Frank de Boer – A view from the Continent

By Erik Dols 12/05/2016  0 Comments  [Jump to last]
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Speculation is growing about Frank de Boer becoming the successor of Martinez at our club. Most reactions on ToffeeWeb seem to see this as a positive move, the main flaw mentioned by members is that he has no Premier League/big league experience and that anyone could win the Eredivisie at Ajax. Steve McClaren won it with a smaller club!

Let me add a view from the Continent to the equation. First of all, I'd like to address the last two things said. Bear with me, I need to sketch a background of Dutch football in the last decades.

In the mid-2000s, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven were dominating the Dutch League. In fact, they divided the first nine titles of the new millennium between them and on only three occasions was the runner up not the other team. In Europe, in the mid-2000s, PSV got into the last 16 of the Champions League three times and Ajax twice. At that time, it seemed virtually impossible for other Dutch clubs – with the possible exception of the sleeping giant Feyenoord – to get between those clubs. The steady Champions League income made sure PSV and Ajax could keep buying better players than any other Dutch team.

But as these things go, near the end of the decade both clubs got into organizational turmoil. I will spare you the details but Ajax underwent a revolution that split the people of the club into two parties, a split that remains until this day. PSV had other problems in the boardroom, to put it simply: they appointed the wrong board members. At the same time that this started to happen, three Dutch clubs tried to buy their way towards the Eredivisie title. AZ, bankrolled by a bank owner, FC Twente, seemingly being a very well run club, and Feyenoord, trying to loan their way into the Champions League.

Feyenoord failed miserably and are to this day crippled by repaying their debts. AZ was the first one with success, notorious for paying ridiculous wages they clinched the title under Louis van Gaal in 2009. But just a few months later, the bank that provided the money went bankrupt and within two seasons all high profile players were gone. The next season, Ajax were close to winning the title but got pipped by one point by FC Twente, managed by a certain Steve McClaren. Twente, like AZ, was getting a name as a club that paid very high wages.

At that time, Twente were touted as the best run club in the Netherlands. Now, 6 years later, FC Twente is awaiting the Dutch FA's decision if they can keep their license. A few months back, the site footballleaks – the one that got Platini suspended – leaked all kinds of documents of illegal activities by FC Twente. UEFA banned them from playing in Europe for the foreseeable future and it could be they have to play at amateur level next season – if the club still exists that is. So in hindsight, McClaren got his title illegally. Be that as it may, the next season, the first of De Boer, Twente was still arguably the strongest club in the Netherlands. But De Boer managed to win the title while Ajax were in big turmoil.

The next season, board members of Ajax sued each other, the whole club was divided between a pro-Cruijff and an anti-Cruijff camp, but again De Boer clinched the title, despite football never being at the forefront of the club. One of the consequences was that the club did not spend much money on new players, despite selling their best ones for tens of millions every year. Fast forward: De Boer won four titles in the last six years with a club deeply being divided. He managed to stay above the discussion and was never pulled into one of the parties. The last two seasons Ajax finished second. This was mainly driven by PSV getting the right people in the right places and being prepared to get the check book out for good players. Frank de Boer is only the second manager ever to win four consecutive Dutch league titles. It is not as easy as perceived. The main opinion is that result-wise, De Boer has taken Ajax as far as anyone could have done in the last six years domestically.

Now, this was a long article in which I tried to explain why 1. "Steve McClaren won it!" should never be used again relating to the Dutch league and 2. Despite it being just the Dutch league, De Boer still did a brilliant job.

Now, the focus here has been on results and I will continue that a little bit further, but now to the disadvantage of De Boer.

The other Sunday, the Dutch league was decided. Before kick-off, Ajax was in first place and only needed a win. They had to play a team for whom the match did not make any difference – they would finish 17th anyway. The nerves got the better of Ajax and they managed to throw the title away. To me, this sounds very much like a thing that (modern day) Everton could do. Ajax would win this match 9 out of 10 times played but when it really mattered, they weren't up for it. Another result-based opinion is to be found in Europe. De Boer's record in Europe is abysmal. For a club of the stature of Ajax, just take a look which teams threw them out of Europe in the last six years. In chronological order: Spartak Moscow, Man Utd, Steaua Bucarest, Red Bull Salzburg, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk and Molde FK. I can tell you that with the exception of Man Utd, Ajax considers themselves a lot better team than all clubs mentioned. There was very much discontent about this.

The Dutch cup, arguably a competition that does not really matter for Ajax as they will qualify for (qualifying rounds) of the Champions League every year through the league, sees a similar pattern. De Boer did not win it once, while Ajax is a club being used to win it at least every three years. And this is a thing that perhaps worries me the most: despite De Boer being a winner through and through, he seems unable to get this mentality in his team. On the contrary, in cup tournaments, be it Europe or domestically, Ajax was eliminated by lesser opponents almost every single season under his watch, and in the league they did not win their championship match. Ajax under De Boer are notorious flunkers. That is not something I want at Everton. I want silverware.

So that's the results-side of De Boer as a manager. Roberto Martinez got stick for the playing style as well. In Martinez's first season we played exciting and attacking football, creating loads of chances and hardly giving anything away at the back. But somewhere along the line this changed into playing the ball around in defence endlessly, followed by unnecessary loss of possession, clumsy mistakes at the back and terrible defending at set pieces, corners and crosses. Most people anticipate De Boer, with a backroom staff of amongst others Stam and Bergkamp, would have a ruthless touch in defence and to play beautiful attacking football. Well… When De Boer won his first two titles, the results covered the cracks and nobody complained about the sometimes rather dull playing style.

With the third title, resentment about the playing style got bigger and bigger. And the fourth title was seen by many people as being un-Ajax. Ajax just hogged possession at the back. No creativity up front and reliance on one or two flashes of brilliance from an individual or a goal from a set piece was their style. At Ajax, this nearly lead to a revolt and De Boer tried to change the style of play accordingly. He did not succeed, as the level of play hardly improved and the results dropped, leading to the title going to PSV.

Last season, same story. Defensively his team plays as a tight unit and hardly give anything away. In both the Eredivisie and Europe Ajax averages about one goal against (slightly below that in the Eredivisie – as this competition is known for its open play and rain of goals, quite an achievement – and slightly above it in Europe, this with playing Champions League football against Real Madrid, Barcelona etc.).

So basically, apart from the leaking of goals we had under Martinez, the playing style of Ajax under De Boer was often perceived by Ajax-fans as we perceived Everton under Martinez in the last two seasons…

Positive: Ajax has a great youth set-up and De Boer is not afraid to give youngsters a chance. He should be able to bring some talents from our youth ranks to the first squad.

Negative: expectations in the Netherlands are that Stam and Bergkamp will not follow De Boer. Stam is eager to manage a team himself, and Bergkamp is not too keen on leaving Ajax or the Netherlands. I more or less expect Frank de Boer to take his brother Ronald de Boer as assistant, comparable with the Koemans at Southampton. I rate Ronald de Boer very highly, he likes attacking football and is a great analyst.

Now the big question is: do the positives outweigh the negatives? Ajax messing things up in Europe again and again, and losing the title on the last day, is that something that is ingrained in De Boers coaching? Or is it due to lack of quality/experienced players? The Ajax team seems to get younger every year and players being sold are hardly ever replaced by a like-for-like player in quality and experience.

De Boer is a natural born winner. I am certain that he would love to be able to replace certain players as he did not seem their mentality suited for professional football at the highest level. At Ajax, that was not always the option. At Everton, the playing squad has much more experience and with the new TV deal and Moshiri coming in, you could expect De Boer being able to buy more quality than he could at Ajax. That could make all the difference. In terms of playing style, the same arguments could be made.

At Ajax, you just know that at least two of your best three players will leave year-in, year-out. The last period when Dutch clubs could hold on to their best players was in the aforementioned mid-2000s. At Everton, despite all the transfer rumors, one could expect that except for the odd year, we will be able to hang on to most of our star players. May be this summer will be the exception with perhaps Stones and Lukaku leaving, but last years showed that that would be an exception and that typically at most only one first team member leaves the club in the transfer period.

Now De Boer never had a chance in this way at Ajax. If the Premier League millions are enough to outdo the negatives, remains to be seen. If they do, prepare for a hell of a ride. De Boer knows only one thing and that is winning. Rest assure that he will try and set up the club that winning silverware will be the only goal at the club. I for one would like to give him the chance.

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