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Despite all his computer-enhanced bullet-dodging, Neo bit the dust at the end of The Matrix. His downfall was not in vain, however, as he won out against the nasty, jibing Smith. Cities rejoiced and honoured that had brought back freedom, and his name will live on forever in nerdy sci-fi folklore.
Louis van Gaal had been dodging bullets fired by his Smith - aka Uli Hoeness - for a couple of years now, but finally succumbed last weekend after a 1-1 draw with Bavarian rivals Nürnberg. After the three wins on the trot that followed the announcement that Van Gaal would be leaving in the summer, it was the final straw.
Hoeness described Bayern's performances since Thomas Kraft became number one goalkeeper in January as *** - a word that really doesn’t need the wide variety of translations it has been given in order to accurately convey his opinion.
While Hoeness’ words may lack subtlety, one can understand his frustration. After a swashbuckling league and cup double and a trip to the Champions League final last year, it was difficult to see who would challenge Bayern for this year’s title. World Cup stars Sami Khedira, Manuel Neuer and Fabio Coentrao were all rumoured to be on Bayern’s wish list, specifically to shore up the defensive frailty that frequently undermined the glorious attacking skills of Arjen Robben and, when fit, Franck Ribery.
"Is that the time? I really must be off..."
Yet Van Gaal refused the reinforcements, instead insisting on the strength of the youth system that had just churned out rising stars Holger Badstuber and Thomas Müller. That the team has the third-best defensive record in the Bundesliga and has scored more goals than any other team substantiates his theory, on paper at least - but the team’s propensity for individual errors remains catastrophically high. Kraft’s lazy clearance for Nürnberg’s equaliser on Saturday was just the latest.
One of Süddeutsche Zeitung’s (many) jovial pieces about Van Gaal’s sacking tells us that there have been thirteen different combinations of players making up Bayern’s back four so far this season. That’s chaos by anyone’s standards.
But while it is all too easy to make fun of Van Gaal’s stubbornness and arrogance, his dour, drab demeanour, his guttural accent and his funny squashed face, let’s not forget that he also brought a real joie de vivre back to Bayern. When Robben and Ribery were in full flow, there were few that could stop them.
That most football fans in Germany, usually united in anti-Bayern vitriol, had hoped for a Bayern win in the 2010 Champions League Final against Jose Mourinho’s defensive Inter side was an indication that his intention of creating a mentality of attractive, attacking football was working.
Bastian Schweinsteiger also has a lot to thank Van Gaal for. After years of playing wide, despite a preference for the Sechser position (the number six - a defensive midfielder), the Dutchman finally gave him the role he desired. Schweinsteiger transformed from inconsistent winger to world-class midfielder seemingly overnight, and his outstanding performances with Sami Khedira as Germany romped to the World Cup semi-finals make Van Gaal’s lack of interest in the former Stuttgart man even more baffling.
But, as Schweinsteiger himself said about van Gaal in an interview with 11Freunde last September, “You need to learn how to deal with him...he’s a very particular guy with a very headstrong personality“.
And so van Gaal’s assistant Andries Joncker will take control until the end of the season, charged with the task of qualification for the Champions League ahead of the arrival of new coach Jupp Heynckes, who will take control in the summer.
While no-one in Munich will be particularly sad to see Van Gaal leave, I for one would like to give him a nod of thanks. The way his team played in the second half of the 2009/10 was a joy to behold. Here’s to you, Louis.
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