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Can Frank de Boer bounce back at Atlanta United after a rocky recent history?

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What worked at Ajax, what failed at Crystal Palace, and what that means for Atlanta United.

Frank de Boer has been named the new manager for Atlanta United, and due to the varying results at his former clubs Ajax, Inter Milan, and Crystal Palace, the coach’s arrival has come with mixed reviews. With a high profile success at Ajax, de Boer was one of the hottest coaching names in European football, even as recently as 2016. However, subpar results at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace have hurt the his reputation and limited his coaching opportunities. While MLS fans and pundits have fallen on both sides of the de Boer argument, the Atlanta United faithful hold onto hope that his time with the Five Stripes mirrors his Ajax success. So, what went right at Ajax, what went wrong at Inter and Palace, and what can we expect from Frank de Boer at Atlanta United?

Success at Ajax

After a playing career highlighted by success at Ajax, Barcelona, and with the Netherlands in two World Cups, Frank de Boer began coaching in the Ajax youth divisions before becoming the first team manager in 2010. Running the 4-3-3 and the “Total Football” style that Johan Cruyff implemented and Ajax has become famous for, de Boer complied a 157-58-47 record in 262 matches. He brought home the hardware as well. In his first season as manager, Ajax returned to prominence by winning its first Dutch championship in seven years — proof that Ajax was far from an established powerhouse when de Boer arrived. He raised the standard. Over the next three seasons, de Boer led Ajax to three more Dutch championships to make it four consecutive Eredivisie titles, something that had not been done in the history of the club. After two seasons of finishing runner-up to PSV, de Boer left Ajax for Italy.

But why was de Boer successful at Ajax? One argument is that the Dutch league isn’t as competitive as the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, etc. However, Ajax’s success under de Boer was still unprecedented, even in the Netherlands. A lot of this is due to the deep culture and playing style of the club. With Ajax, children come into the academy to be discipled in the fluid and attacking 4-3-3 system. The Dutch are kind of famous for this thing. With an entire organization dedicated to these tactics through all age levels, the first team consistently received young players from the academy steeped with years of experience and a deep understanding of the Dutch system. De Boer succeeded at assembling these teams and consistently getting results at a pace of 2.02 goals per game. This type of play isn’t taught or learned overnight, and that level of organizational congruency is incredibly rare in international soccer.

Failure at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace

With the success at Ajax and the players he developed, de Boer had built a great reputation in the soccer world. To no surprise, he started being wooed by larger European Clubs. He took the Inter Milan job in 2016 after the club’s new ownership had a falling-out with the previous coach. With its 2010 Champions League-winning-side a distant memory, de Boer took over a failing Inter team and tried to implement his Ajax brand of soccer. However, the players needed time to settle into the system and de Boer needed to purchase players that could fit his style of play. The Inter ownership was impatient and their revolving coaching-door kept spinning. De Boer was let go after 16 matches. Inter has gone through four other managers since his departure in November of 2016.

After failing at a big club like Inter, de Boer found his opportunities thinning out. So, seven months after leaving the Italian club, he became the manager at struggling Crystal Palace. De Boer’s time at Palace might have been forgettable if not for the embarrassing short length of his tenure. He was even called the “worst manager in the history of the Premier League” by the highly-opinionated Jose Mourinho. Obviously the Palace front office agreed because they fired de Boer after only five games.

Burnley v Crystal Palace - Premier League
Frank de Boer and assistant manager Orlando Trustfull will hope for a successful start than the pair had at Crystal Palace.
Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

But was he really at fault for Palace’s struggles? Before de Boer, Crystal Palace was not some beacon of high-quality soccer. Sam Allardyce, a quintessential Premier League journeyman manager, preceded de Boer with a 9-3-12 record and a defensive-minded system and roster. De Boer, dedicated to the Dutch style of football, attempted to implement it with Big Sam’s roster. This was quite the “square-peg in the round-hole” situation. Palace made an insignificant attempt to give de Boer some system-congruent players through the likes of a very young Jairo Riedewald and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. These acquisitions did not overhaul the personnel to meet the needs of de Boer’s system, but that would be impossible in one window anyway. But after failing to support de Boer with the players or front office structure he needed, they further failed him by not being patient enough to give him time to implement an organizational overhaul, sign players for his system, and train the players on the current roster. De Boer apparently had five games to prove himself.

What Will Happen at Atlanta United?

The better question may be: Upon de Boer’s arrival, is Atlanta United more like Ajax, or more like Inter Milan or Crystal Palace? First and foremost, de Boer is taking over a championship team with arguably the most talented roster in MLS. This is vastly different from the struggling teams he inherited at Inter and Palace. For this reason, the talent discrepancy versus other teams in the league more closely resembles that of Ajax, rather than the struggling clubs he walked into in Italy and England.

Under his tenure, Ajax was, and still is, a “selling club;” that is, they raise players in their system to prominence until they are in high-demand and then sell them to bigger clubs. This is essentially what United is doing with Miguel Almiron. Sign the up-and-comer, let him hone his skills and find success in MLS, then sell him to a European club for a profit. Rinse and repeat. This is what Ajax excels at and what Atlanta United wants to become — to establish a system of play at the academy level, coach the players to get the most out of their talent, showcase them on a big stage, then sell for the sufficiency of the club.

Tactical Consistency?

Tata Martino implemented a 4-3-3 throughout his two-year stint at Atlanta United — although the 3-5-2 became used more during the 2018 season and playoffs. While de Boer will likely implement the same 4-3-3 formation, the tactics within the formation will differ. Tata’s demanded a pressing style with the primary goal of pushing an attack. You can expect de Boer’s team to press, albeit differently, but he will prioritize possession over attack. This does not necessarily mean that you will see a more complacent offense — de Boer’s teams averaged more than two goals a game at Ajax after all — but you may potentially see a more conservative attack. For Atlanta United fans, this could be a scary proposition. Recently, Louis Van Gaal, another Cryuff disciple and former Ajax coach, was accused of playing “boring football” with a team with no attack and too much lateral passing. His high-profile firing came when he was unable to successfully implement the Dutch style at Manchester United.

Regardless, de Boer’s overarching philosophy of soccer, both on the pitch and organizationally, seems to mesh with what Darren Eales has been building since the club’s creation, and for that reason, should comfort the Five Stripes faithful. Furthermore, Eales is going to give de Boer the time in which Inter Milan and Crystal Palace were unwilling. Even the tactical philosophy is already very similar to that which Atlanta already encompasses, but even without having to completely change the organizational tactical style, de Boer will be given an adequate amount of time to make the changes, even if there are early struggles.

But how does Atlanta’s personnel jibe with de Boer’s preferred style? Well, United’s roster is probably more equipped to run the Dutch scheme than what de Boer inherited at Palace or Inter. As he looks around the locker room at the training grounds, he is going to find players that were trained by Tata Martino to press and attack in a 4-3-3.

The Dutch system, specifically under de Boer, needs three mobile defenders with another covering space. United comes equipped with players like Michael Parkhurst, Leandro Gonzalez-Pirez, and Franco Escobar as proven defenders in MLS. Although Parkhurst’s mobility is waning with age, Escobar and LGP have the speed, talent on the ball, and passing ability that few other defenders in MLS possess. The fourth defender will be decided between Brek Shea and George Bello, if not even Mikey Ambrose, throughout the season. Furthermore, the intelligent Jeff Larentowicz could have a huge impact as a roaming defender in de Boer’s 4-3-3 and with de Boer’s system in mind, Larry’s soccer IQ is a huge reason for bringing back the aging veteran in this complex system.

In midfield, de Boer demands two “controlling” midfielders who are tasked with the responsibility to feed the attack-minded forward players. The individual that may excel most in this system is Darlington Nagbe, who is a specialist in possession and is the epitome for what the de Boer seeks in the midfield. Remedi also has the skillset to feed the attack while epitomizing the “holding” aspects of the formation. The third midfielder is a de-facto second striker. This would be the ideal position for Miguel Almiron, but with his pending departure, the position would probably fall to Ezequiel Barco or Julian Gressel, who played more centrally late last season. Barco’s skills fundamentally fit a more central role. As de Boer’s attacking midfielder, his talents and would be a better fit centrally than out on the wing where he struggled last year.

The Dutch system, specifically under de Boer, spreads wide two touchline-hugging wingers. Tito Villabla’s speed and ability to beat defenders off the dribble makes him a quality pick for the right wing, with Julian Gressell another quality option. Yet the most scintillating option may be who could be coming to the left wing. The “worst kept secret” transfer of Pity Martinez — assuming it occurs — would bring in a player with the perfect skillset for de Boer’s winger. Under this system, Pity should get in isolation against defender, using his high-quality dribbling to beat defenders and get shots on goal. Words can’t describe how exciting Pity could be playing at left wing in de Boer’s system.

Finally, de Boer needs one versatile center forward and few strikers in the MLS are more versatile that Josef Martinez. Although his 2018 production will be near impossible to duplicate, Josef could continue to feast in de Boer’s system.

Grand Success, Humiliating Failure, or Something In-between?

Atlanta United is a far better fit for de Boer, at least initially, than Inter Milan or Crystal Palace. However, that doesn’t mean that United is guaranteed to have the successes that he experienced at Ajax. The best-case scenario is that Atlanta will be perennial Supporters’ Shield contenders and will have a comprehensive academy that teaches the Dutch system and raises quality players to be sold for profits. De Boer coaches here for 10 years and retires a Hall of Famer. The worst-case would be a scenario where de Boer’s system never takes and he leaves after a couple of disappointing seasons. The good news is that Atlanta United appears to be more primed for the former. Either way, Atlanta United could have done far worse and probably not much better with the hiring of Frank de Boer. As the pundits will always tell us, time will tell.