‘I think if I was the Dutch Football Association, I’d also have approached me. Who else could have done it?’
And so began the third reign of King Louis as Holland’s head coach. It certainly hasn’t been dull but then Van Gaal rarely is.
The man who embodies Dutch ‘pig-headedness’, to borrow Johan Cruyff’s description, appears to be more headstrong and outspoken than ever.
This week alone has seen Van Gaal describe the World Cup being staged in Qatar as ‘bulls***’ and very publicly slap down Virgil van Dijk on the matter of tactics.
Louis van Gaal returned for a third stint as Holland coach in August and it hasn’t been boring
He successfully achieved his first goal of delivering Holland to this year’s Qatar World Cup
He then advised the Ajax coach Erik ten Hag, one of the favourites for the Manchester United vacancy, to avoid such a ‘commercial club’ like the plague.
Since his appointment back in August, Van Gaal has struggled through a bout of Covid, fractured his hip after falling off his bicycle en route to training and has ranted at journalists who dared question him like the good old days.
Now 70, it seems Van Gaal sees no point in trying to be diplomatic or make friends. Always an upfront personality, he appears to be even more forthright (some would say rude) than normal.
It also helps that Van Gaal knows his contract only runs until the end of the Qatar World Cup in November and December. Then he may actually retire six-and-a-half years after United fired him two days after he won the FA Cup.
Whether you approve of his methods or not, Van Gaal undoubtedly gets results.
Van Gaal addresses a group of his players in training ahead of Tuesday’s game with Germany
The build-up to the game has included a disagreement over tactics with Virgil van Dijk
Van Gaal’s third spell with Holland so far
World Cup Qualifiers
September 1 Norway (A) 1-1
September 4 Montenegro (H) W 4-0
September 7 Turkey (H) W 6-1
October 8 Latvia (A) W 1-0
October 11 Gibraltar (H) 6-0
November 13 Montenegro (A) 2-2
November 16 Norway (H) W 2-0
March 26 Denmark (H) W 4-2
Played 8 Won 6 Drawn 2 Lost 0
Goals scored 28 Goals conceded 6
The man who led Holland to third place at the 2014 World Cup successfully fulfilled the first part of his brief in delivering the Oranje to Qatar. Let’s not forget they didn’t qualify for the last one in Russia.
He has won six of his eight matches in charge so far and drawn the other two, though naturally that unbeaten start will be put to the test against old rivals Germany in an Amsterdam friendly on Tuesday night.
When a journalist went there and mentioned the war – but not in so many words – during Van Gaal’s pre-match press conference, he replied: ‘I was born after the war. The Germans are very friendly people. The generation that lives now is a very different generation than back then.’
If his Holland side can get a positive result against the Germans, hopes will grow the team can do themselves justice at the World Cup finals.
When Van Gaal took over, it wasn’t entirely certain they’d make it. Qualifying began with the reality check of a 4-2 defeat away to Turkey.
But it was a disappointing Euros, when they lost 2-0 to Czech Republic in the last-16 following Matthijs de Ligt’s red card, that saw Van Gaal’s predecessor Frank de Boer dispensed with after just 15 games in charge.
The Dutch FA, having cycled through the likes of Ronald Koeman, Danny Blind, Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat in recent years, went back to the future and appointed Van Gaal (2000-2002 and 2012-2014) once again.
With limited preparation time, Holland took seven points from their trio of qualifiers in September, including a 6-1 thrashing of Turkey that put them back in control of their group.
But there were rumblings of discontent over Van Gaal’s tactics from the outset, especially among old school Dutch journalists who nostalgically recall the glory years of Total Football.
Holland’s Euro 2020 campaign ended in disaster as they lost 2-0 to the Czech Republic
It meant the end for head coach Frank de Boer (centre) after they crashed out of the last-16
Van Gaal, as Man United fans well remember, is wont to padlocking things defensively before committing to attack, leading to possession for the sake of possession and the Theatre of Dreams taking on a whole new meaning.
He played a 4-3-3 in games against Norway and Montenegro then went three at the back for the win over Turkey. The De Telegraaf journalist Valentijn Driessen claimed this was too defensive and was given short shrift.
‘You just don’t understand football at all, Valentijn. I’m sorry to say it. You want to implement your vision, but you have no vision for football. You have vision for journalism,’ Van Gaal said.
The raging manager then asked Driessen whether he’d read his books – an autobiography in two parts, one about Van Gaal’s life, one outlining his philosophy.
‘Did you read what I said to Pep Guardiola? Ever heard of evolution? I can still develop that at age 70!
Van Gaal was tempted back to the job having taken Holland to third at the 2014 World Cup
He spent two years as Manchester United’s boss but was fired just after winning the FA Cup
‘You Valentijn, you don’t want to do that. Just write that down. You understand journalism, making a newspaper and asking for and seeking attention.’
Van Gaal was right on one point. He is still critically evaluating his own methods – in Saturday’s 4-2 friendly win over Denmark, he set up in a 3-4-1-2, having told the press he would beforehand.
The coach wasted little time making decisive calls on personnel and one of the victims was Donny van de Beek, who was barely playing for Man United when he was dropped.
Van Gaal explained to the midfielder in a 45-minute telephone chat that he wouldn’t be playing for the national team until he was again playing regularly for his club.
Van de Beek’s Everton loan doesn’t seem to have changed things. He didn’t make the latest squad and hasn’t played for his country since coming off the bench for 13 minutes against Gibraltar a year ago.
Having missed the Euros with a groin injury, Van de Beek’s World Cup prospects don’t look too bright either.
Donny van de Beek’s lack of game time at Man United led to him losing his Holland place
Not that Van Gaal has been entirely injury free himself.
Ahead of the November qualifiers, Van Gaal fell off his bicycle near the team hotel and fractured his hip, confining him to a wheelchair and, when it was time for training, a golf buggy.
Van Gaal’s wheelchair was too big to fit through the doors to the press conference room so he addressed the media via video link.
Van Dijk, also in the presser, creased with laughter as Van Gaal asked the assembled journalists whether they understood the extent of his injuries.
Van Gaal had to take training from a golf buggy after fracturing his hip in a bike accident
The head coach watches on sternly from his buggy as Holland train back in November
One reporter replied: ‘Actually not, but it seems you also have knowledge about bones.’
Van Gaal, a fully qualified physical education teacher when a player, answered: ‘Yes, I had to learn them all by heart.’
As stubborn as ever, he added: ‘Physically, I’m not good, I’m in a lot of pain, but the brain is still working.’
The pictures of Van Gaal sitting stern-faced in his golf buggy, driven by coach Henk Fraser, as he watched his players train are certainly amusing.
A few days later, Holland beat Norway 2-0 thanks to late goals from Steven Bergwijn and Memphis Depay to seal their World Cup place.
Steven Bergwijn scored in the 2-0 win over Norway that sealed qualification for the World Cup
This latest camp began with Van Gaal testing positive for Covid. It came a day after he told a press conference: ‘I have a cold now, you hear that. But that does not immediately mean that there is corona.’
Even Van Gaal’s stubbornness can’t overcome Covid.
He has already insisted that all his players will have to be fully vaccinated if they want to be considered for the World Cup squad.
Having overcome that, Van Gaal has spent much of the last week on the warpath.
The World Cup in Qatar is a sore point. The Dutch players staged their own protest by wearing t-shirts that said ‘Human Rights – on and off the pitch’ ahead of their qualifier with Latvia last March.
And their coach said: ‘Everyone knows I think it’s ridiculous that the World Cup is there.
‘That we are going to play in a country to allow football to develop there? That’s bulls***. It is about money and commercial interests. That matters in FIFA.
The Dutch players made their protest over Qatar’s human rights abuses last year
Now Van Gaal entered the debate, calling the decision to stage it in Qatar as ‘bulls***’
‘Why do you think I’m not on a committee with my expertise? I’ve always opposed those kinds of organisations. It is not right.’
Then there was the disagreement with Liverpool defender Van Dijk over the new 3-4-1-2 formation, which did leave the team looking more defensively vulnerable against the Danes.
Van Dijk had said: ‘Do I like the system? Well, I’m still in favour of 4-3-3 but I’m not the national coach and the national coach has a very strong opinion about it.’
Van Gaal and Van Dijk’s difference of opinion over formations was only ending one way
Van Gaal was typically blunt in response: ‘We already had this debate when I came here. The manager decides the tactics.’
It brought to mind the famous Brian Clough quote about dealing with players who disagreed with him: ‘We talk about it for 20 minutes and then we decide I was right.’
And of course Van Gaal couldn’t resist meddling in Man United’s affairs after the shabby way he was treated back in 2016. He did once describe former executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward as an ‘evil genius,’ after all.
Asked about Ten Hag’s prospects of getting his old job, Van Gaal said: ‘Erik ten Hag is a great manager and that’s good for Manchester United but Manchester United are a commercial club, so it’s a difficult choice for a coach.
‘I’m not going to advise him, he’ll call me himself. But he must choose a football club and not a commercial one.’
The friendly with Germany will be another signpost on the road to Qatar. The UEFA Nations League, which sees Holland take on Belgium, Wales and Poland, offers a further tune-up over the summer.
Van Gaal isn’t likely to guide Holland to World Cup glory this winter but all the evidence suggests he isn’t about to slip into retirement quietly.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism