After months of speculation, finally the verdict is out on Louis Van Gaal’s future as Bayern Munich’s manager. He will remain with the club till the end of the season but will be released from his contract in the summer. Three consecutive defeats within a span of a week helped shape this untimely predicament. The losses had their own fateful consequences – getting ousted from DFB Pokal, lurking 19 points and 4 places behind the league leader, and leaving ample possibility of missing out on Champions League action in the next season. But is this decision justified, that too after only one season of failure?
Van Gaal started his managerial career with Ajax. During his stay with the Dutch giants, he led Ajax to three domestic titles and two continental trophies including Champions League in 1995. During his short stay with Barcelona, he delivered two La Liga titles and a Copa Del Rey triumph. Following a conflict in interest Van Gaal left Barcelona and went ahead to manage the Dutch national team where he tasted his first major setback when his team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2002. In the next four years, Van Gaal gradually built a team in AZ to go on to win the Eredivisie amidst all odds in 2009. Success story of the mercurial gaffer created enough interest in Bayern’s rank, and the club replaced underfire manager Jurgen Klinsmann with him.
A new league, a new set up and new expectations – motivation was enough for this media unfriendly gaffer to do well. He had the backing of the board to get players of his choice and soon Olic, Gomez and Robben were signed to appease Van Gaal’s strategic direction. But his way of dictating terms once again created a furor amongst senior players in the side, just like it happened years ago with Rivaldo when Van Gaal was in charge of Barcelona. This time the perpetrator was none other than Philip Lahm who insisted that Van Gaal’s transfer policy was baffling. Bayern already had strikers like Toni and Klose at their disposal and yet Van Gaal went on to sign Olic and Gomez. To top it all, he kept playing with a single man up front, questioning the presence of four quality strikers in the side, including record money transfer subject Gomez.
Toni soon followed suit and fell out with Van Gaal for getting substituted at half time in a Bundesliga game. Van Gaal’s transfer activities, by that time, had curtailed the Italian’s playing time, as the Bundesliga top scorer of the season 2007-2008 was already pushed behind Gomez and Olic in the pecking order. Toni and Lahm were slapped with hefty fine for playing truant but it had a negative impact on Bayern’s campaign.
The way the season started for Van Gaal, it had all the ingredients to make Van Gaal swallow the bitter pill at the end of the very first season. Gomez had a disastrous start to his career at the Allianz Arena; Klose and Toni failed to live up to the competition of making it to the starting line-up and the fatal injuries to ‘Robbery’ made things worse for him. The rift with Toni went on to the extent of being made public, right after the Christmas, when it was announced that Toni will be offloaded in the summer. The team could only manage to win one out of the first four games of the season. Following two defeats against Bordeaux in the group stage of Champions League, it appeared that Bayern might fail to qualify for the knockout stage as well. Amidst all odds, Van Gaal was able to get the best out of his fringe players and when Robben and Ribery returned from injury, the team unleashed itself as a world beater. The rest of the season turned out to be historic as Van Gaal became the first Dutch coach to win the Bundesliga. He followed it up with a victory in DFB Pokal and guided his side to the final of Champions League, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat against the likes of in-form Fiorentina and Manchester United.
Enter the new season. Confidence of the team was high. Most of the player’s morale was high – 11 of the members represented their country in the last four stage of the World Cup. Van Gaal’s men started their title defense in style, dispatching Wolfsburg at home. But before one could realize what actually went wrong, Bayern’s rosy days called a halt in the very next Bundesliga game, losing to newly promoted Kaiserslautern. From that day onwards, Bayern’s entire campaign remained inconsistent and careless.
Why Van Gaal has a penchant of making footballers play out of position is beyond comprehension. At Barcelona, his rift with Rivaldo started when Van Gaal asked him to play more as a winger, against the player’s wish. Here, at Bayern, he tried the same thing, with mixed results. Making Badstuber play out of position in left back, Tymoshchuk out of position as a centre half and Pranjic out of position as a left back have all met with disastrous results. Tymoshchuk, though, did a fair job in the new position but made his displeasure public of being played out of position. Van Gaal’s only success in this eccentric ideology has been Schweinteiger, who has been a revelation as a holding midfielder. He should be held responsible for transforming Schweinsteiger from a run-of-the-mill winger to a world class holding midfielder. He is the one who polished the uncut diamonds in Muller and Badstuber. But all in all, the idea of toying with player’s position did not have a positive effect on the team’s morale and performance.
Van Gaal’s transfer activity has been even more baffling. When the team already had Klose and Toni, Van Gaal preferred to sign two more strikers in Gomez and Olic. Offloading Lucio, the Munich Bridge, was another disastrous decision. Despite selling him off, Van Gaal never signed another defender to compensate for loss of balance in defense. At the start of this season, Bayern were simply without a backup to Lahm in right back position and without a solid left back. Questions can be raised as to why Van Gaal refused to invest on fullbacks when funds were available and a genuine need was there. Questions can also asked as to why Van Gaal did not wish to consolidate the centre half position when Van Buyten and Demichellis’ partnership fetched appalling results and Breno was injured. A double winning and a Champions League finalist team does not require huge changes in the side. It just needs to work on its weaknesses (which were not huge in number) to challenge for the treble in the next season. Bayern’s weakness, since the last season has been their defense. Yet, Van Gaal completely ignored that drawback and when found wanting (thanks to the disasters committed by both Van Buyten and Demichellis) he chose to replace the heart of the defense with Tymoshchuk to play alongside a young Badstuber.
Even amidst all these doldrums Van Gaal, however, was able to make a couple of good transfer deals. Fans complained that Demichellis’ departure was the primary reason for Bayern’s disastrous defensive display. To be honest it is far from fact. Demichellis had been as awful as Van Buyten, if not more. Yes, he had seven wonderful years with Bayern and is more experienced than Breno, the sloth, but the fact is that he is not going to get any younger. He has been quite error-prone as well as injury-prone of late and it is safe to say that it was a good decision. Letting go of Van Bommel and bringing in Gustavo was another positive movement. Age was catching up fast on Van Bommel’s vision and creativity. His game was becoming one dimensional, restricted to breaking down opposition’s attacks as well as opposition team members. Addition of Gustavo will make the midfield a more creative unit.
Despite the disastrous result on the domestic front, Bayern have been an unstoppable force in Europe. They are just one good game away from entering the quarter finals of this year’s Champions League, avenging last year’s loss to Internazionale in the process. Mario Gomez finally seems settled. With the addition of Gustavo, midfield looks more creative. But the announcement could not have come at a more difficult time for the Bavarians. It will be a shame if last year’s finalists fail to qualify for the next year’s edition. Bayern is a too bigger club to play in the Europa League. On the other hand, it will be a shame to sack the person who took Bayern back to being one of the best in Europe. Yes, Van Gaal overlooked the team’s defensive frailties. Yes, he played around with the position of a few players. Yes, he is responsible for straining the relationship with the Bayern board. However, for whatever wrong he has done to the club, we must not forget that he is the one who brought them as close as 90 minutes to winning a treble in his very very first season! The team came back from nowhere to win the Bundesliga. In the words of Schweinsteiger, “We all want to be successful in the remaining weeks and to give him a fitting send-off. He has deserved it after the way we played last season when we won a lot.”