When Southampton host Manchester United in the Premier League on Monday evening, it won’t just be with third place at stake. Quite apart from what will happen on the pitch, the two managers will undoubtedly have their mind on another matter. This won’t be the first time Louis van Gaal and Ronald Koeman lock horns. The two Dutchmen have been in battle before, and it’s safe to say it didn’t end without bloodshed.
Having previously worked together at Barcelona, where Van Gaal was coach and Koeman his assistant, the pair linked up again in 2004, at Dutch giants Ajax. At first, the arrangement seemed clear: Koeman was manager, Van Gaal was director of football. This meant Koeman had to handle all matters connected to the first team, while Van Gaal had to interact with scouts and attract new players. That way, Koeman could to focus on matches without having to worry about transfers.
However, the now Manchester United manager has always been a bit of a control freak, and his stint as director of football at Ajax was no different. Almost immediately, Van Gaal started meddling with Koeman’s business and interfering with the first team. These interferences soon started to get on the manager’s nerves.
But that wasn’t all. Things went from bad to worse when Van Gaal started arranging meetings with Koeman to discuss tactics. Again, Koeman felt like Van Gaal was undermining his authority.
Then there was the matter of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The star striker, who had been brought in by Van Gaal’s predecessor, had made a name for himself by tearing up the Dutch Eredivisie for Ajax. He also made a big impression during Ajax’s Champions League campaigns, so in the summer of 2004, it was obvious big clubs were going to make bids for him. Koeman, however, was determined to hold on to the Swedish star.
Van Gaal seemed to think otherwise, and on transfer deadline day the director of football accepted a bid from Juventus. Zlatan was off, and because the transfer window was about to shut, Koeman had no time to buy a replacement, and was livid.
If there was one match this season for which Koeman would have wished to have a full-strength team, it is probably this one, not merely for personal reasons but also because defeats in their last two matches make this a particularly important game for Southampton.
The club have already defied expectations this season by making a strong start to the campaign despite a summer of high player turnover, now they must do so again. Losses to Manchester City and Arsenal in their last two outings, following earlier reverses to Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, increased many people’s suspicion that Southampton’s good start was down to a favourable fixture list. A victory over United would help prove, to themselves as much as anyone else, that Saints really do have enough quality to sustain their place in the upper reaches of the table.