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.