The incredible XI of players handed their senior debuts by Louis van Gaal
Louis van Gaal managed some of the biggest clubs in the world during his career – and he helped develop some wonderful young players along the way.
Van Gaal worked with some of the most successful players in history during his time in charge of Ajax, Barcelona, AZ, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, also helping the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final in 2014.
The legendary tactician retired following his leadership of the Dutch squad at Qatar 2022, and his treatment for prostate cancer during the qualifiers for the tournament, but his reputation will live on for decades.
Or at least he was meant to retire. After Ajax hit the panic button and officially accepted crisis mode, the legendary Dutchman took job as an advisor to the Ajax Supervisory Board on footballing matters. He simply can’t stop.
We’ve put together a team of players handed their senior debuts by the Dutchman, arranged in a pretty impressive 4-4-2.
GK: Victor Valdes
Valdes’ career came full circle when he was reunited with Van Gaal at Manchester United in 2015, 13 years after being handed his Barcelona debut by the Dutchman in a Champions League qualifier against Legia Warsaw.
But their relationship turned sour at Old Trafford after the goalkeeper was banished from the first team following accusations he refused to play in an Under-21 game.
Valdes, however, still retains a great deal of affection for Van Gaal, as he told Sky Sports upon his move to Middlesbrough in 2016: “I don’t have any bad words for Van Gaal or Manchester United.
“They helped me through my injury and the manager gave me my chance as a footballer at Barcelona and then again at United.
“He’s like a father figure to me. I don’t want to remember the last six months in a bad way – for me he is in the top. We are still friends and there is no problem between us.”
Van Gaal e Valdés, no Barcelona. pic.twitter.com/syy9boGjO9
— Paixão Culé (@paixaocule) December 22, 2014
RB: Mario Melchiot
He’s far from the most glamorous name on this list, but Melchiot still enjoyed an impressive career in which he won trophies with Ajax and Chelsea.
Writing on his own website in 2016, Melchiot noted: “Van Gaal loves it when he finds young talent, and he always gives the youth a chance.
“When that talent works hard to get better he rewards them with playing time, so everyone is a winner.”
CB: Carles Puyol
One of a number of Barcelona icons first blooded by Van Gaal, Puyol had almost left the Nou Camp before he had broken into the first team after Malaga had an offer accepted for the defender, who rejected the move after seeing Xavi handed his debut.
He was eventually given his chance in a 2-0 win at Real Valladolid in 1999 and would go on to captain the club to unprecedented success.
Puyol told Sport that Van Gaal has his “eternal thanks” for that initial opportunity, although one of their earliest meetings was somewhat awkward, as the Dutchman asked the shaggy-haired youngster: “What’s your problem, can’t you afford the money for a haircut?”
“I said nothing,” Puyol remembered, “and to this day have kept my hair as is.”
🗣 Louis Van Gaal: "It is always important that in a club there are depository people of the team's culture. Naturally, Messi is very important, but so are Xavi, Iniesta, Valdés and Puyol. A team cannot have a better captain than Puyol." [tv3] pic.twitter.com/1J2ivb7G7V
— Barça Insider (@theBarcaInsider) October 14, 2019
CB: Holger Badstuber
Despite winning a host of honours, including five Bundesliga titles and a Champions League crown, it could be argued Badstuber never fulfilled his potential due to some pretty hideous misfortune with injuries.
The defender was handed his senior debut at Bayern Munich on the opening day of the 2009-10 season but, as is already becoming a theme, endured a turbulent relationship with Van Gaal.
Van Gaal was not afraid to publicly criticise the youngster, who often found himself in and out of the Bayern starting XI.
Indeed, Badstuber told German outlet Kicker in 2018: “I could not answer Louis van Gaal, because I knew: he knows better than me, even if in my head I didn’t understand.
“It was now and then violent and hard to swallow. That hardened me. I shut up and continued. Apparently, that was the right decision from me, because Louis van Gaal was a great supporter of me in retrospect.”
LB: David Alaba
Alaba became Bayern Munich’s youngest-ever player when he was handed his debut by Van Gaal at the age of 17, and he went on to provide an assist for Franck Ribery with just his second touch in a German Cup win over Greuther Furth.
In 2018, Van Gaal cited Alaba as one of the reasons he was sacked by Bayern Munich, claiming the Austrian’s mistake in a 1-1 draw with Nuremberg ultimately led to his dismissal.
It’s fair to say Alaba was slightly bemused by such suggestions, given he was on loan at Hoffenheim at the time of the fixture.
A key part of Bayern’s all-time most successful era and now a title-winner with Real Madrid, there can be no questioning Alaba’s status as a modern-day great.
RW: Clarence Seedorf
Another player to become their club’s youngest ever player under Van Gaal, Seedorf made his Ajax debut as a 16-year-old and would go on to win two titles and the Champions League at the club, starting out initially on the right wing.
Like many of Van Gaal’s former players, Seedorf has both praised and criticised the manager, telling journalist Hugo Borst for a biography of the Dutchman: “The man I had come to know as a man of his word turned out to be something else entirely.
“Because of the way he treats people, he has lost all credibility in my eyes.”
Van Gaal’s legacy at Barcelona really is a thing to behold, although Xavi was initially unconvinced by the manager.
“After two days of training under him I thought, ‘Who is this idiot?’” he told The Guardian in 2015. “After a week, I thought, ‘He’s right.’ He’ll always be in my heart, Louis van Gaal.”
The Spanish icon added: “He’s honest, methodical and a real perfectionist. He’s very demanding, he’s strict and he wants to achieve the highest levels possible. He’s a tough fighter, yet he put trust into me when I was 17 and 18 years old.”
Van Gaal’s legacy at the Camp Nou can be seen with the results Xavi is delivering now. Barcelona’s boss will always cite Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola as his idols – but Van Gaal’s influence shouldn’t be forgotten.
CM: Edgar Davids
One of Van Gaal’s earliest success stories, Davids broke into Ajax’s first team just as LVG took over as manager.
And it was Van Gaal who converted Davids from a left winger to a central midfielder, coining the player’s nickname, ‘the Pitbull’.
LW: Andres Iniesta
Iniesta worked under the likes of Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque throughout his illustrious career but named Van Gaal, who handed the midfielder his Barcelona debut in 2002, “my most important manager” in 2018.
And Van Gaal returned the compliment by penning an open letter to Marca in homage to the little magician.
“Many people told me that the two (Xavi and Iniesta) were the same, but I thought that Iniesta had more quality because tactically, he was incredible,” he wrote.
“He could see things before anyone else and knew exactly what to do in small spaces. According to the different situations, he always made very good decisions and was very fast with his passing.
“You see [Lionel] Messi now and he is also a very fast player, but Andres was different. He has a great ability to dribble like Leo but in small spaces, he had more quality and speed of execution.”
Van Gaal added: “I’m very glad that Iniesta has had this brilliant career. Not only because he is a great player but because he is an excellent human being. That is something which, in the world of football today, is not easy.”
ST: Patrick Kluivert
While Van Gaal failed to stick around at Barcelona to truly reap the rewards of blooding the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, he certainly got plenty out of Kluivert.
The forward scored on his debut as an 18-year-old in the 1994 Super Cup victory against Feyenoord, top-scored as Ajax went unbeaten in the league and ended his first senior campaign by scoring the winner in the Champions League final.
Kluivert and Van Gaal were reunited at Barcelona, where the forward’s partnership with Rivaldo fired the side to the title, and they also worked together on the Dutch coaching staff at the 2014 World Cup.
Despite Kluivert telling the Daily Mail he enjoys a “close bond” with Van Gaal, there have still been moments when they haven’t seen eye to eye.
While at Barcelona, Van Gaal said Kluivert and Rivaldo would be “forgiven but not forgotten” after questioning his man management, while reports during the 2014 World Cup suggested the manager was unhappy with his coach for getting into €20,000 of debt to Wesley Sneijder by playing poker with the squad.
ST: Marcus Rashford
Injuries may have forced his hand, but Van Gaal perhaps does not receive enough credit for his willingness to hand first-team opportunities to young players at Manchester United.
Rashford is the most notable example given the electric start he made to life in senior football and Van Gaal went on to compare Rashford’s impact to that of Kluivert at Ajax.
And now Rashford is one of the hottest strikers in Europe (on his good days). One of Van Gaal’s undoubted success stories.