Louis Van Gaal tactical philosophy

Quotes on Van Gaal’s philosophy from this interview http://jeddavies.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Louis-Van-Gaal-interview.pdf


Football dominance comes in cycles, and although the inability to keep hold of key players and staff disrupted the progress and dominance of Ajax, Van Gaal’s Ajax team are widely regarded as one of the greatest to have played the game.

“Ajax are not just the team of the Nineties, they are approaching football Utopia. Their concept of the game is exquisite yet they have a physical superiority as well. They are Beauty and the Beast.”- Real Madrid’s Jorge Valdano said in awe.

“Few teams, among all I have seen play, have seduced me than that of Ajax under Van Gaal. The ease of creating the game behind the fast side of players and the way they pass the ball to the feet through the spaces. This Ajax could solve completely fantastically all “one-against-one” that can exist in a game. In both attack and defense. They assume the risk that a team can take. This was something that surprised me, which astonished me. Positional discipline. Possession of the ball as the basic idea. The game in constant support. Movements.. And they did it all as simple as a sublime way. They were able to do perfectly is what I believe that a football team must always do. Van Gaal’s Ajax gave football lessons to those who were familiar with the game. ” – Pep Guardiola.

Three European cups in a row speaks volumes of the famous Ajax team of the 70’s led by Johan Cruyff. Ajax dominated football but since then, failed to translate their domestic dominance into Europe’s elite tournament. That was until Louis Van Gaal was appointed head coach. “Congratulations on signing the best coach in the world” is what he told the Ajax director upon signing his first contract. Van Gaal assembled a youthful squad with an average age of just 23 which dominated both domestically and in Europe. They won the Eredivise and Champions League in the 1994/95 season without suffering defeat. Yes, they were invincible in the Dutch league, AND in Europe.

We are the best! We are the BEST! And not just of Amsterdam. But also of Rotterdam. And Eindhoven. And Europe.. And now we are the best of the…. WORLD!”

LvG is a coach with a clear coaching philosophy and principles. He describes his philosophy as one footballers are fascinated by because it is an attacking philosophy, a technical philosophy and a tactical philosophy. Explaining his system to Fifa.com, he said: “It’s a footballing philosophy more than a system. A system depends on the players you have. I played 4-3-3 with Ajax, 2-3-2-3 with Barcelona and I can play 4-4-2 with AZ. I’m flexible. The philosophy stays the same though. I don’t think that you can adapt it to every possible situation. Preparing your tactical formation is essential. Each player needs to know where he has to be, and that is why there needs to be mutual understanding because you need absolute discipline. This is a sport played by 22 men, and there are 11 opponents out there playing as a team. Each individual needs to know who he has to beat and be there to support his team-mates.”

Van Gaal divides the game into four main aspects:

1.The offensive organization: The general shape/movement/positioning when the team is attacking or in possession.

2.Offensive transition: Player movements and reactions when moving from defense to attack. How the ball is moved etc

3.Defensive organization: Team’s general shape and positioning when the opponents have the ball.

4.Defensive transitions: Team reactions and movement just after they’ve lost possession. How they press etc

He further breaks offensive transitions into four elements: the initial/first phase, second, third and fourth phases. The first phase is “construction phase” which to Van Gaal is playing out with the keeper from the back.This begins when the goalkeeper is in possession of the ball. The second phase is the movement and circulation of the ball. The third phase has to do with how the team creates chances and breaks down defenses, and the fourth phase is the finishing of the move.

Van Gaal’s football philosophy is to be proactive. “You decide how the opponent play their football and not that the opponent decides where we have to play” he says “I have always played very offensively as a trainer with my teams because I like that. You have to deliver a product for the public”. Van Gaal though is very flexible and can switch to a more cautious approach, evident at his time at AZ. 

His system focuses on ball retention and circulation(moving the ball with the main aim of retaining possession) to exploit spaces. Van Gaal devotes a lot of time on the positional play in training. In his system, his players must always be on the move to find space and pass the ball at a quicker speed to retain possession while forming triangles and angles to support teammates in possession. He said that’s why he prefers the 433 to the 442 because with the 433 shape he can form about 8 lines and many triangles which is essential for midfield overloads for his ball circulation philosophy. “Mathematically, the more triangles you have in your system then it’s more easy, because the players without thinking they are,  are already in the position.”

In the construction phase, the goalkeeper is the first playmaker – in the sense that –  he is the one who initiates attacking transitions in phase 1.

oo Van Gaal normally prefers his keeper to play short in order to play out the back. He mentions his formation as, say, ‘1-4-3-3’ or ‘1-4-4-2’ adding his goalkeeper, like an outfield player. He considers him as one. When being pressed high, either the holding midfielder drops in between the centerbacks which allows the fullbacks vertical movement up the field, or one of his defenders moves into the midfield in the construction phase. Which sees his team shape up in a 3-4-2-1/3-1-3-3 shape. The essence is to generally have three players at the back to generate a quantitative superiority against opponents as most teams often press with two forwards. “Always, I want to create one man more… so, always one of the four (defenders) has to enter in the midfield – doesn’t matter which – but once they enter the other three have to stay close. mmConstructing out the back poses two major threats to opponents, who either press high up the pitch which further opens gaps in their structure, or sit deep and allow LvG’s team to control the tempo of the game. Villas Boas explains: “Louis Van Gaal’s idea is one of continuous circulation, one side to the other, until the moment that, when you change direction, and space opens up inside and you go through it. So, he provokes the opponent with horizontal circulation of the ball, until the moment that the opponent will start to pressure out of despair. What I believe in is to challenge the rival by driving the ball into him. At this time of ultra-low defensive block teams, you will have to learn how to provoke them with the ball. It’s the ball they want, so you have to defy them using the ball as a carrot.”

This is very interesting. AVB stressed on the idea of using to full field to draw opponents. When a team defends deep in their own box, they surrender a lot of space in other areas of the field, albeit non-threatening. The idea of using the ball as a carrot comes into play here. It is natural that the team without the ball tries to regain it. By keeping the ball and circulating, you lure your opponents to come out to press the ball. Spaces therefore will open up in their system. If their pressing isn’t well coordinated, space that opens up could be exploited as there is an easier chance to reach the danger zone. “The second phase is to replace the ball, so you can see the disorganization of the opponent, and then you need creativity to give the pass – to see that moment” LVG’s teams play a lot of lateral(toucline-to-touchline) passes, not for the sole aim of retaining possession, but as a means to draw opponents out of their defensive shape to press. “When we have the ball the midfielders have to open – always at the sides – it’s very important because, because of that the opponents have to defend wide and then we have more space”

yh“The foreign model that pleases me most is that of Louis van Gaal Ajax, that is to say a flexible team to compose his lines based on the adversary requirements at the time of ball recovery . Me, what interests me is that the team has a clean and independent game project on offensive phases. I calculated, 37 passes backwards.The supporter sees this as a refusal to play, but undoubtedly as this happens backwards, this is the beginning of a new attack. ”  – Bielsa

The most important part of the game according to LvG is in the transition phase(moving from attack to defense, or from defense to attack).“I think the transition is the most important aspect, because in transition phase the opponent is not organized, so that is the moment that you have to benefit”. Transitions are very crucial in the modern game particularly against organized teams. When you win possession, it’s important to move into attack quickly because at the time, opposition have just lost the ball and as a result of lost their defensive structure. He says: “I think that when the opponent is disorganized and we gain the ball, then we have to take benefit of that disorganization… but when you pass wrongly and you lose the ball… then I say… no, no, no…be  patient,  because you see, when you lose the ball then you have to gain the ball again and again… and that costs us a lot of energy”

His teams are compact and defend and attack as a collective unit. “Always together. When they are here they have to have contact. So when they go down, the whole team have to go down…but not with space between the lines because the opponent want to take benefit of that”

UntitledAt Ajax and Barcelona, his teams pressed high to force mistakes off opponents and regain the ball in threatening areas, although at AZ Alkmaar, Van Gaal adopted a more cautious where instead of pressing very high they sat deeper in defense and applied pressure as opposition entered their half. He focuses on the defensive organization of his team as much as the attack. Even in possession he says: “When you are in attack you have to think about defense. When you attack you take always risk because have a big space behind you, because of that you need defensively thinking when you attack”

Van Gaal is one of the most successful coaches in history. He is an astute tactician with an obsession for every possible detail and is normally seen on the touchline holding a notebook, always scribbling notes. LvG says he carries the notebook to jot down opposition mistakes in their shape and stuff that go against the pre-planned strategy.”Van Gaal is a tactician par excellence, he knows exactly what he does every game” -Xavi said.  He spends majority of his time on the pitch focusing on training and tactical drills. Along with his video analysts, Van Gaal makes thorough analysis of opponents, studying their moves and plotting tactics to outmaneuver them. Ronald De Boer recalled: ‘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,’ said De Boer. He focuses on detail and tries…err, I mean can get the best out of his players. “I’m not the kind of coach who just goes out and buys players for the sake of it. I’m a coach who wants to – and can – improve players.”


15 thoughts on “Louis Van Gaal tactical philosophy

  1. It would be a good idea to post the details on how long it took for his young team to fully adapt to his training. Many LVG haters proclaim that Cruyff left the foundation and he only added to it. I read this post when he was first appointed manager and I have seen the implementation of this when he played 4-3-3. If the timeline for Ajax also took a couple years, then maybe utd supporters would have more patience.


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