The noises coming from the United camp on tour in the USA suggest that the squad have taken instantly to the new manager and his methods. There are likely to be teething troubles, of course, but up to now the team is adjusting, with several players coming out in support of the changes he is instigating. Prior to departure for the States, van Gaal was asked about potential new signings. His answer was that his first priority was to get to know the existing squad and assess what he would need – a process that would involve the assessment of players and identifying areas of weakness.
In many respects the players are on trial, as to a greater or lesser extent they would be after the arrival of any new manager. This begs the question: What is a van Gaal player like? A biography, recently published in English by the Dutch football commentator Maarten Meijer “Louis van Gaal: The Biography” gives some idea.
Meijer writes that what van Gaal looks for is,
“multi-functional players: players who could play with both feet, had both defensive and attacking capabilities, were physically strong, quick starters, had the necessary tactical acumen to function smoothly in different formations and, above all, use these skills as part of a collective team effort”.
If a player, however talented, doesn’t fit this template, then he is unlikely to figure in van Gaal’s plans. Meijer gives Bryan Roy as a classic example of this. Roy was inherited by van Gaal when he became manager of Ajax for the first time. Van Gaal worked with the player over a period of time but ultimately decided that he wouldn’t fit the van Gaal philosophy”. He said of Roy (a player highly thought of in Holland and popular with both fans and journalist):
“During the past four years I have tried to improve his effectiveness…….I have tried everything with him, even the inclusion of individual trainings. He did not mind running for the team, but he could not think for the team. It was not possible to improve him”.
Meijer goes on to suggest that van Gaal had concluded that the player lacked football intelligence. Perhaps more than anything else this is what van Gaal values. No matter how talented a player, without footballing intelligence there will be limited flexibility and a limited fit with his tactical method. There are echoes of this in his recent description of United’s second goal against Roma. Here he described Rooney’s pass and Mata’s finish as being scored “with the brain.” He stated in a recent press conference that he is attempting to train the player’s brains rather than their bodies.
What he wants, then, is a player who is intelligent enough to think for himself within the team structure and in response to the match situation. On tour he has played a number of players in unfamiliar positions: Fletcher at centre-back, Young and Valencia as wing-backs and Nani as a central forward. These experiments can be seen as a test of a player’s flexibility and ability to adapt, qualities that point to their football intelligence. Viewed in this context, his praise of Reece James’ performance in the opening tour game against LA Galaxy seems very fitting. He stated that James had a lot of talent, stressing the vital link between a player’s ability to listen and think well, and the quality of his performance.
“You play football with your brain. Instinctual reactions are part of it, but it is important to always put the intuitive in service of the rational. Then you make headway. If you just play intuitively, you perform your tricks at the wrong moments”.
“Louis van Gaal: The Biography” is by Maarten Meijer and is published by Ebury Press. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Louis-van-Gaal-Maarten-Meijer/dp/0091960142/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1406584959&sr=1-1&keywords=louis+van+gaal