Surely, Louis van Gaal and Alex Ferguson have many qualities in common. But their approach to soccer is also fundamentally different.
The most obvious similarity is that they are both proven winners. The Dutch began his managerial career at Ajax in Amsterdam, the country’s most prestigious and traditional club, and he continued his learning curve at FC Barcelona and FC Bayern Munich, some of Europe’s other heavyweight clubs. He won championships with all these clubs and even managed to win the Champions League with Ajax. Ferguson is primarily associated with Manchester United, a club he served for twenty-seven years as a manager, and with which he won championships galore and two Champions League titles. However, the proven winner history not only relates to these mega clubs in some of Europe’s top leagues. In many ways, what Ferguson did with Aberdeen in the 1980s before coming to Manchester can be likened to what van Gaal did with AZ Alkmaar in 2009. With Aberdeen, a small club, Ferguson broke what seemed at the time unbreakable, that is, the Celtic-Rangers monopoly on the Scottish title. Holland is comparable to Scotland in that the Dutch championship is usually won by either Ajax or PSV, but with AZ, also a small club, Van Gaal managed to disrupt what had been a continuous story with the same (or almost the same) two protagonists. What Ferguson and van Gaal did with the big clubs deserves our respect, but what proves their true winning abilities is what each of them did with these two small clubs.
Another thing shared is their willingness – perhaps even ideology – of giving youth a chance. When Ferguson won the Champions League in 1999 with his “Fledglings”, he only repeated what Van Gaal (sensationally) managed in 1995 when his young Ajax team beat mighty AC Milan in the final. In fact, it was van Gaal’s success with giving youth a chance that in 1995 convinced Ferguson to get rid of established stars such as Paul Ince, Andrei Kanchelskis, and Mark Hughes in order to pave the way for the likes of David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Gary Neville, the backbone of the 1999 Treble-winning side.
Personality plays a hugely significant role as well, and though Ferguson and van Gaal may be very different, they both possess an almost overwhelming charisma and aura. It is difficult to say if the many titles were a consequence of their charisma, that is, if their charisma was congenital, or if their charisma is a result of their many triumphs. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between. Part of the charisma has to do with intensity, but they also share a certain choleric temperament, which some soccer players apparently need in order to thrive or to perform to the maximum of their capability.
The list of similarities could easily be continued (workaholics, attack-oriented etc.), but let us now turn our attention to the differences between Ferguson and van Gaal.
The first one (and the one from which the other differences will follow) is, I think, extremely interesting in that it concerns their basic conception of and approach to soccer. To be more specific, it has to do with their attitude toward contingency, one of the most prominent components in “the ontology of soccer.”
There is of course an element of contingency in every sport. However, the degree of contingency is higher in soccer than in, say, handball, basketball, and (American) football. The main reason for this is that you are allowed to use your hands in the latter sports, something that allows for a high degree of control over the ball, whereas in soccer you must use your feet, which are unable to seize the ball. Consequently, ball possession in soccer entails a high degree of risk. This is why the ball is more round in soccer than in basketball. And it is also why the midfield is a necessity in soccer. In handball, basketball, and football the midfield is superfluous. Possession means you are in attack. You are in defense when you don’t have possession. In soccer, there is (more or less) a continuous struggle for possession, and this (epic) struggle takes place primarily in midfield.
Unless you are some kind of suicidal, heart attack-hunting soccer manager, you will have as one of your main ambitions when preparing your team for a match to reduce the contingency factor, that is, the element of (negative) surprise. Anticipation leads to control leads to victory. However, there is quite a difference in the degree of emphasis managers put on risk management and contingency reduction.
In terms of soccer tactics, van Gaal is definitely a control freak. Alex Ferguson may be a control freak (at least in the eyes of Roy Keane), but in his case it relates more to off-field power exertions than to on-field tactics. It was symptomatic that Wayne Rooney, after Manchester United’s collapse against Leicester, used the phrase “unbelievable attention to detail” about his current manager’s methods. Van Gaal himself underlines another aspect of this mentality of anticipation and control: “The way I train and coach is in the brains and not the legs. A lot of players are playing intuitively and I want them to think and know why they do something.” The Iron Tulip’s approach is thus scientific and rational. The brains of his players are educated to think ahead. Intuition is banned because unsystematic, feelings are shut down since they entail a “being caught in the moment,” and the heartbeat is kept on a regular rhythm so that the blood doesn’t interfere with the brain’s logical thinking. Van Gaal comes close to seeing soccer as a game of chess. Nothing is left to chance.
Sometimes, van Gaal describes himself as “a risky coach.” How does that fit into his schoolmasterly propensity for “brainy” instructions meant to counter contingency? Well, it doesn’t. Make no mistake about it: When van Gaal claims to be taking a risk the choices are always made upon a backcloth of rational analysis. His much talked about substitution of Jasper Cillessen with Tim Krul during the World Cup was never a result of hic et nunc intuition but a pre-calculated move based on hardcore probability theory. And when Manchester United scored three exquisite goals, one of them pure world class, against Leicester and ultimately threw away a 3:1 lead by conceding four goals in the last twenty-eight minutes, it may lead us to believe that van Gaal is a guarantor of the re-enchantment of soccer. But he is not. If he had his way, United should simply have shut down the match by keeping possession. In other words, his players should have used their brains to counter the legs, hearts, and feelings of the Leicester players. But they couldn’t. Not because the strategy was wrong and they should have employed similar methods as Leicester, but because van Gaal hasn’t had time enough to educate his players in his “philosophy.”
In stark contrast to Rooney’s remark about van Gaal’s “unbelievable attention to detail” stands Alex Ferguson’s outbreak shortly after the final whistle of the 1999 Champions League final when United overturned Bayern Munich’s one goal-lead by scoring two goals in injury time. “Oh, I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! Football! Bloody hell,” he almost shouted to the camera while he was smiling broadly. Now, there was a man caught up in the moment, full of feelings, who had just witnessed the contingency of soccer in all its enchanting (or, if you were a Bayern fan, devastating) power. In fact, Ferguson’s remarks following his team’s victory against Chelsea in the final nine years later also comes to mind. At that time he labeled John Terry’s famous slip “destiny.” Not exactly a word associated with rationality, probability theory, and brain, but, arguably, more with superstition, heart, and romanticism. Or if it had anything to do with rationalization, it was a post facto. It was, in fact, Ferguson’s attempt to connect the death of eight grail-hunting Busby Babes in 1958 with the club’s European triumph in 2008, forty years after the Munich Air Disaster; that is, it was his merely human effort to fit two disparate events into a (metaphysical) pattern and thus create meaning in a godless world.
“Fergie time” was a symptom of Alex Ferguson’s approach to soccer and its high degree of contingency. Instead of trying to conquer and beat contingency, instead of trying to control it with his brain and rationality, Ferguson accepted it as part and parcel of soccer and eventually got the upper hand over it by playing with it, by entering the zone of contingency on its own premises. It would be a big mistake to underestimate the hard work and meticulous preparations carried out by Alex Ferguson, René Meulensteen, Carlos Queiroz, and Mike Phelan at Carrington. They used scripts, studied video material, knew all the physical performance levels of each player, and their dietary details as well, and they practiced 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, and 4-4-1-1. In short, they devoted a lot of time and energy on “automatisms” and “systems.” But when these automatisms didn’t work, when the patterns and designs were malfunctioning or without effect, during matches, Ferguson’s teams could always switch into another dimension, the dimension of beastly instinct, intuition, and risky adventure. Turn off your brains and go full throttle forward was his mantra. Was it the result of pre-calculated moves when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored against Bayern Munich in injury time? No, not at all. It was the consequence of Ferguson’s successful “play” with contingency – successful because of Peter Schmeichel causing panic in Bayern’s defense, successful because of a predatory character instilled into the team by their docker manager, and successful because of the spatial intuition of Solskjær. And perhaps also, back then in 1999, successful because of “destiny”. After all, the final was played on what would have been Sir Matt Busby’s ninetieth birthday.
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