Atlanta United Should Hold Tight For Frank De Boer

Manager Frank De Boer pictured with owner Arthur Blank. Courtesy of Facebook.

Frank de Boer has been struggling as a manager for some time now.

His problems started in 2016 when he moved to Inter Milan. De Boer was one of the top managers in the world then, having led Ajax to four consecutive titles. Those who assumed that his excursion into Italy would be similarly successful were proven wrong after he was fired just 85 days into the job.

Next came his stint at Crystal Palace, which was so bad that Jose Mourinho called him “the worst manager in the history of the Premier League.” Mourinho wasn’t wrong. De Boer lasted five games in charge of Palace, and broke a new record: The shortest tenure in Premier League history. It is surely the most remarkable thing that he has achieved in the past four years.

And here we are. De Boer has been at the helm of Atlanta United for four league games in addition to another four in CONCACAF, and we’ve seen some pretty awful performances in that span.  

The reasons for Atlanta’s poor form are not solely on the coach, though. A classic case of champions syndrome [don’t let Manchester City fool you, they’re a different breed], and a taxing early fixture list are all part of the issue.

Judith Y. Kim | Avant-Youth
Julian Gressel and Co after winning the MLS Cup. They haven't been able to recapture the same form under De Boer. Judith Y. Kim | Avant-Youth

But De Boer hasn’t covered himself in glory either. In a similar manner to how he conducted himself at Palace, he has found it difficult to implement an effective system, and his man management has room for improvement.

However, it’s important to consider the privileged position that Atlanta is in. Atlanta United isn’t Inter, and they definitely aren’t Palace. Atlanta’s approach is more similar to Ajax. Like Ajax, they believe in investing for the future. It’s likely that De Boer will be Atlanta’s coach for some time.

And that’s good news for the Five Stripes. De Boer’s record shows that he requires time and resources to implement his tactics.

Consider the lack of options that he had at Palace: De Boer inherited a team that was virtually identical to the one fashioned by the previous manager, Sam Allardyce. Big Sam is certainly effective in getting results, but his style is best summed by the ever-antagonistic Mourinho, who called it “19th-century football.” Palace was used to hoofing the ball some 40 meters down the field in hopes that it would fall to the right player.

It was a far cry from De Boer’s stylish philosophy.

De Boer favors the 3-4-3 and 4-3-3 formations made famous by the Dutch school. In theory, wingbacks hug the touchline in the attack, as passmasters look to switch play quickly to unlock the defense. Creativity is key in the final third, as runners in behind provide the space for attacking midfielders to pick their pass. In defense, the entire team works to win the ball back fast by pressing high up the field.

When teams are able to pull it off, expansive soccer like De Boer’s is a joy to watch. If you want proof, check out how Ajax dismantled Real Madrid recently at the Bernabeu.

However, if the personnel aren’t tactically flexible, technically gifted, or well trained in the fundamentals of their positioning, they can quickly find themselves overwhelmed. Anyone unlucky enough to witness one of Palace’s games under the new manager would have seen a team unable to cope tactically or technically with De Boer’s system. De Boer’s departure from the club was so abrupt that it left little speculation as to whether Palace could have eventually adapted. Nonetheless it is apparent that De Boer should have been given more time and support to recruit better players.

Count on Atlanta to give him both. Atlanta’s problems aren’t the kind that will go away overnight, but the team is far more stable than Palace, and won’t be looking to play musical chairs with managers. Darren Eales has also shown a willingness to sign big money players when necessary.

Better yet, in contrast to Palace, most of the current squad are both versatile and well-versed in a possession-based approach. Tata Martino alternated chiefly between the 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 formations, which are not synonymous with De Boer’s preferred 3-4-3, but are nevertheless reminiscent of the way he likes to set up.

Atlanta’s midfield in Ezequiel Barco, Pity Martinez, Darlington Nagbe, Eric Remedi and Jeff Lawrenzovitz should have enough talent to take care of the ball and create chances. Difficulties in the midfield can be credited to a couple of major issues, which aren’t unaddressable.

Josef Martinez laughs with recently departed Miguel Almiron, back during their December Victory Parade. Judith Y. Kim | Avant-Youth

More importantly, it looks like De Boer has started to address them. One of those is a lack of forward runs. The team has struggled at times because nobody is vacating the midfield to create space and get behind the back four. Atlanta wouldn’t have this problem if Almiron was still with us, but there’s no use in ruminating on Miggy [because I’ll start crying].

Instead, we should look to Tito Villalba. His recent effectiveness has been marred by his heavy first touch, but even with that negative, he brings an undeniable spark to the right side of midfield that was lacking in previous games.

Differences between Villalba and De Boer seem to have been quashed, which is good news because Atlanta is in need of his direct running.

The wingback areas are a little more problematic.

When Atlanta has featured wingbacks, they haven’t utilized them effectively. Brek Shea has shown some good touches, but hasn’t been able to deliver quality service to Martinez, even with the amount of space out wide that the system grants. Gressel has been a little bit better with his final ball on the right, but similar to Shea, he hasn’t been nearly consistent enough in beating his man or delivering quality crosses. The space that wingbacks are afforded has to be exploited, because–simply put–that’s where all the space is. The alternative is a congested midfield without an effective outlet.

De Boer has recognized how ineffective Brek Shea has been, and instead opted for a 3-4-3 formation against the Union, with Remedi and Gressel in positions similar to that of a wingback. Obviously, De Boer’s changes didn’t work out according to plan. Gressel was still pretty underwhelming in that position, and Remedi looked lost altogether.

Atlanta looked much more potent after moving to a back 4 against Columbus, even though the result might lead you to believe otherwise. I expect De Boer will recognize that and adjust accordingly.

Regardless, Atlanta’s fanbase shouldn’t panic, even if it takes 10 more games. After all, we don’t have the Premier League’s relegation system to worry about, and we have a talented squad and coach on top of that.

It’s important that the fans get behind De Boer, partly because he’s going to be Atlanta’s coach for some time, and [provided that he continues to make adjustments in formation and personnel], because his system has the potential to be very successful.

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