Peter Pomerantsev · Louis van Gaal

For many fans, football is a dad’s game. Fathers introduce their sons (and, less often, daughters) to it, and they may build their relationship to each other through the game. Club loyalty is often passed on from father to son. For adult fans, following football can be a legitimate return to lost childhood, with managers as replacement father figures. Football phone-in radio shows are a Freudian feast of grown men blaming managers for all their problems or showing boundless faith in them.

In O, Louis: In Search of Louis van Gaal, the Dutch journalist Hugo Borst zones in on the death of van Gaal’s father when Louis was 11 as the formative event in his development. Van Gaal remembers his father as an ‘authoritarian figure; at home there was a mixture of warmth and strict adherence to moral standards.’ According to Borst, van Gaal as a football manager is trying to be the father he had taken away from him.

At the same time, Manchester United is searching for a new patriarch to replace Alex Ferguson. David Moyes, the manager who first succeeded Ferguson, was the unconvincing new boyfriend your mother brings home. He quickly lost the loyalty of the influential generation of players Ferguson had brought up – Giggs, Scholes, the Nevilles, Butt – who still hang around the family estate like so many Karamazovs waiting for their moment to inherit Old Trafford.

When van Gaal arrived he seemed a perfect fit. Like Ferguson, van Gaal is famous for falling out with journalists, slapping down big-headed stars and micromanaging his protégés. At Barcelona and Bayern Munich these habits made van Gaal insufferable. In Manchester they seemed like a nostalgic return to Ferguson’s day.

But love is quickly turning to hate, as the football his team plays is excruciatingly boring and results are going south. Van Gaal’s ‘philosophy’ of keeping possession has become an end in itself. Manchester United now keep possession without ever doing anything with it. Van Gaal invokes ‘possession’ as proof of progress. Losses are considered OK as long as United had more possession. At times van Gaal’s possession sounds like a psychological tic, football tactics as an expression of a need to control the world.

This is the point at which Van Gaal the stern but benevolent pater familias morphs into something more grotesque. The van Gaal who announced he had ‘achieved more with Ajax in six years than Barcelona has in one hundred years’. The van Gaal who speaks of himself in the third person – ‘Louis van Gaal has nothing else to learn’ – and bears no criticism: ‘Am I so clever or are you so stupid?’ he once asked a reporter. The van Gaal who went ballistic when the Bayern Munich striker Luca Toni wouldn’t sit up straight at lunch and yanked him from his seat.

How much more will United fans stand for? Are we (for I have to admit to being one) so infantile as to need a Ferguson-like figure for ever?

But when it comes to rejection, van Gaal is already ahead of the game. When he joined Manchester United he stressed his contract was only for three years, and he was unlikely to stay long – implying the club needed him more than he needed United. He says he will walk out before being fired.


  • 6 January 2016 at 12:44am
    Simon Wood says:
    There is talk that people are suffering the same sort of parental attachment deficit thingummy with David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn.

    Children don't go out to play any more - get out there and play - but stay inside looking at little plastic screens waiting to be told what to do for their next move.

    Is it any wonder that the worst are full of sound and fury while the best are losing to Leicester, or whatever verity we can salvage from this troubled but generally rather featureless time?

  • 6 January 2016 at 10:12am
    cufflink says:
    Peter Pomerantsev doesn't take matters far enough to establish the causes of Man United's blight. English football is losing its englishness; this is not a sectarian issue but a question of player maturity; and the beautiful game's attitude and purpose is now corrupted by the influence of high finance and diverted from the pitch to the boardroom. The self interest of the agents' support to the players regarding long term fitness and earnings now extends rightly to lucrative pensionable provision. The general interactive current abilities of most professional players, is way beyond what it used to be and the propensity of injury to this necessary skill suppresses both initiative to dare more and to press forward regardless.
    Are we ever likely to see another Cliff Jones? A genius of a footballer who could do everything - climb like a salmon above the tallest centre-half, run the length of the pitch and put it explosively into the back netting; outrun all comers to the ball and serve it with precision to an alert Greavesie. Well we do see it in Gareth Bale especially now he has re-found his liberation.
    Louis van Gaal is only the manager, his temperament whilst interesting of generation - a savoury waffle from old Dutch tradition - can find only Fellaini to input free exuberance to the line up; that is sign of cramped desperation.
    I have found, coming from London, that the sentimentality of your average Mancunian requires much syrup on its waffles to keep happy. The Northern powerhouse no longer supports a vital soccer industry of innovation and grafting talent - its up to you now lads!

  • 6 January 2016 at 11:29am
    Chris Larkin says:
    The problem to me seems less about van Gaal's dedication to a possession based game - the all-conquering Spain sides of recent times were also dedicated to it - but rather a problem with efficiency. It is true that United have dominated the ball against almost everyone they have played this year (in the league) but the issue is that they haven't created many chances and have therefore scored very few goals. The current fascination with reactive football, exemplified so brilliantly by Jürgen Klopp's Dortmund sides, has meant that possession football now seems antiquated and dull. This is clearly not the case (see Barcelona or Bayern) but the difference is that the current United side lack the efficiency and the quality to make that possession translate into clear-cut chances. The problem for them is essentially that they don't have a Messi/Suarez/Neymar or a Lewandowski; they have an ailing Rooney and a raw Martial. The biggest indictment of van Gaal's reign really should be that he has been unable to address this problem despite spending about £250m on new players. The adage that a bad workman always blames his tools may often be true, but sometimes you really do need a new set of tools.

  • 10 January 2016 at 10:46am
    ejh says:
    Mmm, but at the end of the day they will have the money to buy some better tools and their agonies are unlikely to consist of more than a few seasons without the title. No, they're unlikely ever to be dominant in the way that they were under Ferguson, but that's something I think is livable with in a way that the looting of Northampton, say, or Charlton is not: it's not quite a crisis in the maner of that currently being experienced by Bolton and the running of the club is not a grotesquerie inthe way that it is at Leyton Orient, or Leeds, let alone the long-running, ongoing and extremely entertaining shambles at Ibrox.

    "Football phone-in radio shows are a Freudian feast of grown men blaming managers for all their problems"

    Well yes, though there have been better football phone-ins in my adult lifetime, but isn't a fascination with gigantic football clubs and their in-the-limelight managers, when there are so many more interesting things to be talked about in football, a manifestation of a similar psychology?