The Psychology of Louis van Gaal

Following the Netherlands’ dramatic 2-1 win over Mexico in the Round of 16, an upbeat Robin Van Persie said, “everyone feels we can win it – that it really is possible”. The quote went largely unnoticed in the flurry of headlines that this World Cup has prompted, but its importance to Manchester United cannot be overstated.

It highlights what is arguably Van Gaal’s best quality, the ability to instill unwavering confidence within players.

Not many people had high hopes for the Netherlands prior to the tournament. They were placed into a group with the reigning world champions, Spain, and just about everybody’s ‘dark horse’ pick, Chile, thus the feeling was that they would do well to make it out of the group. Fast-forward two weeks into the competition and the Netherlands lead the group on nine points, three of which came in a 5-1 demolition of Spain.

The Netherlands’ impressive run may have come as a surprise to many, but I can assure you that it came as no surprise to Van Gaal. The Dutchman is known for his, somewhat overstated, arrogant and abrasive nature and as a result his other qualities go unnoticed. One quality, his confidence, is often confused with arrogance, yet its effect on the players is invaluable.

Every top manager exudes an air of confidence, a certain swagger that allows everyone around them to instantaneously grasp just how sure they are of both themselves and the players. Ferguson is a textbook example; he was praised for getting the absolute maximum out of his players and that was no accident, his confidence was contagious. Jose Mourinho is another example, and an interesting one at that, because he is closer to Van Gaal in terms of his personality. Like Van Gaal, Mourinho’s arrogance and confidence are often referenced interchangeably, although they are two very different things. Regardless of his arrogance, Mourinho has a fantastic ability to instill belief into his players, which stems from his confidence.

The reason I say every ‘top’ manager exudes an extremely high level confidence and not every ‘good’ manager is because it is not a prerequisite of a ‘good’ manager. The manager of a good team does not need his players to believe they are the best, he just needs them to believe that they are good; all he needs is a ‘good’ amount of confidence. However, for a manager at a top club, a club like Manchester United, a ‘good’ amount of confidence is not good enough.

Manchester United are expected to win every game they play, they are expected to win the Premier League, the Champions League, and the FA Cup…they are expected to be the best. As a player, in order to play like the best you have to believe you are the best, and that belief largely derives from the manager.

It is no surprise that clubs are beginning to invest large amounts of money in sport psychology, as players’ mental faculties are just as important as their technical and physical faculties. Look no farther than Fernando Torres to discover just how important psychology is in football. A player as immensely talented as Torres has no place playing like he does, yet he does so because of his lack of confidence.

Even in this World Cup, it is evident that confidence plays an unmistakable role in teams’ fortunes. Compare the U.S. and England, for example; England has, by far, the better players and the better staff, however the U.S. has one thing England lacks, belief. One team narrowly lost in the last-16, after finishing second in a group that included Germany and Portugal, and one team didn’t win a single game, scored two goals, and finished bottom of their group.

The Netherlands now have a very good chance of winning the World Cup due to the fact that Van Gaal has instilled such high levels of confidence within the players. This is a team that, on the balance of things, should not be doing as well as they are. He’s caused the players to become driven, determined, and confident; a team that many considered to be outsiders are now among the favorites, and that all stems from one thing, belief.

Motivation is the single most important aspect of management, it’s the foundation as without it nothing else can be built. Van Gaal’s tactics, system, and substitutions have all been lauded at this World Cup, however none of it would’ve been possible without the players believing in him and in themselves.

One of the main criticisms of David Moyes was that his training sessions were too heavily focused upon the opposition, and while this kind of preparation is key before a match, if the idea that the players had to worry about the opposition, and not the other way around, slipped into the psyche of the team then it is no wonder that it ended in disaster.

Psychologically, motivation and expectation are closely related. A classic early study of expectation, conducted by Robert Rosenthal, studied expectancy in the classroom. Teachers were provided with groups of students, who were all of equal academic level, yet the teachers were told that particular students were ‘intellectual bloomers’. The results of the study showed that ‘intellectual bloomers’, who were actually of the same level as the other students, preformed better in the classroom due to the expectation of the teachers.

If the expectation bread on the training ground is to fear the opponent, then that’s what the players will do. If the expectation is to be the best, then the players will be motivated to be the best. Top players cannot lack belief, they must believe that they are the best, and last season the Manchester United players did not believe that they were the best.

When a manager believes in a player it gives them both an expectation to meet and the motivation to meet it. The players need someone to come in with a level confidence that exudes expectation, the type of confidence that screams “I’m the best, you’re the best, now play like it”.

Luckily for United fans, if there is one manager in world football who can come in and convince the players that they are the best again, it is Louis van Gaal. People say that dogs are like their owners, and once Louis van Gaal arrives with his unmistakable swagger, I think you will find that players are like their managers.

  • Dave Jones

    Excellent read.

  • Gabriel Chapman

    Nice post, Harry!

  • Jaime Benedetti

    Very insightful article.