Louis van Gaal and his underrated AZ Alkmaar sideLouis van Gaal is one of the most interesting and influential managers of the last thirty years. You can love him or hate him, but there is no denying that the Dutchman has been extremely successful over the years and that his brand of coaching has had a lot of influence in the game. Denying that would be simply foolish.
In that regard, when football people look back on van Gaal's career, the stops are usually the same for most: his legendary Ajax side, his successful yet frustrating years at Barcelona, his rebuild of Bayern Munich or his different stints with the Netherlands national team. If you are a big critic of his, the first stint with the Netherlands in the early 2000s or his two years at Manchester United are a sure topic for discussion.
But there is one period of the Dutchman's career that is often ignored: those four years that he spent at small Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar from 2005 to 2009. And is arguably one of the most interesting and impressive parts of van Gaal's CV.
Tough years for van GaalThe early-2000s were tough for van Gaal. He left Barcelona in 2000 after a struggling season, failed to qualify a star-studded Netherlands national team to the 2002 World Cup, he was sacked in his second stint at Barcelona in 2002 and had a lot of problems during his time as Ajax technical director with then-manager Ronald Koeman. By 2004, the man was viewed as borderline irrelevant for the vast majority of football fans and his stocks were arguably at his lowest point.
Then came Dirk Scheringa. He was the owner of a small side in the Eredivisie, AZ Alkmaar. Van Gaal played there in the mid-80s at the end of his days as a football player, and even coached a couple of games as interim manager in that period, so there was a connection from the past. And Sheringa, an ambitious owner, wanted the club to fight for the highest honors in the league and thought van Gaal was the right man to do so.
Louis van Gaal, after a sabbatical, took the job. It is not exaggerated to say that this was make it or break it for the Dutchman: if he had failed at this club, there was probably no comeback from it. But what happened was one of the highest points in his coaching career.
This is a manager that takes his time to implement his philosophy and to give the players room to develop. Sure, Louis van Gaal is a known disciplinarian and very strict, even borderline rigid, when it comes to applying his rule, but this was a club that felt that hit the jackpot when his hiring and they were willing to give him time. And the rewards were starting to show.
AZ Alkmaar is something else than the big threeWhen compared to the big three of the Eredivisie and Dutch football as a whole, Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, there was certainly a difference of quality and budget when compared to the likes of AZ Alkmaar and other clubs of a similar ilk. In that regard, finishing second in his first season, albeit ten points away from eventual champions PSV Eindhoven, was a massive success and a little taste of things to come.
After failing to qualify to the Champions League via a playoff system that the Eredivisie had at the time, van Gaal decided to cut some of the veterans from the current squad and bet on young talent. This was something very common when it came to the Dutchman: he has always believed in giving young players a chance as he deems their experience in playing a certain role more important than the experience of playing the game for many years. And slowly but surely this proved to be the way for him.
An interesting part about van Gaal's tenure at AZ Alkmaar was the fact that it wasn't an overnight success. It didn't happen with ease and it definitely took a lot of time for a lot of players to adjust to what he was looking for. There were frustrating seasons where the team seemed to be falling short at key times, building up this perception of them being perennial runner-ups, which started to put a bit of pressure on Louis.
AZ Alkmaar became champions of EredivisieThis was a manager that broke his leg during his time coaching the club and still went to the pitch in match day and led his players. This kind of motivation saw its peak in the 2008/09 season where AZ Alkmaar finally reached the Promised Land and won the Eredivisie title for the first time since 1981. It was also the first time that a club that wasn't Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV won the Eredivisie since, you guessed it, AZ Alkmaar in 1981.
As an interesting fact, AZ lost the first two opening games of that season and van Gaal's position seemed to be at jeopardy after a couple of frustrating years with a lot of problems with the media and a lot of spending. But after a shock 1-0 victory over reigning champions PSV, the team started to gel and they ended up winning the league in April of 2009.
After years in the wilderness, Louis van Gaal had returned to success and won a trophy for the first time since 1999. AZ Alkmaar reached their highest echelon in club history and owner Shirenga delivered what he promised to the fans so many years ago. It was a result that everybody at the club really needed.
Afterwards, van Gaal would relish this second youth of sorts and take the Bayern Munich job, helping that club to modernize themselves for the coming years. But it is very important to always highlight his years at AZ Alkmaar as it helped van Gaal to reach a new level in the modern game, and to come back after so many failed stints in the early 2000s.
You cannot understand the modern version of Louis van Gaal without understanding his time as manager of AZ Alkmaar.