Manchester United: Explaining Louis Van Gaal's football philosophy

Manchester United: Explaining Louis Van Gaal's football philosophy

Many things have been written about Louis Van Gaal following his appointment as Manchester United manager in May. Amongst an onslaught of quotes about his perceived arrogance, stubbornness and occasional moments of inexplicable trouser dropping madness, there has been brief allusion to his ‘football philosophy’; an omnipresent vision on how the beautiful game should be played which has been ruthlessly instilled throughout his entire coaching career. A style of football that was so well executed at Ajax it led defeated Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano to claim; “Ajax are not just the team of the nineties, they are approaching football Utopia.”

What should Man United fans expect from the new manager? What exactly is Van Gaal’s famous football philosophy?


An attacking philosophy, a technical philosophy and a tactical philosophy

“In my career I have had a lot of players who are fascinated by my philosophy. It is also very nice to take part in it because it is an attacking philosophy, it is a technical philosophy, and it is a tactical philosophy… You can show your qualities more than ever.”  – LVG

In an interview with Pedro Sousa in 2009, Van Gaal discussed his approach to football and highlighted some of the core components that contribute to his style of football, stating “I’m trying to hone a system that stays as close as possible to the principles of the Dutch school.”

He believes that his team should always attack and defend as a unit and always be thinking about defence, even when in possession – when this mantra is followed properly it reduces the risk of conceding a goal due to poor positioning following the loss of possession. Along with many other coaches including Sir Alex Ferguson, Van Gaal also likes the full with of the pitch to be exploited. Stretching the opposition as wide as possible naturally means an increase in space between defenders which strikers and attacking midfielders’ can look to occupy.

“Running is for animals. You need a brain and a ball for football.” – LVG


Creating space forms the core part of the Van Gaal approach to football – huge emphasis is put on the positioning of the players (just ask Jonny Evans who was given a dressing down for standing 10 yards too far to the right in a training match), he wants his team to create as many possible ‘passing triangles’ as they can, his particular method involves the formation of horizontal lines across the pitch – the more the better he argues, as this directly correlates to the number of passing options available. The approach he takes to keeping possession will be familiar to anyone who watched Barcelona in the Guardiola years – constant lateral circulation with the sole aim being to draw opposition players out of their position. Once the bait is taken out of sheer frustration, the space left behind is invaded and utilised as the team move forward.

Systems, Systems, Systems

“Louis gives his players instructions they need to perform to make the system work. And the system is sacred. All players are equal to Van Gaal, big names do not exist for him, and everyone is subordinate to the team and system, his system.” – Dennis Bergkamp

All of these concepts fall into one overarching system – the game is broken down into the following 4 scenarios;

  1. When you are in possession of the ball (Offensive organisation)
  2. When moving from defence to attack (Offensive transition)
  3. When the opponent is in possession of the ball (Defensive organisation)
  4. When moving from attack to defence (Defensive transition)

The attacking transition is broken into four further elements that mediate the transition of the ball from defence to attack. The first phase involves the Goalkeeper playing out from the back – expect no aimless long kicks up the field from De Gea this season. Constructing from the back poses a conundrum for opponents who can either employ a high press which further increases the risk of gaps opening in midfield, or sit deeper and allow LVG’s team to control the tempo of the game. The second phase is the circulation of the ball as mentioned above, shifting laterally across the width of pitch, enticing opposition players to come and close down, being pulled out of position in the process. The third phase is how the opposition defence is breached following a successful period of possession and the fourth phase is the finishing of the move with maximum efficiency and good shot placement.


Van Gaal believes it is his moral duty to play attractive football; “I like more the offensive style… You have to deliver a product for the public.”  This belief is reflected in his view that the attacking transition phases are the most important part of any match. When possession has just been won from the opponent there exists a short space of time (during the oppositions own defensive transition phase) in which they are unorganised – it is in this window that the team must take advantage and move the ball quickly and aggressively towards the oppositions goal. The reasoning is that it is much harder to score when your opponent is organised defensively, if they have had time to get back into position then a possession based approach must be adopted in order to create openings.

The self-appointed genius

“He is so well prepared that you would be doing drills in training and you would know what the opposition were going to do before they did. You knew exactly what you were up against. He would say sometimes to Marc Overmars, ‘The guy you are playing against drifts across to be close to the central defender. Stay where you are and you will get in behind him’ — and he’d be right.” – Ronald De Boer.

When playing the Van Gaal way, every player must perform his own individual duties whilst being hyper-aware of his context amongst fellow players if the team is to realise its collective goal. Manchester United fans should expect the arrogance, the drama and the madness that has become synonymous with LVG, but look forward to the fact that they have one of the most tactically intelligent, hard-working and successful coaches in the modern game. To see the philosophy in motion take a look at  Van Gaal’s total football with Ajax in 1995.