria "Louis" van Gaal has won out. He has no need to kowtow to the Munich mafia now after turning the corner so spectacularly since the darkest of autumn days. The death knell looked to have sounded for van Gaal’s Bayern career after he employed a mystifying 3-4-3 formation in defeat at Hamburg. Six months later, he is 90 minutes away from a glorious first season, having even reversed his decision to quit at the campaign’s end should Bayern secure the treble.

Survive though he certainly has this season, Van Gaal will need all his wiles to come through the inevitable onslaught from Inter in the final. With Ribery suspended, expect Turkish midfielder Hamit Altintop to step in. Having replaced Robben for the first leg against United, and been further to the fore as Bayern beat Lyon 3-0 in France, he may be crucial to Bayern’s chances again as Inter zero in on Robben and Philip Lahm on the right wing. Van Gaal must also hope that Bayern can keep hold of the ball, as although Badstuber is a promising defender in good form, Daniel van Buyten and Martin Demichelis are less consistent. For all the players involved though, meeting Mourinho’s irresistible force head on is potentially van Gaal’s biggest challenge.

It is the Bayern manager himself who perhaps sums up the clash of philosophies best: "He trains to win. I train to play beautiful football and win. My way is more difficult." That the obstacle to Bayern’s treble is his former apprentice – intent on winning at all costs – will make success for Van Gaal all the sweeter.

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