For the first four months of the season Louis van Gaal and FC Bayern München looked incompatible. The Dutch coach was accused of adopting an authoritarian approach that had apparently left his players afraid to express themselves and the Bavarian side struggled to find form. With key forwards Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben missing, Bayern were trailing in the wake of Bundesliga pacesetters Bayer 04 Leverkusen and seemed set for a disappointing exit from the UEFA Champions League.
Fast forward to spring and life in the Bayern garden could hardly be rosier. The four-time European champions are back atop their domestic league and through to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League following a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Manchester United FC. Not for the first time in his illustrious career, the former AFC Ajax and FC Barcelona boss has been working his magic.
The turning point in Bayern's campaign can be traced to the superb 4-1 win away to Juventus on Matchday 6 of the group stage – a result that sealed qualification, despite earlier back-to-back losses against FC Girondins de Bordeaux. For Van Gaal, however, it was no coincidence that fortunes began to improve as he felt he was finally getting his message across to the players.
"My way of working was something the players had to get used to," the 58-year-old said. "
I demand they use their brains because I believe football is played largely in the mind. I'm very direct and emotional, and I make corrections immediately."
Van Gaal's desire to educate is nothing new. The Amsterdam-born trainer combined a semi-professional playing career as a creative midfielder at Royal Antwerp FC, Stormvogels Telstar, Sparta Rotterdam and AZ Alkmaar with a second job as a gym teacher. Today, he recognises similarities between teaching and coaching.
"You try to teach students in a certain way, using aspects of your character," Van Gaal explained. "It's exactly the same with footballers. Maybe I put too much importance on performance when I was a teacher. But I'm a performance animal. That's why I wanted to work in sport."
During those tough early months at Bayern, the German media criticised Van Gaal for curbing his players' creative instincts by imposing too many tactical restraints. References were made to his background as a teacher, the implication being that his supposedly pedagogical style was unsuited to top-level footballers. It was an accusation Van Gaal had heard before and quickly dismissed. "The media know you have been a teacher so they like to give you this label," he said. "I'm not a schoolmasterly type."
The flexibility Van Gaal has shown this term highlights his point. Realising his team were finding it difficult to take on board his many instructions, he softened his stance slightly and urged his players to take on more responsibility themselves.
"I had to change the way I communicated," he said. "At first the players thought they had to carry out my instructions to the letter. But they have to adapt to different situations. It was an unfortunate start, but I changed my team talks and now it's better."
Bayern were right to stay patient with a coach who has already proven his ability on numerous occasions. A UEFA Cup and UEFA Champions League winner with Ajax, he picked up two Spanish Liga titles during his first spell with Barcelona. Last season the former Netherlands boss landed a fourth Eredivisie championship, steering AZ to their first crown in 28 years.
It may have taken Bayern time to get used to Van Gaal, yet the players could end up as grateful to the shrewd trainer as some of his erstwhile pupils. FC Internazionale Milano coach José Mourinho was Van Gaal's assistant at Barcelona, and he and the Dutchman are the only trainers to lead three sides into the UEFA Champions League semi-finals. Josep Guardiola was another protege, captaining Van Gaal's Barcelona team that reached the last four in 1999/2000.
Patrick Kluivert calls Van Gaal "the most important man in my career" and a "master at building a team". Bayern captain Mark van Bommel insists he is "a joy to work with". The 32-year-old midfielder, who also played for the Netherlands under Van Gaal, said: "
He's very clear, very demanding and always puts the team first. He has exactly what a coach needs to win trophies."
In taking Bayern to their first UEFA Champions League semi-final since 2001, Van Gaal's tactical prowess is enabling the club to compete with the very best once more. "Tactical team play is the most important thing," he stressed. "Bayern are a big club but clubs like Barcelona and Chelsea can go out and sign almost anyone. We're trying our best to build a very good team." Last-four opponents Olympique Lyonnais have been warned.
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