While avoiding starting his Manchester United reign with any bold predictions or statements of intent, Louis van Gaal still projected an aura of authority and conviction in his ability to take on one of the biggest jobs in football.
There was none of the uneasiness at Thursday’s official presentation that was evident last July when the ill-fated David Moyes appeared overwhelmed at the task of succeeding Alex Ferguson after 26 years.
It’s little wonder. Moyes arrived at Old Trafford from Everton without a major trophy to his name. Van Gaal is a proven winner as a manager, collecting titles at Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich before leading the Netherlands to an unexpected third-place finish at the World Cup on Saturday.
The 62-year-old Van Gaal is so self-assured that he felt confident enough — on just his second official day in the United job — to question the main training pitch and flag up the club’s focus on money-making.
“It’s the biggest club of the world,” Van Gaal said at Old Trafford. “Within two days I know already how important Manchester United is but also how important the sponsors are.”
Just this week, United signed a 10-year kit deal with Adidas that will be worth at least $1.3 billion, and then added Japanese noodle maker Nissin to its ever-expanding collection of global sponsors.
“This club is … guided in a commercial way and we have to fulfill that,” Van Gaal said. “It’s not always possible to fulfill the commercial expectations (and) the football expectations. That is my big challenge after two days.”
What Van Gaal will be judged on is returning United to the Champions League. Under Moyes, United went from winning a 20th English title in Ferguson’s final act as manager to seventh-place finishers, even missing out on Europa League qualification.
“I cannot give predictions because you never know,” he said. “There’s a lot of expectation but it’s also a great challenge because of that.”
A challenge that requires time to overhaul a team that went into an alarming slump under Moyes.
“I have to see how the players perform my philosophy and how quick they can pick up this philosophy,” Van Gaal said. “For me the challenge is always first — not fourth — but … it’s dependable on the lock between the players and the coach.”
Defender Luke Shaw and midfielder Ander Herrera have already been added to the squad with his approval, but there are no immediate plans for further recruits in the summer transfer window.
“I want to see the first three, four weeks what (the squad) can do and then maybe I shall buy other players,” Van Gaal said.
What the first training session on Wednesday showed Van Gaal was not about the condition of the players but the pitch itself.
“The facility needs a little more intimacy,” he said. “I have asked already because now it’s an open field but there is always wind. And wind is not always the friend of the players. It’s not always the friend of the ball, and so we have to do something about that.”
With a reputation for possessing a large ego, Van Gaal presented himself as a more rounded character to a media pack so used to dealing with the fiery Ferguson.
“I’m a democratic and empathetic human being,” he said. “Of course I have a strong personality but the other characteristics are more important.
“The media wants to show (the autocratic) part of the personality but that part is (very small). When it is repeated always then everybody thinks like that. Autocratic and a strong personality is not the same.”
Van Gaal could add workaholic to that, having taken just two days off between returning to the Netherlands from Brazil and starting his first job in England.
“When there is a challenge like this, I never let it go,” he said. “This is a holiday for me. I like the way I can work.”