On Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho will emerge from the tunnel, walk straight up to the home dugout and greet Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal. There will be a cheeky wink from Mourinho and a firm handshake, maybe with the optional pat on the back or brief embrace (unlikely).
After the pleasantries are wrapped up accordingly, Chelsea’ Portuguese ace will stride confidently back to his seat in the visitors section and submerge into his usual match-day zen-like concentration. Van Gaal, in a not too dissimilar fashion, will leaf over his leather-bound notebook one last time before the referee’s whistle blows and he begins a scrupulous analysis of his team’s performance.
For Mourinho, Van Gaal is far from his usual Premier League adversary. The two share a close friendship and special personal bond that dates back to their time together at Barcelona. Van Gaal was the manager and promoted Mourinho from translator- a post he had held during Bobby Robson’s time in charge at the Nou Camp- to assistant first-team coach. Despite only being in his mid-30s, Van Gaal saw huge potential in Mourinho and promoted to him to the point where the young protegé was taking first-team coaching sessions and giving match-day team talks.
Van Gaal was once said Mourinho was “an arrogant young man who didn’t respect authority that much” but their friendship and professionally mutual respect blossomed gloriously in Catalonia. The case study of Van Gaal at Barcelona is an insightful depiction of what makes Mourinho such a world-class coach. He was always willing to learn from his mentor, always open to absorbing new knowledge and methods of coaching.
Mourinho always spoke highly of Bobby Robson, he praised his motivational skills and his acumen as a top-flight manager but was equally full of praise for Van Gaal, pinpointing the Dutchman’s insatiable appetite for work and focusing on implementing it into his own coaching strategies.
“He taught me in particular that to go far, you have to work hard,” Mourinho explained. “I can only say good things about that time. I won’t forget that time, or the person, who was marvellous with me. It was a special relationship for me and a pleasure to work alongside him.”
Mourinho’s comments regarding the current incumbent in the hot seat at Old Trafford resonate deeply as it paints a portrait far displaced from the usual arrogant and disrespectful man who regularly speaks disparagingly of his managerial colleagues. In recent years, he has had less than flattering words to say about Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger but Van Gaal is not a target for Mourinho’s psychological lexicon, he has simply learnt too much from his former boss.
Mourinho was originally employed at Barcelona as Bobby Robson’s translator and opposition scout. He had previously occupied the same capacity at Sporting Lisbon under Robson and was eager to impress him at a bigger club and show his skills set. He did exactly that. Mourinho’s incredibly detailed scouting reports amazed Robson and Mourinho’s reputation as an intelligent managerial disciple was beginning to take shape.
Robson, however, was sacked and Van Gaal replaced him. Van Gaal had built himself a reputation during his time at Ajax as a massively talented, but slightly arrogant coach. Considering Mourinho’s own arrogance, it should have paved the way for a potentially explosive partnership. It was not to be. Van Gaal was equally impressed with Mourinho as Robson.
Their collaboration proved to be a highly successful one, winning back-to-back La Liga championships and a Copa Del Rey. Unfortunately for both of them, the Barcelona hierarchy became increasingly frustrated with their inability to transform brilliant promise into genuine success in the Champions League and Van Gaal was sacked.
They went their separate ways, but Mourinho always held close what he had learned from Van Gaal. From the meticulous planning of day-to-day managerial duties to the immense attention to every detail about the squad’s nutrition, behaviour, training and professionalism, Mourinho was always minded of these admirable attributes displayed by LVG as he embarked upon his own managerial odyssey.
Van Gaal always believed in the potential of assistants to become fully-fledged managers in their own right, after having went down the exact same route himself under Hans Eijkenbroek at AZ Alkmaar and then again under Leo Beenhakker at Ajax in 1990. Van Gaal cared about educating his deputies, about training them to the point where they could survive in the cut-throat world of management themselves.
Mourinho exceeded even the high expectations held by Van Gaal. He famously too FC Porto the Champions League glory and dominated the Premier League with his beloved Chelsea. Then, at Inter Milan, he consolidated them as the premier force in Italian football and turned them into genuine Champions League contenders too.
Having already claimed the Serie A title and Coppa Italia in breathtakingly dominant fashion, Mourinho led his Inter side to the Champions League Final and the chance to claim a historic treble. Their opposition was Bayern Munich, managed by Van Gaal.
It was the first time the two had faced each other in management. It may have been easy to bill the match as mentor vs apprentice but in truth, Mourinho was already so advanced in his own style and character as a manager that it was merely two equals going head-to-head in club football’s most illustrious match with two clubs of rich history and tradition.
Mourinho’s Inter won 2-0 thanks to a brace from Diego Milito but the statistics of the game are noteworthy. Inter had just 34% possession but managed to quell the attack-minded Bayern. Mourinho may have absorbed a tremendous amount of knowledge from Van Gaal at Barcelona but this match defined his own management style and vision for a more pragmatic style of football.
“Jose trains to win and so do I, but I also choose to express good football. He has more belief in defence than attack. My way is more difficult,” Van Gaal said, alluding to their team’s contrasting style of play.
This Sunday, the two go head-to head once again in another titanic battle. No trophies will be decided as a direct result of the match but there are massive incentives for both managers. Mourinho, having already guided his Chelsea team to a near-perfect start with 22 points from 8 games, will know that winning at Old Trafford may mean his side are too far ahead of Van Gaal’s United for the latter to remain considered as title rivals.
After United’s 2-2 draw with West Brom on Monday night, Van Gaal was adamant in saying Chelsea could still be caught by his team. Admirable as Van Gaal’s belief is, it may become a step too far if they fail to down Mourinho’s men this weekend.
Another stimulus for Mourinho is his team’s unbeaten record. One of the few things Mourinho has never achieved in football is guiding a team through an entire league season unscathed and, despite the current campaign only baby-stepping its way out of the formative stages, Mourinho will already be minded about that objective.
A defeat to United on Sunday will show that Chelsea are not invincible, which looks to be the case given their imperious performances so far this season. It will give United and the other teams below Chelsea a reason to be confident and a reason to believe.
For Van Gaal, it marks the beginning of the ultimate managerial acid test, a month of matches where the programme includes trips to the Etihad and Emirates Stadiums to add to the test against Chelsea. It is as close to make-or-break for Van Gaal as it will get.
After a reasonably fortuitous early schedule, Van Gaal will get his first taste of heavyweight Premier League football in the coming weeks and it is something which contributed largely to the downfall of his predecessor, David Moyes, last season. Van Gaal has the proven pedigree and mentality to be a big-game manager and he will be looking to send out a statement against Mourinho on Sunday.
Van Gaal and Mourinho may enjoy a warm friendship and share a history of professional respect but this Sunday all smiles and affable behaviour are out the door. The Premier League and the drive for success is the main focus. Both managers will be sending their teams out with a specific philosophy, something which they have always done on the back of meticulous planning and analysis.
The prospect for each of them getting one over on the other is mouth-watering and it will become a fascinating battle of two great footballing minds to decide the winner. Van Gaal needs a win and knows he must attack Chelsea, even through the awareness of the risks attached to such a strategy. Mourinho may well plan pragmatically again knowing that the injuries to Diego Costa and Loic Remy may well leave him short up front.
Whatever happens, it is guaranteed Premier League box-office.