Van Gaal takes charge of Man United
LOS ANGELES -- A slicker operator would have batted the question away in a fog of PR bluff.
Twenty-four hours ahead of his first match as Manchester United manager -- a friendly against Los Angeles Galaxy in the Rose Bowl -- Louis van Gaal gave his first regular pre-match news conference. He'll rack up more than 40 this season, depending on how he performs as United manager, and if this one in Hollywood was anything to go by, they look set to provide box office material.
Two of his players, new signings Ander Herrera and Luke Shaw, had already answered a couple of questions each. Shaw's responses were standard fare for a 19-year-old. Sample: "Personally, I think United is the biggest club in the world and the one that will push me to my best and improve my game as long as I am here."
Meanwhile, less than a month after moving to the club from Athletic Bilbao, Herrera answered in English, though he had a translator on hand for any tricky phrases. The questions were asked in good faith, but when he was asked to explain the intricacies of a failed move to United nearly a year ago, the Basque was clear.
"I don't want to talk about the past, just the future," he said firmly. "I am happy to be here and don't want to talk about 12 months ago."
Herrera is bright, and he didn't want to cause a storm in Bilbao, the city where he was born, ahead of his first United match.
When his manager spoke, though, maybe a nuance was lost in translation, but Van Gaal was explicit when answering questions. Asked whether United's commercial commitments impinged on his preparation -- and if the whole tour could be seen as a commercial commitment -- the Dutchman replied:
"More or less. We have to prepare the season and when you have commercial activities and dreadful distances, having to fly a lot and the jet lag, it is not very positive for a good preparation."
The journalists present knew that they had their line.
"The tour was already arranged, and I shall adapt and United will do everything to apply to my rules, but I have said that already," Van Gaal continued.
He wasn't sending a coded message, but being honest. Pep Guardiola made it clear that he wasn't a fan of long distance pre-season tours while at Barcelona, but his paymasters insisted they were essential to the club's bottom line. The money generated helped pay the players' wages so tours continued. If Van Gaal has his way -- and it looks like he will -- next year's pre-season trip will be shorter than the current one, which lasts three weeks.
"Yes, I hope that [it is shorter], but they have already said that to me and I am very confident that it shall be."
Most United fans are not too concerned about where their club play in pre-season. They like the team to be well prepared but, before winning the 2008 European Cup, United played warm-up games in Asia and later had a midseason friendly in Saudi Arabia.
In July 2008, they played in South Africa and Nigeria and, in December of that year, went to Japan for the Club World Cup. The players were jet-lagged but still crowned world champions and later retained the Premier League.
The travel doesn't make a huge difference, and United are unlikely to stop doing long tours in the markets they court. Besides, there are advantages to playing in the States. The training facilities are excellent and the players enjoy relative anonymity, though a crowd of 80,000 is expected tonight in the venue which staged the 1994 World Cup final.
A couple of thousand watched a training session last night, when Van Gaal huffed and hollered at his players as they underwent shooting practice.
"I have to say that it has been fantastic," he said of his players' attitude. "Maybe you think every coach will say that when they are new, but I mean it. The players are very anxious to do what I say and follow the instructions of my assistants.
"The focus of what I have seen in training sessions is top level, but we have to see if the performances are also top-level."
Van Gaal is a serious, strong-willed man driven to get his team winning football matches. Of course, he may have been huffing at the Los Angeles traffic, which made him have to apologise for being late for a news conference for the first time in his career.
His boss, Ed Woodward, returned to England from Los Angeles on Tuesday, ostensibly on "normal business" -- though he was scheduled to stay in America. He's learning, too. A year ago, he was subject to stories that he flew back from Australia to do "urgent transfer negotiations," though he never said that.
Woodward met British journalists Monday and was open with them. He told them that he keeps a photo of the scoreboard from last season's 2-0 defeat at Olympiakos as a reminder that the club cannot sink so low again. That was the nadir of the David Moyes reign, the match which started with patient home and away fans singing their manager's name and ended with them arguing with each other about him.
United had to re-assess their transfer targets after Moyes' departure, but they stuck with Herrera and Shaw and hope to add more players, though Van Gaal said: "At this moment, I cannot say anything about the squad and additions. I want to learn about my players and get to know them. When I am the coach and when I give the orders to my players to play a certain way, I want to see how they perform.
"That is why I cannot answer this question just now. I want to give all players the chance to show themselves under my guidance."
Woodward has said there's no reason United can't break the world transfer record and that Van Gaal is free to go for big-name players. Talk is one thing, but United's current targets are not going to come close to the breaking Gareth Bale's fee. That's if the club can pry Mats Hummels away from Borussia Dortmund, Daley Blind from Ajax, Thomas Vermaelen from Arsenal and Stefan de Vrij from Feyenoord. Following the departures of defenders Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra and Rio Ferdinand, strengthening the defence is viewed as a priority.
Tonight, the players already at United will have a chance to impress. If they fail, not all of them will have too many more.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.