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Reflections on the Reign of Louis Van Gaal

It was always going to end this way.

Anyone who had observed in any detail, the personality attributes of the principals at FC Bayern Munich would never have believed that the end for Louis van Gaal would come in a shower of Paulaner and champagne, hoisting the Champions League trophy on the club’s home pitch.

A crisis that was held off on multiple occasions by the sheer individual brilliance of world-class players on the roster finally became too much to bear for management following Saturday’s loss in Hannover. Louis van Gaal is taking his last laps as Bayern Munich’s coach.

But let’s not shed too many tears for Louis van Gaal. Lest we not forget: This was a man who spent much of the summer talking about which country he’d like to coach at Euro 2012 and/or WC 2014; one who thought his legacy so important after one season that he sought to publicly name his preferred successors. All the while last summer, he brushed aside any requests to negotiate a contract extension, insisting that he wanted to wait until the new year. That he relented was one of his wisest moves; he’ll be paid handsomely for sitting on the beach in Portugal after June 30.

But I reject the notion that it was personality conflict alone that led to his downfall. Plainly, he was a poor evaluator of talent. When Van Gaal took charge, Bayern traded the struggle to find a right back for the struggle to find a left back, and neither of Van Gaal’s chosen men (Edson Braafheid, Danijel Pranjic) were able to occupy the position competently. In the end, Braafheid ended up physically confronting him in a stadium tunnel, while Pranjic’s Bjork-like countenance as a CDM has seen attackers repeatedly blow past him as though he were a dead swan. Only the desperation of rolling the dice with a first year center back who had played the previous season in the amateur team mostly as a defensive midfielder stabilized the position last season, surely to Van Gaal’s great relief. It seemed a stroke of genius, but it was the genesis of the troubles that hampered the club for much of this season-Van Gaal’s penchant for using players like spare parts to fix troubles he hadn’t had the foresight to plan for. But like an Ikea cabinet, once the first screw was locked into the wrong place, the whole structure was destined to become wobbly and misshapen.

That he found a flaw in every player management pursued to strengthen the team was a strong contributing factor. One can do nothing but wince every time they are reminded that when presented with the idea that management would pursue signing Sami Khedira as the long term replacement for Mark van Bommel alongside Bastian Schweinstieger, Van Gaal nixed the plan stating that he had David Alaba for that task. This came after he had declared “Alaba is a left back, even if he doesn’t know it”, and proved it by leaving the youngster there just long enough to single-handedly lose a critical match last spring. In the end, the club ended up spending 20% more than the price paid by Real Madrid for Khedira’s services AND loaning Alaba in order to plug the CDM hole with Luiz Gustavo. That is, when Van Gaal actually decides to play him there. Meanwhile, Hoffenheim coach Marco Pezzaiuoli said of Alaba this week “David is in a rut”.

Even Van Gaal’s oft-complimented commitment to developing young players was a mixed bag. Almost forgotten now, was the slow recognition of Thomas Müller’s abilities (Van Gaal preferred to give starts to Alex Baumjohann and Hamit Altintop instead in several early matches last season). In the new season, in the midst of a slew of injures, he signed off on loaning away a highly effective Mehmet Ekici, while keeping Diego Contento around just long enough to earn a quick hook after a mistake that led to an early goal for Hoffenheim. Thomas Kraft will apparently face no such reproach. While every guy on a barstool with an opinion from Passau to Portland could tell you Bayern needed to do something about their center backs, Van Gaal showed no real inclination towards developing Holger Badstuber and Breno as a tandem. Instead, Badstuber was tasked with taking corners, free kicks and penalties, while his defensive play eroded, ultimately sending him to the bench.

Van Gaal insisted on small rosters, but tightened his own noose when the small rosters he created gave him no substitutes capable of changing the energy of a match. It reached comic proportions in the Hannover match with the timely but totally ineffective use of substitutes Andreas Ottl and Daniel van Buyten. Is it any wonder the team scored exactly 1 goal from a substitute all season?

But ultimately, what did Louis van Gaal in? He trained the mentality of his players only too well. They, like him, took on an unfailing belief in his playing system, with a lethal dose of arrogance to boot. When it didn’t work, not only did the trainer not know what to do, the players didn’t know what to do either. Van Gaal never failed to call each blown lead “unbelievable”, but the body language of the players week after week said the very same. “We won’t lose many matches now” said Bastian Schweinsteiger from the winter training camp in Qatar. It only took a few weeks before the players took to punching each other out of incredulity–and that was when they managed to win.

It would take quite a collection of talent to make Louis van Gaal a sympathetic figure; in this case, Bayern management appears to have met with unlikely success in that department. Their decision to sack Van Gaal at season’s end demonstrated that they are as clueless as he is, only less courageous. It does nothing to address the current free fall the team finds itself in, and doesn’t create any new motivation. Perhaps if Van Gaal had been told he would be let go if a top 3 spot was not attained, we might have seen something different.

Instead, it’s back to the circus for FC Bayern. But there are fewer and fewer old reliable ringmasters to call on for one final tour. But then again, one is enough.

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