He might be considered a wild card by some, but in the Netherlands everyone is convinced Frank de Boer is the next in line in the dynasty of outstanding Dutch managers.
When Frank de Boer took over at Ajax the club was a mess. The club had a squad burdened with overpaid, under-performing and ageing players, and its board was at odds with club icon Johan Cruyff. Ironically, it was Cruyff who first floated the idea of appointing De Boer as the new head coach of De Godenzonen.
Despite his war of words with the club’s board through his column in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, Cruyff’s wish became a reality when De Boer was appointed head coach of Ajax on a permanent basis, only 4 weeks after he became interim head coach to replace the sacked Martin Jol. After a brilliant 2-0 away win at AC Milan during his first game in charge, Frank de Boer was the godsend the club needed. He had the sympathy of the supporters, he was Cruyff’s pick and the board had their man to try to diffuse a full-fledged boardroom coup.
Three and a half years later, De Boer has joined a dynasty of revered Ajax coaches: Michels, Van Gaal, De Boer. These will probably be the three Ajax coaches that will be remembered in hundred years time as the most successful coaches in the club’s history. Despite Cruyff never winning a title as Ajax coach, there is a different parallel with the Ajax legend that pushed for De Boer to take the reins at Ajax. De Boer is the first coach to win four back-to-back titles in a European league since Johan Cruyff at Barcelona between 1991 and 1994.
Frank de Boer started his coaching career at the Ajax youth academy in 2006. In 2007 he graduated for his UEFA Pro licence and quickly became the coach of Ajax A1, the club’s infamous elite youth team. In 2008, De Boer also joined Bert van Marwijk’s staff at the Dutch national team as assistant coach. De Boer was applauded for his active role next to Van Marwijk during the 2010 World Cup, where Oranje lost to Spain in the final.
Van Marwijk wasn’t surprised when De Boer took over at Ajax only a few months after Oranje’s successful yet eventually traumatic World Cup. “He’s an excellent coach with a great future. He’s a coach who stands among his players, but can also pull rank when needed. He is an excellent reader of the game and knows how to present himself as a coach both on and off the pitch,” said Van Marwijk in an interview.
Whilst Johan Cruyff’s ‘velvet revolution’ raged on off the pitch, De Boer brought stability and tranquillity on the pitch. No mean feat at a club that always seems to be one defeat away from crisis. Within 12 months, the board resigned, the club’s CEO resigned, Cruyff took the club to court over Louis van Gaal’s appointment as general director, the case was appealed by the other board members, De Boer was made to choose between camp Cruyff and camp Van Gaal, Cruyff won the appeal which meant Van Gaal was out of the picture, and finally Cruyff resigned as board member to make way for a new supervisory board. And still De Boer managed to win two Dutch league titles whilst rockets and grenades were being fired in the boardroom.
Before De Boer came in, the club went through 4 head coaches and 3 interim head coaches in 6 seasons without winning a single championship since season 2003-04 under Ronald Koeman. A dire run which left the fans frustrated and made many question the club’s direction, which included investing heavily in mostly C-grade foreign players who still commanded heavy wages for Dutch standards. Signings like George Ogararu, Albert Luque, Ivan Pantelic and Timothée Atouba still bring a sour taste to the mouth of many Ajax supporters. Ajax is a club with a rich history, filled with winning titles both at home and in Europe. The fact the club is unable to compete with the Champions League elite ever since the Bosman ruling came in effect, is a fact of life which is still hard to take for many Ajax supporters. They expect their club to win every season, to win in style and to dominate like the golden days of the early ’70s and mid ’90s. But what’s even more hurtful to them, is to see their club stray away from its stylistic roots and become a faceless team without a clear identity.
De Boer has managed to revive the style the supporters love, an attacking team playing in a predominantly 4-3-3 formation whose success is based upon dominating the opponent due to the team’s technical and tactical qualities. Aggressive pressing high up the pitch and disciplined positional play helps Ajax to recover possession quickly and enables them to quickly switch between attacking and defending. Attacking full-backs and skilful wingers provide plenty of danger going forward whilst a combination of a creative playmaker and a goalscoring #10 make everything tick in midfield.
Last season it was Christian Eriksen who had to provide the creative impulse from midfield along with Lasse Schöne, whilst Siem de Jong often played as a false 9 in the absence of striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson. This year it’s Lasse Schöne (8 assists) and Davy Klaassen (10 goals) who run things in midfield for Ajax, although Schöne mostly operates as a narrow winger on the right now, often cutting in and making up the numbers in midfield. Half-way through the season Daley Blind was converted to Ajax’s equivalent of Philipp Lahm, playing next to Thulani Serero in central midfield.
17 – Lasse Schöne (9 goals, 8 assists) has contributed to 17 league goals this season, the most of all Ajax players. Essential.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) April 29, 2014
It’s testament to De Boer’s willingness to adapt his tactics to the talent available in his squad. After the departure of Eriksen he has opted to reshuffle the midfield three with two more ‘conservative’ midfielders and a #10 instead of playing a midfield with two offensive-minded players and one designated defensive midfielder. De Boer makes personnel changes regularly both for the sake of countering the opponent’s game plan and squad rotation, but the blueprint has remained largely the same throughout the season.
The only thing you could criticise the current Ajax team for is a lack of physicality. Whilst technical superiority and astute tactics are often enough to dominate even the more physical sides in the Eredivisie, this has proven to be a problem in Europe. Especially against Red Bull Salzburg, which blew Ajax away in the Europa League, the gap in stamina, strength and aggressiveness was Ajax’s clear downfall. It’s hard to say how De Boer will approach a more physical league week in week out because he never had a physically intimidating squad at his disposal. He will probably adapt to the quality available in the squad and try to rival opponents in terms of physicality in key areas of the pitch.
Another positive aspect of De Boer’s management style is his willingness to bleed youngsters into the first team. Ricardo van Rhijn, Daley Blind, Viktor Fischer, Davy Klaassen, Joël Veltman and Stefano Denswil have all become established names under De Boer. Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld made massive strides in their development during their time under De Boer. If De Boer’s ability to introduce youngsters to the first team and the evolution of Ajax’s key players is anything to go by, his ability to offer guidance and encouragement to developing youngsters is definitely up to scratch. Another great trait of his is that he never points the finger at individual players in post-match interviews. De Boer reviews the team’s performance as a whole, and leaves analysis on an individual level for the dressing room. He protects his players when needed, can be harsh about the team’s performance in public, but never stoops to personal attacks on individual players or question the integrity of his players whilst talking to the media.
The course of an Ajax season has been pretty consistent under De Boer. The season is usually off to a decent start, although more often than not the club is still under threat of losing one of its key players during the first couple of months of the season. Ajax regularly hover somewhere between 4th and 7th place for a while, but once the ‘business end’ of the season arrives the club is bang on form.
Have a look at the win percentages in March, April and May:
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) February 28, 2014
Another thing which has become the signature of Ajax under Frank de Boer is consistency. It’s no surprise to see Ajax win the league with almost the same exact points tally four years in a row (73, 76, 76, 73 [projected]). With an average of 2.23 points per game and having never lost more than 4 league games per season ever since De Boer took over it shows a remarkable consistency in results despite the constant losses of key players and the relative youthfulness and related inexperience of the squads De Boer has worked with over the past four seasons. If anything, it shows De Boer has worked out a way to get the best out this Ajax squad regardless of the departure of top players like Luis Suarez, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld.
Ajax season stats under Frank de Boer
|2010 - 2011*||34||22||7||5||73||72||30|
|2011 - 2012||34||23||7||4||76||93||36|
|2012 - 2013||34||22||10||2||76||83||31|
|2013 - 2014||33||20||10||3||70||67||26|
* De Boer took over from gameweek 18
Many question the legitimacy of De Boer’s achievements in the Netherlands because they feel the Eredivisie is an inferior league. No one is going to argue against the fact the average quality of the teams involved is inferior to their Premier League, La Liga or Bundesliga counterparts. However, this doesn’t mean the league is not competitive. In the last 10 seasons the Eredivisie has seen 4 different champions (PSV, AZ Alkmaar, FC Twente, Ajax), of which only two belong to the traditional top 3 clubs (Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV). Many would argue the Eredivisie has actually become more competitive due to the diminished dominance of the ‘big three’ and the rise of FC Twente, Vitesse and a few years ago AZ Alkmaar. It’s no longer a given that Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV make up the top 3 and thereby snatch up the majority of revenue related to qualifying for Europe.
For Ajax to win the league four seasons in a row is a testament to the stability and consistency De Boer has instilled at Ajax. Like Peter McVitie highlighted in his excellent piece for Benefoot, De Boer’s ability to maintain such a level of consistency despite seeing his squad downgraded constantly is nothing short of remarkable. It also has to be taken into account Ajax play a semi academy team in terms of age, with the average age of the starting XI hardly ever exceeding 24 years. The fact he didn’t have the same number of players of exceptional individual quality meant this season Ajax’s success is much more down to team effort. This season Ajax haven’t been as flashy or entertaining as last season, but De Boer made the necessary adjustments in order to get the same results whilst trying to not cheat on Ajax’s core values.
263 – Since Frank de Boer joined as manager, Ajax have won 263 points from 118 league games, at least 32 more than any other club. Special.
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) April 29, 2014
Ajax’s success in Europe has been limited, if not non-existent, for quite some time. The club has barely played a role ever since Louis van Gaal and his ‘Golden Generation’ left the club. Despite the lack of tangible success the reviews on Ajax’s performances in the Champions League under De Boer have been largely positive. Everyone acknowledges the gulf in class, financial clout and experience the young Ajax side comes up against on its European travels. Ajax also didn’t get the luck of the draw in the past 2 Champions League seasons, drawing against big teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Dortmund, Manchester City and AC Milan. However, standout European performances against Manchester City, Barcelona and Manchester United in recent seasons did offer a glimmer of hope that if Ajax could just hold on to a core of talented players for once, it might be able to finally make an impact in one of Europe’s top competitions. If it wasn’t for a Balotelli dive (which gifted Milan a penalty to snatch an undeserved 1-1 draw) in the home leg, Ajax would’ve progressed out of their Champions League group this season. It wasn’t meant to be. The Europa League has been a complete fiasco for Ajax in recent seasons, crashing out to Red Bull Salzburg in 2014, Steaua Bucharest in 2013 and Manchester United in 2012. Optimistically speaking, Ajax should do better in Europe, but the club lacks both strength in depth and squad experience to really compete in the Europe whilst still remaining successful in the Eredivisie.
If the media is to be believed Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino is De Boer’s main competitor. Pochettino has Southampton playing an attractive brand of football and they are definitely one of the over-performing sides in the Premier League this season. However, Pochettino suffers similar deficiencies as De Boer. He has limited managerial experience, and none whatsoever in European cups. The lack of Premier League experience would be considered a negative on De Boer’s part. However, the lack of Premier League experience didn’t seem to bother Pochettino when he took the Southampton job. The value of Premier League experience seems hard to grasp, since in some cases managers with Premier League experience seem to do equally poor as those with no Premier League experience. Pochettino would not be a bad pick, but there are some question marks regarding Southampton’s habit of letting leads slip in games and dropping silly points against various relegation contenders. It’s the same kind of inconsistency that has hindered Spurs for years.
Of course, the incumbent has to be given a mention. Tim Sherwood. A real character, opinionated as well. He’s been a decent shopkeeper for the time being but there’s been very little evidence that he is the man to take Spurs forward. He seems to lack both experience and knowledge to deal with the pressure that comes with managing an ambitious Premier League side like Spurs. His faith in youth players has been admirable, yet naïve at times. You can’t expect consistency in performances straight out of the gate from these young players, neither are they battle-hardened enough for the truly big games. Personally I think he’s severely hurt his chances through his media antics. The media obviously love him since he’s a loose cannon in front of the camera and microphones, but I highly doubt he has the full support of the dressing room after his ‘eventful’ interim stint. Especially after his ill-advised tirade after Chelsea away in which he questioned the character of some players, leaving no doubt as to whom he was referring to. Tactically he’s been all over the place as well at times. The biggest faux pas were his comments saying Spurs were “a technical mismatch” to the bigger teams. It showed very little confidence in his squad from a man who at one point said finishing in the top 4 was a must for him to keep his job.
There are other rumoured contenders such as Rafael Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti who both have more experience and a more proven Premier League track record than De Boer. Leaving the very slim chances of either leaving their respective clubs aside, have either of them ever worked on a prudent budget? Has any of them had success with such a youthful squad like De Boer’s at Ajax? No. Both would be good picks, but they both have a mediocre track record of developing academy players. After blowing over £100m in the transfer market it’s key for Spurs to get the best out of the current crop first and address squad deficiencies later. It’s no use to bring in another batch of players just to appease the new manager’s personal taste when there’s plenty of room for improvement in the current squad.
After a fourth successive title it seems a good time for De Boer to assess his options. No one in Amsterdam would be happy to see him go, since everyone is hungry for more success. But from De Boer’s point-of-view, it might be time for a new challenge and also time to end the (first) chapter as Ajax coach on a high. De Boer is in no rush to leave Amsterdam though. “I don’t have the intention to leave. We have a great squad and I’m really enjoying my time here at Ajax,” he told Voetbal International on Tuesday. De Boer still has a contract until 2017 and will want to leave on good terms. He has just written Ajax history and his stock couldn’t be any higher among the Ajax faithful, evidence provided by a Facebook page called ‘Frank has to stay’ which racked up 23k likes in one afternoon. However, many feel De Boer has taken the current squad as far as realistically possible. Ajax’s current squad is arguably the weakest of all four title-winning squads De Boer has managed, and it’s far from certain key players like Daley Blind and Siem de Jong will stick around for another season. Although new talent is always ready to burst onto the scene at Ajax, like Joël Veltman and Davy Klaassen this season, it remains to be seen if Ajax will be able to both retain and add sufficient quality in order to compete again with Feyenoord, FC Twente and PSV next season.
It’s anyone’s guess how De Boer would approach the challenge that is the Premier League. He’s heavily influenced by the philosophies of Van Gaal and Cruyff, and therefore Ajax and Barcelona, but he’s shown enough willingness to adapt to change to expect him to make the necessary adjustments in his playing style and tactics to deal with the change in scenery. If there’s one aspect of De Boer’s success at Ajax that Tottenham is crying out for, it’s consistency. Spurs have long suffered from inconsistent performances and results and the tendency to hit the self-destruct button in the final third of the season. De Boer demands consistency from his players, an unquestioned belief in the team’s ability and the required mental resilience to come back stronger after adversity. Judging by his success at Ajax, players easily buy into his ways and have rewarded his faith and guidance with continued Eredivisie success.
Frank de Boer is a good fit for Spurs in my opinion. He likes to play attacking yet organised football, he tries to instil consistency in performances and results, doesn’t require a huge transfer budget, and knows how to get the best out of his squad through flexible team selection and tactics. Add to that he was the man who pushed Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen to be the players that caught the eye of Tottenham in the past, he will have at least two influential supporters in the dressing room. De Boer is not the finished product, but he is the most promising Dutch coach since Louis van Gaal. Along with his vast experience as a player, his calm and sober personality and his experience in working with elite players at Oranje, he will not be a man easily caught by surprise or intimidated by the occasion.
When you look at the results and the performances at Spurs there’s a lot of room for improvement.
– Frank de Boer
One thing that will be key is for Spurs to back their man for once. Something for which the club has a notoriously terrible reputation. Despite the turmoil at boardroom level, De Boer always enjoyed the backing of the Ajax hierarchy. They never panicked when Ajax were hovering somewhere around 6th, they stuck with De Boer and it has evidently reaped big rewards for the Amsterdam club. It might take some time for De Boer to figure out the formula that works, both in terms of getting the best out of the Spurs squad he’d have at his disposal and the challenges of the Premier League. But his ability to get the best out of his squad and his very successful approach to obtain consistency in both performances and results should give Spurs supporters hope that he might just be the man who can turn Spurs’ infamous inconsistency around.
I want to contribute something to a club, to build something. So people can say, I see Frank de Boer’s influence there.
– Frank de Boer
- Has brought back success at Ajax
- Impressive consistency in league results
- Dealt with internal turmoil brilliantly
- Has great track record with young players
- Tactically flexible to suit his squad’s abilities
- Never blasts individual players in public
- Vast top-level experience as a player
- No Premier League experience
- Limited success in European cups
- Stubborn to sacrifice attacking intent to get a result
- Not used to Premier League level transfer budgets