Frank De Boer – Between excitement and caution at Crystal Palace

After seasons of instability, the trepidation felt by Crystal Palace over a new managerial appointment is understandable, but the appointment of Frank de Boer is a refreshing move from the London club.

Fans will be hoping that the upcoming season can be something other than another strenuous battle against relegation.

The 47-year-old Dutchman, an advocate of thrilling, eye-catching football is a disciple of the famous Ajax philosophy of total football.

He enjoyed remarkable success as an Ajax player winning five Eredivisie trophies, two KNVB Cups, the UEFA Champions League Cup and two UEFA Cups.

Later as a manager he coached the famous Dutch club to a remarkable four successive Eredivisie titles in five years.

De Boer brings to Crystal Palace his own version of the Positional Play philosophy of football made famous by the likes of Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola, Louis Van Gaal and other innovative managers.

It is a philosophy incorporating possession football, quick passing, high pressing and playing out from the back.

The new coach makes no secret of the fact that his mission is to create football that is stimulating to watch.

On the surface this is a very appealing development for Crystal Palace but there is also good reason for caution.

The consequences of enforcing a new system of play on players who are not ready for it is well known in football.

An example of this can be taken from history as recent as last year, and it comes from the coaching experience of De Boer himself.

The Dutchman was hired by Serie A’s Inter football club, a team struggling to regain its greatness after it won a domestic and international treble under the direction of Jose Mourinho in 2010.

The years since that momentous achievement could be described as disappointing and forgettable at best.

De Boer was brought on board to restore Inter’s fortunes after disagreements between coach Roberto Mancini and the club resulted in the Italian manager’s departure during preseason.

The De Boer decision was a disaster for Inter.  He was sacked after only 85 days.

In 14 games he racked up seven losses, two draws and only five wins. Inter also went crashing out of the Europa league under his direction.

The one bright spark of his brief tenure was a 2-1 home victory against perennial Serie A champions Juventus, a game where Inter showed all the qualities for which De Boer was hired to bring to the club.

The match was a beauty to watch if you were an Inter fan; De Boer’s side masterfully restricted Juventus’ play and won the ball back with intelligent pressing.

Their combination play in attack was free-flowing and often too difficult for Juventus to handle.  But one brilliant game could not rescue the manager’s job in the end.

The Crystal Palace coach says he has learned from his mistakes in Italy.

Citing the lack of enough preseason time at Inter he predicts that having a full preseason this summer will afford him the time to get the players acclimatised to his style of play and familiar with different systems.

It was a luxury he did not have in Italy and the club struggled to adapt to his playing style.

Perhaps knowing that his experience in Italy has come under scrutiny, he is taking a very pragmatic approach with his pronouncements regarding tactics at his new club.

In his first press conference he has already faced a question that the English press is famous for asking these days when grilling foreign coaches – does he think the “continental style” of play will be best suited for the Premier League.

De Boer’s answer demonstrated his preparation for just such a question as he suggested that tactics will depend on the quality of his players and there will be times when their strategy may have to be more reactive than dominant.

Even with these declarations of pragmatism there is still cause for some apprehension.

Crystal Palace has quality players especially in the team’s attacking line-up and the abilities of Wilfried Zaha, Christian Benteke and Yoann Cabaye are well known, however there is no getting around the fact that this is a team that barely avoided relegation, last season.

The road ahead may require even more pragmatism than De Boer realizes in this moment.

He only has to look as far as his new rival Pep Guardiola in the north of England to see that the struggle is indeed real.

Guardiola took the reins at Manchester City last year, a team with so much more talent than Crystal Palace and full of world-class players like Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Kevin De Bruyne.

He ended the season with no trophies for the first time in his career.

Indeed, it was no easy task for City to even qualify for the Champions League.

The Guardiola experience in the 2016/17 season also serves as a warning that Frank De Boer faces a difficult journey not just on the pitch but off the pitch, as well.

Guardiola endured harrowing press conferences from day one until the end of the season where he was constantly queried about a need to adapt to the Premier League, about the wisdom of playing out from the back and if he would consider changing his style of play.

Most times these questions were met with patience by the Manchester City coach but on a few occasions his exasperation was obvious.

Despite the exciting development of some of Europe’s most innovative coaches coming to England, a section of the English press remains very critical of their philosophies.

They eagerly await the spectacular failures which will sell headlines and garner clicks on the internet.

Frank De Boer will have to be very aware of his own past experience, the environment into which he is entering and the strengths and weaknesses of this Crystal Palace team if he is to effect a successful transition to his preferred style of play.

He was faced with impatience at Inter but he will find even less mercy in England where immediate results are more important than anything else, especially for a team that just survived relegation.

Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish has underlined the need for a new strategy to move the club forward but acknowledged that “no one goes to the Emirates in our position today and just all out attacks”.

It is clear, therefore, that both coach and club realize the need for change as well as the need for care in how that change is implemented.

In light of Palace’s recent struggles, Parish said that “Frank’s number one brief is to reduce mine and the supporters’ anxiety”.

Considering the complexity and risks of the task ahead, even a successful journey will bring lots of apprehension along the way.  But you can’t get to heaven without dying first.

The Author

Alexis Monteith

I'm a Manchester City and Inter fan writing about European football but my interest also extends to the United States and Major League Soccer.

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