Louis van Gaal: big change needed at commercial Manchester United
Former manager on José Mourinho, Wayne Rooney and being betrayed by Ed Woodward
Louis van Gaal was fired by Manchester United in May 2016. Photograph: by Alex Livesey/Getty
Jamie Jackson: Did you feel betrayed because Manchester United wanted you to do three years and then one day after you won the FA Cup final they turned around and said goodbye?
Louis van Gaal: At that moment I feel betrayed. I feel betrayed because what I hear from a lot of people is it was already done in December, January. I spoke every week with [the executive vice-chairman Ed] Woodward. After three lousy defeats in December, when we also went out of the Champions League, I have spoken with him and I said: ‘I can understand that you sack me.’ In a club like Manchester United you cannot lose three times in a row. Then he said: ‘No, never. I never shall fire you. Believe in yourself. Don’t read the papers.’ I think then you can feel betrayed but now I can better understand because he knew that the next year I would say goodbye. On the market was [JOSÉ]Mourinho. He is also a very good manager and Woodward thought that he had secured for Manchester United Mourinho’s top managerial level for years.
How was your relationship with José Mourinho?
I can imagine that Mourinho wants the chair of the manager of Manchester United because it’s, in my opinion, the highest chair in England. Before I signed for Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur was here in my living room – Mr Levy. I could sign also for Tottenham Hotspur and I have said to my wife that Tottenham had the better selection [SQUAD]than Manchester United. But I chose United for the challenge and because I have always managed the number one club in a country!
There’s no hard feelings with Mourinho?
No hard feelings.
What is the problem at Manchester United now?
The problem begins with, of course, that Manchester United was never refreshed. I think when you are a manager you have to refresh every year to keep the team-building process going.
You brought in players. You tried to refresh.
Yes, but I didn’t always get the players that I want. That’s the problem. There is Woodward and his right hand is [head of corporate development] Matt Judge. Judge I met once in a while but not too much. And there was the head of scouting. That was the structure but you are always dependent on Woodward and Judge.
Did they not take your advice?
I thought always Manchester United can buy every player because they have a lot of power. Seemingly a few players were not reachable for Manchester United. I cannot understand but it was like that.
Ángel Di María, was he your choice?
Di María was my choice at AZ, seven years before.
He didn’t sign then. Did you want him for United? Were you happy that he came?
I was satisfied, because he was a creative player, but I had other players on the list. Di María had a problem with the English football culture and the climate. You cannot buy players and know, for sure, that they can deliver. You cannot know because football is a team sport.
Where did he want to play?
I always ask a player where he wants to play. For him it was wing, wide and mostly left. In the Argentina team he plays on the left. I started with him there. He was not performing that well, to a level you could expect from an £80m player. I believe, then, I have to see if another position is better for him. I have played him left winger, as the 10, second striker and on the right. Then the critics say he is having to play in too many positions. I gave him all the chances that there were to perform well.
Do you have any regrets about your time with Manchester United?
No. The way they sacked me was terrible. But I like my time in England, because of the culture, because of the people. A lot of humour and always supporting the manager. I have respect for everybody I worked with.
Who was the best player you had there?
I think [DAVID]de Gea has done fantastically.
OK, outfield player.
This is significant that I have to think a lot. [Luke]Shaw was starting very well but he was kicked out [badly injured]by PSV. Shaw was above average. [Ander]Herrera was above average. He started not so well but he became more important for the team because of his inspiring behaviour and coaching qualities. I think that overall Daley Blind was my most consistent player with high qualities for building up the play. [Juan]Mata was also a quality player with a lot of creativity and I was very happy with him because we had a big lack of creative players. That’s why we played that, in your eyes, “boring football”. We did not have too many creative players to increase the tempo of the ball and to use more vertical passes. But it was better than parking the bus, I think.
We played there [points to the opposition half]. We were mostly always better than our opponents, but, when your opponent is parking the bus, you need creative players. That’s why I allowed Di María and [Memphis]Depay to come because they were creative players and I think a team needs at least three or four creative players to break down those opponents.
You haven’t mentioned Wayne Rooney. Was he too old by then?
I’m sorry but he was over the hill. But in spite of that he was one of my best players.
Was it difficult to make Rooney captain? Was he really the only choice?
You can say nothing about his professionalism as a player in the training sessions or on a pitch. Outside the environment of the training pitch and the stadium is different. I made him my captain because I want to control that life outside.
Interesting. Give him responsibility and then he …
I think we don’t succeed totally.
You said you don’t understand why United have a lot of money and won’t always pay for players. Is that because the Glazers didn’t want to pay?
I don’t know. Woodward is the one who talks with the Glazers. I only talked with the Glazers when they were [attending]a game or training session. Mostly they attend top matches and fortunately we won a lot of these top matches, in any case against Liverpool.
What does it take to be a perfect technical director or director of football?
First of all you need knowledge of the game, methods of training, preparation experience, youth education, scouting and you have to think in structures. So you need a lot of experience in the football world. When you are in your profession as a technical director, you have developed a name, then you have a big network and you can always make use of that network.
One person United are interested in to become technical director is Rio Ferdinand. What do you think about this? He was a good player, obviously.
As a good player, you’re not a good manager or you’re not a good technical director. It’s more or less what is happening now with [OLE GUNNAR]Solskjær, ex-players, old boys’ network. It’s not always a good choice. It can be but it’s not always a good choice.
Were you surprised that Solskjær was given the job permanently?
I was very surprised he got it in spite of the winning run at the start.
Because Manchester United is one of the biggest clubs in the world that needs a manager with experience and not a manager who has trained at one or two teams and on a lower level.
Pep Guardiola went straight into Barcelona after managing the Barcelona B team. He was very successful.
There are always exceptions and he played as a central midfielder at the highest level, a position where you need tactical orientation, and he was my captain!
You’ve got a philosophy of playing football: your Ajax team, Barcelona, AZ and Bayern Munich. Do United have one, would you say?
When I was accepting the job, we never spoke about the system Manchester United played with, or about a philosophy.
Is that a surprise?
Yes. It was [different with] the other clubs. I’ve always spoken about that.
When you won the Champions League with Ajax [IN 1995], was playing as a team key?
All my teams are really teams. I think also United played like a team. When your head is already cut off and you can inspire the players still to play that football or play the style that you want to play … We always played the same system but with other accents, depending on the opponent.
If you had a blank canvas, how long would it take to sort United out?
The trouble is that you cannot demand so much time. And the fans do not allow that. Also with Solskjær, they shall demand in spite of him being an ex-player. In the football world you have to deliver. However as an ex-player you always have more credit.
Is it almost impossible then to succeed at these big clubs, at United? I remember your first press conference, you basically said ‘it’s too much commercial, this club’.
I’m happy that you remember that. I think you have to change the structure in the organisation of Manchester United because now I think the balance between the football department and commercial department is not right and even slopes over to the commercial.
What do you mean by that?
What I have experienced is that I must go to the USA before the season and we have to play a lot of matches in a short time. That is a good commercial preparation but not the best for me as a football manager. Everybody was happy except me, because in the USA we won everything, but the first match in the league was a loss: Swansea. That is because every player was exhausted. When you have to start like that, that’s not good.
In scouting players, Manchester United don’t have the organisation to deliver the best players in my opinion. Then with the education of players, you cannot say that the education of Manchester United is very good. How many players are coming through?
With Manchester United, you have a fantastic performance department and that is under the guidance of the doctor. But this performance department needs also the guidance of an experienced technical director. You have to use that department not only for the first team but also intensively for the youth education. Then young players are more educated in the philosophy of Man United and the big step to the first team is much easier. These are the important aspects that you have to develop as a technical director.
I saw as Manchester United manager that the quality of the players of City, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal was better. So what can I do? We were attacking. We were not defending and we were looking for tactical solutions adapted to the level of our players. For example we were provoking space and that was new in England. I think six months ago [JÜRGEN]Klopp has also seen the light because in former days he was always pressing.
How do you provoke space?
I have tried because of the speed of [ANTHONY]Martial and [MARCUS]Rashford to provoke space by not pressing immediately but to come a little back, not parking the bus, but to the middle line and then the defenders halfway in our own half. Only with AZ did I do that before, also because of the lower level of my players, and of course I adapt to the quality of my players. You have to see it. Because I didn’t have the best quality of players, they could not perform the system to attack. For example, when Liverpool have to attack constantly, they have a problem, more a problem than, for example, Manchester City.
Because Salah, Firmino and Mané need a bigger space than Agüero, Sané and Sterling and also the creativity in City’s midfield is higher with De Bruyne, David Silva, Fernandinho and Bernardo Silva – they can play in a small space. That’s why City are the champions.
Can you tell me the favourite player you’ve managed? Not the best but someone you really enjoyed working with.
[LUÍS]Figo. He’s a winner. He was always there in training, on the pitch, in a game. Luis Enrique. These kinds of players I like the most, because they are very open for you but also winners, and on the pitch they speak.
And your best memory from your career?
The most exciting moment in football was not on the bench. It was on the canals of Amsterdam. The Champions League win. That was fantastic. More than a million people along the canals, old people from the windows. Fantastic. - Guardian