By 90Min
July 18, 2019

Louis van Gaal is number 22 in 90min's Top 50 Great Managers of All Time series. Follow the rest of the series over the course of the next five weeks.


Love him or hate him, and it is that black or white, Louis van Gaal is one of the great figures of modern football history: a stubborn idealist, an enigmatic personality, but above all, a serial winner.

For Van Gaal, two seasons at Manchester United that brought down the curtain on a 25-year career in 2016 covered all three. He was ruthlessly committed to his philosophy - ultimately to his detriment with a lack of correct personnel to implement it; the media and fans struggled to work out his marvellous eccentricities; and he delivered the club's first major trophy since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in the shape of the FA Cup - the club's first in the competition for 12 years.

Paul Gilham/GettyImages

Cruelly, you are only remembered as being as good as your last job and Van Gaal often doesn't get the recognition his career deserves after those two years in Manchester failed to yield a Premier League title challenge, or anything resembling one, or a finish higher than fourth.

The club was, for want of a better phrase, in crisis. There was no overarching plan, no structure, and no ability to suitably aid the manager in the transfer market.

Was it simply a case of right place, wrong time for Van Gaal? Perhaps.

The Dutch master remains fiercely proud of his stint at Old Trafford, as though he has a personal checklist of the most prestigious clubs in Europe. "I worked at the number one team in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and now also in England," he told BBC Sport in March 2019.

For this is a man who been there and done it all, time and time again, starting afresh in a new country and conquering the new just as he did the old.

Alexander Hassenstein/GettyImages

An Amsterdam native, Van Gaal's playing career was fairly unremarkable. Moving from the amateur ranks, he began his senior career with Ajax at a time when the club was the best in world. He never played for the first team and spent his best years at Sparta Rotterdam. But it was back at Ajax upon retirement in 1987 that his coaching career began, first as an assistant.

Van Gaal landed the top Ajax job in September 1991 and by the end of his debut season in charge the club had won a major European trophy in the shape of the UEFA Cup. That side featured a young Dennis Bergkamp, but it was what Van Gaal would go on to achieve at Ajax in the following years that made him a legend and secured his legacy.

His greatest strength was always player development, placing his faith in young talent to help them unlock their true potential. With Van Gaal at the helm, Ajax gave birth to a golden generation to rival all golden generations, and one that conquered Europe.

Alexander Hassenstein/GettyImages

Clarence Seedorf made his debut for Van Gaal's Ajax aged just 16. Patrick Kluivert was barely 18, Marc Overmars was signed at 19, and Edwin van der Sar was a regular in goal at 22. An 18-year-old Edgar Davids made his debut three weeks before Van Gaal took over, but the midfielder, affectionately nicknamed 'The Pitbull' by his mentor, was kept in the side.

Ajax won the Eredivisie title in 1993/94 to qualify for the Champions League the following season. That young side, led on the pitch by experienced pair Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind, the latter a former teammate of Van Gaal's in Rotterdam, also retained their Dutch crown in 1994/95, going unbeaten in the Eredivisie and scoring 106 goals in 34 games, and took things to the next level by claiming Ajax's first European crown in 22 years, since the days of Johan Cruyff. Kluivert remains the youngest ever scorer in a European Cup/Champions League final.

Then world champions after beating Gremio in the 1995 Intercontinental Cup, Van Gaal and Ajax won a third straight Eredivisie title in 1995/96 and returned to the Champions League final, where only a penalty shootout defeat to Juventus denied them a second triumph.


Career Honours
UEFA Cup (1991/92)
KNVB Cup (1992/93)
Eredivisie (1993/94, 1994/95, 1995/96, 2008/09)
UEFA Champions League (1994/95); runner-up (1995/96, 2009/10)
UEFA Super Cup (1995, 1997)
Intercontinental Cup (1995)
La Liga (1997/98, 1998/99)
Copa del Rey (1997/98)
Bundesliga (2009/10)
DFB Pokal (2009/10)
World Cup third place (2014)
FA Cup (2015/16)

Van Gaal has infamously fallen out with a lot of people over the years, yet his bond with others is so strong and many of those who played under him revere him. "Finland has shaped me as a footballer, but Van Gaal added the last fifteen, twenty per cent. He was demanding and honest. He saw everything," former Ajax great Jari Litmanen said in 2015.

Speaking to talkSPORT in 2019, Wayne Rooney described Van Gaal as "...tactically the best I have worked with - in terms of setting you up in a shape defensively and everyone knowing their roles," putting the Dutchman ahead of even Sir Alex Ferguson in that regard.

After his Ajax team was broken up, partly by the new Bosman ruling, Van Gaal moved on to Barcelona in 1997. His success was instant, winning back-to-back La Liga titles, one as part of a domestic double in his first season.

That three year spell at Camp Nou saw an infamous spat with 1999 Ballon d'Or winner Rivaldo over his position on the pitch - a grudge which resulted in the Brazilian being released when Van Gaal returned in 2002 - but it also gave rise to the careers of future club legends Xavi and Carles Puyol after both were handed first team debuts. Van Gaal's second spell at Barcelona would later see Andres Iniesta and Victor Valdes also make their respective debuts.

Martin Rose/GettyImages

Van Gaal's return to Barcelona, coming after a failed stint with the Dutch national team which resulted in failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, was not as successful as his first. He returned briefly to Ajax as technical director, before becoming coach at lesser known Eredivisie side AZ.

Remarkably, he led the team to the Eredivisie title in 2008/09 - the sixth domestic league title of his career. The previous season had been a bad one and Van Gaal was actually planning to resign in 2008 until a number of AZ players urged him to stay on.

After AZ, came Van Gaal's return to the elite bracket when Bayern Munich came calling. Despite a slow start, he proved to be a popular figure and delivered the Bundesliga title in his first season. A DFB Pokal also followed. And while defeat in the 2010 Champions League final denied Bayern a historic treble, Van Gaal had won eight league titles in three different countries.

Bastian Schweinsteiger, transformed from inconsistent winger to near flawless central midfielder, and Thomas Muller owe Van Gaal particular gratitude for his time in Germany.

AFP/GettyImages

After finishing at Bayern and prior to moving to England, Van Gaal got a second chance to lead the Dutch national team. This time, his measured tactics, designed to minimise his players' weaknesses and maximise their strengths, worked perfectly and took his team all the way to the 2014 World Cup semi-finals, finishing third against all expectations - the group stage had included a masterful 5-1 demolition of Spain - the holders had no answer to the Dutch system.


Teams Managed Years
Ajax 1991 - 1997
Barcelona 1997 - 2000
Netherlands 2000 - 2002
Barcelona 2002 - 2003
AZ 2005 - 2009
Bayern Munich 2009 - 2011
Netherlands 2012 - 2014
Manchester United 2014 - 2016

Van Gaal was ultimately treated rather terribly by Manchester United as the club negotiated with his successor behind his back for months. His disappointing spell in England, fuelled by failings of the club itself, is an unfortunate blot on an otherwise truly remarkable career.

Still, it couldn't keep him down. As Van Gaal himself said to the BBC: "To win the FA Cup when, for six months, the media has a noose round my neck, is my biggest achievement."


Number 50: Marcelo Bielsa - El Loco's Journey From Argentina to Footballing Immortality in Europe

Number 49: Vic Buckingham - How an Englishman Discovered Johan Cruyff & Pioneered Total Football

Number 48: Claudio Ranieri: A Ridiculed Tinkerman Who Masterminded One of Football's Greatest Ever Achievements

Number 47: Bill Nicholson: Mr Tottenham Hotspur, the First Double Winning Manager of the 20th Century

Number 46: Sven-Goran Eriksson: The Scudetto Winning Shagger Who Never Solved the Lampard-Gerrard Conundrum

Number 45: Sir Alf Ramsey: The Man Behind the 'Wingless Wonders' & England's Sole World Cup Triumph

Number 44: Antonio Conte: An Astute Tactician Whose Perfectionist Philosophy Reinvented the 3-5-2 Wheel

Number 43: Kenny Dalglish: The Beacon of Light in Liverpool's Darkest Hour

Number 42: Massimiliano Allegri: The Masterful Tactician Who Won Serie A Five Times in a Row

Number 41: Sir Bobby Robson: A Footballing Colossus Whose Fighting Spirit Ensured an Immortal Legacy

Number 40: Luis Aragones: Spain's Most Important Manager, the Atleti Rock and the Modern Father of Tiki-Taka

Number 39: Herbert Chapman: One of Football's Great Innovators & Mastermind Behind the 'W-M' Formation

Number 38: Carlos Alberto Parreira: The International Specialist Who Never Shied Away From a Challenge

Number 37: Franz Beckenbauer: The German Giant Whose Playing Career Overshadowed His Managerial Genius

Number 36: Viktor Maslov: Soviet Pioneer of the 4-4-2 & the Innovator of Pressing

Number 35: Rafa Benitez: The Conquerer of La Liga Who Masterminded That Comeback in Istanbul

Number 34: Zinedine Zidane: Cataloguing the Frenchman's Transition From Midfield Magician to Managerial Maestro

Number 33: Luiz Felipe Scolari: How the Enigmatic 'Big Phil' Succeeded as Much as He Failed on the Big Stage

Number 32: Jupp Heynckes: The Legendary Manager Who Masterminded 'the Greatest Bayern Side Ever'

Number 31: Vicente del Bosque: The Unluckiest Manager in the World Who Led Spain to Immortality

Number 30: Arsene Wenger: A Pioneering Who Became Invincible at Arsenal

Number 29: Udo Lattek: The Bundesliga Icon Who Shattered European Records

Number 28: Jock Stein: The Man Who Guided Celtic to Historic Heights & Mentored Sir Alex Ferguson

Number 27: Vittorio Pozzo: Metodo, Mussolini, Meazza & the Difficult Memory of a Two-Time World Cup Winner

Number 26: Jurgen Klopp: The Early Years at Mainz 05 Where He Sealed His 'Greatest Achievement'

Number 25:Mario Zagallo: Habitual World Cup Winner & Sculptor of Brazil's Joga Bonito Era

Number 24: Bela Guttmann: The Dance Instructor Who Changed Football Forever (and Managed...Just Everyone)

Number 23: Valeriy Lobanovskyi: The Scientist Who Dominated Football in the Soviet Union

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