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.