De Boer: The Dutch master to lead Everton's renaissance?

By Lyndon Lloyd 23/05/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]

The timing was merely coincidental but Evertonians couldn't help but notice that Frank de Boer's announcement that he would be leaving Ajax after six years in charge came at the same time as the axe fell on Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park.

It was four days after his agent, Guido Albers, had expressed how his client would love to manage a club like Everton and De Boer's twin brother Ronald wasted no time in backing that up by telling Sky Sports that Frank would be perfect for the role as the Toffees boss. The bookies, their odds following the news in the absence of any hard information, immediately installed the Dutchman as favourite and he has remained among the leading candidates even while others have been added to the equation.

It's likely that De Boer would have been one of the main men linked with Everton whether he had decided to call time on his tenure at Ajax or not. The 46-year-old has been in the mix for at least three managerial vacancies in the Premier League in recent years, most notably at Liverpool (whom he turned down), Tottenham (who opted for Mauricio Pochettino's experience in England) and Newcastle United (who chose Steve McClaren) and he remains one of the most highly-regarded young managers yet to be tested in Europe's biggest leagues.

As has already been noted, footballing pedigrees don't come much better. He was capped 112 times by the Netherlands between 1990 and 2004 and spent 10 years as a player at Ajax Amsterdam during which time they won the Champions League for the last time to date, before moving on to Barcelona where he also played with his brother, Ronald, making close to 150 appearances.

A leader on the pitch during his playing days like his compatriot Ronald Koeman, management was seen as a natural next step and De Boer cut his teeth as assistant manager to Bert van Marwijk at the 2010 World Cup before taking charge at in Ajax that year in a time of turmoil at the club. Barely 40 at the time, he was ushered in to replace Martin Jol as part of the late Johan Cruyff's attempts to revive his beloved club which he felt had become unrecognisable from the one rebuilt by Rinus Michels.

De Godenzonen had not won the Eredivisie for seven years prior to De Boer's arrival but he steered them to the title in his first season and for the next three seasons after that, equalling a Dutch league record. That was despite what has been described as civil war raging off the pitch as Cruyff battled entrenched elements on the Ajax board and clashed with Louis van Gaal who had been installed as sporting director without his approval in 2011 but whose appointment was later nullified, leaving Cruyff to continue his efforts at reforming the club.

That included the hiring of former Ajax, Holland and Arsenal winger Marc Overmars as director of football in 2012 and, with Dutch teams now struggling to compete on Europe's new financial landscape, focus was trained on the club's youth academy and targeted recruitment of foreign players with big future potential and sell-on fees to match.

That hasn't, as yet, translated to making a mark on the European stage again as Ajax have continued to struggle in the Champions League despite success over the likes of Barcelona in recent years. As Ryan Ferguson noted for These Football Times, "as a consequence of constant upheaval due to lack of financial clout, the modern day Ajax is getting younger, as the ultimate goal [of winning a European trophy] moves further away. In the past five seasons, the average ages of Ajax's oldest lineup has fallen every year, from 26.1 in 2011-12 to 23.6 this campaign."

Nevertheless, the club has finished in the top two in the Eredivisie for the past six seasons under De Boer and yielded those four championships. (In truth, it should have been five but they dropped vital points at home to Utrecht in the run-in and would have won their title-decider at De Graafschap on the final day were it not for a goal wrongly chalked off for offside and Václav Černý missing an open goal that would have put them 2-0 up in that match.)

That record (which includes a win percentage of over 60%), in combination with him being steeped in the rich and world-renowned traditions of Dutch football and that of Ajax, not to mention his experience playing for Barcelona, is part of De Boer's appeal and what makes him such an exciting prospect for when he makes the step up to one of the Continent's biggest leagues.

At their best, his Ajax side was a joy to watch. De Boer's ethos is based on the passing and possession football adhered to by his former teams and the Dutch national side with a predominantly 4-3-3 formation and positional interchange by players. On that he layered on the ability to mix it up by playing the ball out from defence and then playing rapidly through midfield to either hit the forwards quickly or use overlapping fullbacks and wingers to deliver the ball from wide areas. Where Martinez and Manuel Pellegrini have been criticised for relying too heavily on individuals, De Boer has built a side where the whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts and teamwork is paramount.

Frank de Boer at Old Trafford during a Europa League Round of 32 fixture

The library of highlight videos of the past couple of seasons available online shows that his teams press well from the front, get good numbers supporting attacks, break quickly and deploy neat interchanges on the edge of the box to unlock defences. Ajax have deployed a range of set-piece routines and short corners, take plenty of shots from distance and De Boer has a clear affinity for skilful players like former star Christian Eriksen and current wing wizard Amin Younes.

The last two seasons in which the Amsterdam club have missed out on the title to rivals PSV has led to mounting frustration with De Boer, however, with many of the criticisms of his management echoing those levelled by Evertonians at Roberto Martinez. Indeed, while two years ago he was being lauded for assembling a young, well-oiled team and leading them to a fourth-successive championship, some were questioning recently whether he now was in danger of eroding his reputation by stagnating at Ajax.

Petrer McVitie of wrote this season that Ajax's form was "typical of the coach this season — he is completely unwilling to acknowledge the failings of his strategy and his team. He has been relying on the same tactical tweaks over the last five years. He needs to find a new way to inject a fresh style and strategy into his team and for the last year and a half he has failed miserably."

Meanwhile, Kevin Suave of AjaxDaily says: "Frank de Boer has done a good job as manager but he's too much of a control freak. Players are assigned way too many tasks, ruining the creativity and flair and therefore not being able to play the authentic Ajax 4-3-3 attacking style."

De Boer's attempts to reclaim the Eredivisie title haven't been without their mitigating factors, though, and the boardroom upheaval has still not been resolved. As Erik Dols wrote on these pages earlier this month, there is a feeling that he "has taken Ajax as far as anyone could have done in the last six years domestically."

That's a sentiment echoed by Michael Bell at Football Oranje who feels that De Boer's relative failures over the past two years have been a combination of off-the-field instability, financial pressures, a necessary over-reliance on youth and the Hoorn-born manager's admittedly declining energy for the job.

"Off the field, Ajax have been a mess this season," Bell says, "with Wim Jonk leaving as U19 coach and Johan Cruyff cutting all ties to the club before his death because he was unhappy at the way it was being run. For De Boer you have to look at the side he took over when taking charge which had Suarez, De Jong, Alderweireld and Vertonghen and over the past few years he has had to put all his faith in academy products and poor signings like Duarte, Sinkgraven, Sana etc. The quality in the Ajax squad hasn't been great while PSV have managed to get the right blend of talent and experience."

Were De Boer to be appointed as Martinez's successor at Everton, he would be walking into a club with far more settled situation in the boardroom and with much bigger financial clout so the key concern for supporters would rest on his coaching abilities and, depending on whether or not a director of football is installed at Goodison Park, what sort of players he would want to attract.

Those complaints about De Boer's intransigence will be of concern to many Blues, particularly after two years of Martinez's stubbornness but while Bell acknowledges that Frank can be a set his ways, he also credits him with being willing to experiment with formations, even if he agrees that staleness has crept in and that he is ripe for a new challenge. He also cites De Boer's history as a centre half as being central to the fact that Ajax usually have the strongest defence in the league, something that will be particularly appealing to Everton fans.

"In terms of De Boer's failures, he has tried to switch up his tactics at certain points this season, and it's failed," Bell continues. "De Boer is an excellent coach but the impression is that everything has gone a bit stale recently and it's definitely time for him to go so someone else can come in.

"In some ways [he] is stuck in his ways, and over the past few years it's become apparent that Ajax struggle to break down well-organised defences. [They] can be a very frustrating team to watch at times, much like the Dutch national team at the moment. On their day they move the ball quickly and carve teams apart. However when they face a pressing side that has an organised defence they look lost and without clues on how to break them down.

"However, he has always tried to switch things up whether it be tactically or through personnel changes. Players are constantly played in different positions — i.e Schone on the wing or up front; Fischer on the left or up front; Milik at No.10, El Ghazi on the right; left and up front or even centre back van der Hoorn as a battering ram up front — [but] most of these haven't worked and De Boer's defiance and refusal to accept some of the blame does get on the fans' nerves. 

"He definitely hasn't been helped by the club's board. They are so tight with money and problem areas on the pitch haven't been sorted. They are a bit like Newcastle in that they will only pay money for a player that has re-sell value i.e Sinkgraven/Milik." 

When all is said and done, of course, every managerial appointment carries varying degrees of risk. Sceptics of De Boer will point to the comparatively weaker Dutch league which has become something of a two-club league lately and compare it — harshly — with Scotland. And yet Koeman, perhaps the most favoured of the candidates to replace Martinez among Everton fans, was beaten to the title by De Boer between 2011 and 2014 and was credited by some observers with leaving Valencia in "a mess" in 2008 with a league win percentage of just 18%.

Like Pochettino, another untried foreign coach made good in England, Koeman has clearly demonstrated his prowess in the Premier League with Southampton over the past two seasons and reportedly has his eyes on bigger prizes like the Arsenal job. But he arrived in England with a similar pedigree and playing history to De Boer and Frank has never enjoyed the luxury of being able to spend to assemble a team capable of challenging the best.

As Bell concludes, "De Boer's lack of Premier League experience shouldn't be a problem and I think he would do well in the Premier League. He was excellent for Ajax in his first few years in charge and deserves a chance at a foreign club and at one that will allow him to spend a bit of money.

"De Boer is a passionate coach and I think Everton fans would like him for that. If he doesn't like something he sees he is very animated in the touchline."

He will undoubtedly get his opportunity to try his hand at a bigger job in the near future, perhaps at manager-less Valencia or Everton, and it would seem, based on the relative success of Dutch coaches in the Premier League, that the Blues could do a lot worse than De Boer, particularly if their reported approach for Koeman fails.

Where the elder Dutchman has been something of a nomad since taking his first full-time managerial role at Vitesse in 2001, De Boer seems — although there's little base this on apart from his longevity in Amsterdam and his proven ability to bring through young players — more like the type to stay and build a team over a period of years. Whether he brings the likes of Jaap Stam and Dennis Bergkamp with him or not (it seems unlikely on either count), that kind of youthful energy coupled with his rich footballing pedigree and philosophy — described as a blend of "Cruyff's individualism and Van Gaal's universalism" — could make him the bold, forward-looking appointment eager to try his hand in new surroundings that Everton need for a new era.

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