What De Boer’s sacking tells us about modern football
It is no news by now to English football followers that Crystal Palace have sacked Frank De Boer after just 77 days of tenure.
De Boer, 47, failed to earn a single point and score a goal in his four matches in charge of the South Londoners.
The decision seemed quite harsh, considering the fact that Crystal Palace hadn’t actually deserved to lose against Burnley last Sunday, but an ill-fated back pass from Lee Chung-Yong into the path of Chris Wood proved to be their doom.
The saga behind the sacking though is a story of impatience, hypocrisy and stubbornness.
But first, let’s take a look at how it all started.
De Boer’s appointment came around the end of June 2017: the resignation of Sam Allardyce had forced the board lead by chairman Steve Parish to search around themselves. After reportedly contacting Sean Dyche, their final choice fell on the Dutchman.
Both club and manager set themselves high bars right from the start: for Parish in particular, De Boer’s appointment was a way to try and transform Palace into a solid Premier League performer rather than a constant figure in the relegation battle.
“I want a team where the fans are excited to come to our games, to see a team that wants to win and wants to fight for every minute,” said De Boer of his vision for the club. “ That’s always the starting point for me. [At Ajax] it’s also in our DNA to try and play technical football and dominate. When you do that and do that well it’s a plus, it’s attractive and it looks nice”.
“We are not naive. I want to play dominant when we can be dominant. But we want to dominate with and without the ball. You can be dominant without the ball by trying to move the opposition where you want them to go.
“I was attracted by the opportunity of managing in the Premier League. This is a club that can still go further and further. Every English club in the Premier League has money so there is the possibility to do something. There is a lot of perspective for this club to be a solid Premier League club.”
“There were 37 managers on the shortlist,” Parish said. “I talked to all the potential managers and said: we need an evolution over a period of time. We’ve been in the bottom three two seasons in a row for home form, sooner or later that’s going to catch up with us. Frank’s No1 brief is to reduce the anxiety for me and the supporters.
“From the start when I walked into the club we developed a certain style of play; partly because it’s part of the DNA of the club and frankly because it’s less expensive. If you want to play on the break in the Championship it’s less expensive than if you want a lot of technical midfielders. That stuck with us a little bit”.
He added: “I think we’ve got players who are technically better than that now but it’s also not a sustainable model. We can all point to Leicester winning the league doing it but we all know that was a bit of an anomaly. This year when I watched Swansea and us, I thought the way Swansea played gave them a higher percentage chance of getting a result”.
The transfer session
When a new manager is appointed, you’d normally expect him to make some transfer requests, especially if he is looking forward to implement a new system.
Surprisingly only two permanent signings were made this summer: Jaïro Riedewald and Mamadou Sakho, with the latter being more of a player the club had wanted to buy rather than De Boer actually.
Apart from these, loanees Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were the only other players who joined the club this summer.
Nevertheless, De Boer went on with his plan this summer as he tried to implement a 3-4-3 Ajax-inspired team.
The style of play
Throughout most of his coaching years at Ajax, De Boer had used a 4-3-3 formation which was inspired by the principles of positional play he had learnt from Cruyff and Van Gaal: when the full backs pushed up, it was the defensive midfielder who dropped in between the centre backs to balance the team shape. His Ajax were a possession-based team: retaining the ball and positional fluidity to create passing triangles were key elements in their tactical identity. But even then problems had popped up: Ajax lacked verticality, De Boer looked very short of ideas and wasn’t particularly keen on adapting during games and in general -this, it must be said, is probably his biggest problem as a coach.
At Palace, the midfield duo of Jason Puncheon and Luka Milivojević seemed dysfunctional: the former is essentially an attacking midfielder; the latter instead is a defensive midfielder who can also play as a centre back (a role in which De Boer had tried him during preseason).
The wing backs though, mainly Joel Ward, weren’t particularly good at guaranteeing constant width in order for Zaha and Loftus-Cheek to drift into the half-spaces.
Palace’s players did create passing triangles, but rather than switching play through the midfield and progress with the ball, there were far too many horizontal backpasses: this was very reminiscent of Van Gaal’s Manchester United.
Palace’s best spells of play came in the opposite way they should have: using width, crosses and long balls in a more traditional style of play, just as Sam Allardyce had instructed them to earlier on.
De Boer seemed to have started sorting out the problems after switching to a more balanced 4-3-3 system, but the defeat at Turf Moor proved itself fatal.
What this story tells us
From recent news that came out earlier this week, it seems like the players didn’t fancy De Boer’s showing off in training: the club did absolutely nothing about this issue and never backed their coach or defended his position. The sacking is very unfortunate and quite contradictory: Parish earlier on talked about an evolution over a period of time, yet they have just sacked De Boer after four games, madness!
Indeed, the fact that they didn’t score any goal under De Boer’s tenure probably gave the board a feeling that the plan had already failed: for such a project you need time and patience; the Eagles wanted it the easy way, the “Leicester way”.
After years of battling in the lower side of the table to escape relegation, they were seeking to finally become a household name in the league: expectations were high, too high. Once the results didn’t come they started panicking, fearing of another year of suffering and last-gasp matches during the following spring.
They openly talked about long term commitments (which is quite ironic given the fact that under Parish they have changed 7 managers in 7 years) and yet subsequently announced Roy Hodgson as their new coach -a man who is still mocked in England for the national team’s 2016 Euros disgraceful performance against Iceland and he is his seventies. Not exactly the ideal manager for a long term project.
In the end, it was a failure right from the start: for the board and Parish in choosing De Boer, their first non-British permanent coach, without guaranteeing him adequate support; for De Boer himself, who still needed to recover from the wounds of his previous spell at Inter (where he lasted 85 days) and improve in various tactical aspects, and for the club, whose ambition is -at the moment- just a question of wishes and hopes rather than facts and actions.
There is still a long way to go for the south Londoners: short term-ism can’t always be the permanent solution.
By: Charles Onwuakpa
Photo: Ajax Action Images via Reuters