Four in a row – Why Frank de Boer is a special coach
The scenes weren’t spectacular. In fact, they were quite mundane and anticlimactic.
With the scoreline tied at 1-1 and the clock ticking ever closer to 90 minutes in the Polman Stadion on Sunday, the Heracles back four knocked the ball about near their own box without any pressure from the opposition. It was hard to believe that history was just seconds away from being made.
As the final whistle blew, though, the cheers rang out and a remarkable achievement had been made.
Ajax had been crowned Eredivisie champions for the fourth consecutive time.
The Amsterdam giants travelled to face Jan de Jonge’s side needing only a point to clinch the title, while the team in black and white needed a tie to secure safety in the league.
It is no wonder, then, that the game was almost completely devoid of action. Indeed, both goals came from set pieces – Lasse Schone sending a bullet free-kick in off the bar to give the visitors the league before Simon Cziommer scooped another beyond Jasper Cillessen to level it before the break.
Ajax’s performance in that 90 minutes was, in a sense, symbolic of their entire season. Underwhelming and generally unproductive but they picked up what was needed to get the job done.
While the Godenzonen have accrued a reputation for being fast-paced and entertaining in the previous three seasons under coach Frank de Boer, they have been anything but this term. Indeed, despite having lost only three games, being cemented in pole-position since matchday 18 and going on a 21 game unbeaten run, this hasn’t been the most electrifying campaign.
Often lacking a clinical edge, defensive stability and a great deal of creativity, they have been sluggish and slow at various times and even horrendous at others but competent and even lucky enough to see get what they needed.
And that’s what makes De Boer particularly interesting and admirable. He continues to achieve great success despite the constant downgrading of his team.
He has become the first coach ever to win the Eredivisie four times in a row, but the team with which he cements himself as one of the brightest ever to have taken up the hotseat is of a decidedly lower standard than those which have preceded it.
Jan Vertonghen, Luis Suarez, Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen, Gregory van der Wiel, Maarten Stekelenburg, Urby Emanuelson, Vurnon Anita have all come and gone in De Boer’s time at the helm, as is Ajax’s selling nature. However, each year, with little-to-no investment in the squad, the coach, through his great belief in youth, has ensured they surge to domestic victory.
The likes of Stefano Denswil, Joel Veltman, Davy Klaassen, Ricardo van Rhijn, Jasper Cillessen, Ricardo Kishna, Viktor Fischer and Daley Blind have been brought into the team and slotted in seamlessly. Of course, all, apart from goalkeeper Cillessen, are products of Ajax’s world famous youth system, as are Jairo Riedewald, Lesly de Sa and Ruben Ligeon who have made a few appearances this term. But most of these players are not of the same calibre as the players they have replaced.
When you compare this squad to that of their rivals this season, there is no real difference in quality. If anything, the comparison goes against in favour of the other contenders.
Vitesse, with blossoming stars on loan from Chelsea such as Lucas Piazon, Christian Atsu, Bertrand Traore and Patrick van Aanholt alongside the likes of Guram Kashia, Jan-Arie van der Heijden and goalkeeper Piet Velthuizen, were able to mount a serious challenge, but due to their own incompetence fell out of the race after the winter break.
FC Twente, with players such as Dusan Tadic, Quincy Promes, Luc Castaignos, Shadrach Eghan and Felipe Gutierrez, have a team for the future but, although they have had a bright campaign, were too inconsistent throughout.
PSV, with a simply incredibly talented young team, enjoyed a blissful start under Phillip Cocu but completely capitulated soon after. Nevertheless, with players like Memphis Depay, Jurgen Locadia, Adam Maher, Stijn Schaars, Georginio Wijnaldum, Bryan Ruiz, Park Ji-Sung, Luciano Narsingh and even more, they redeemed themselves in the second half of the campaign, but the league was beyond them by then.
The biggest challengers and eventual runners-up, Feyenoord, was a particularly tragic one. They head into the final week just four points behind the league leaders. This excellent squad consists of remarkable youngsters Tonny Vilhena, Jordy Clasie, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Jean-Paul Boetius and their star striker Graziano Pelle and these players and their coach Ronald Koeman will be wondering what might have been had they avoided defeat in each of their first three league games. More so, the significance of the two 2-1 defeats to Ajax become all the more significant.
It’s the inconsistency of these squads which have proven to be their undoing, while Ajax’s consistency even with an unimpressive squad has been able to rise above all of them.
The loss of Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld during the campaign hurt the capital club severely. With no creativity and some experience removed from the back line, they were turgid and impotent going forward and slack defensively.
After their third and last league defeat in early November, they were sitting in sixth place and although they were only three points behind the leaders, their poor displays coupled with the good quality of their rivals suggested this wasn’t going to be Ajax’s year.
The turning point came just days after that defeat to Vitesse when Ajax hosted Celtic in the Champions League. Failure to win that game would have almost ensured they finished bottom of their group. The coach opted to switch things up in the squad, moving left-back Blind into the middle while Schone out onto the right wing, striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson on to the left wing, attacking Siem de Jong up front.
The hosts put in a strong performance and won 1-0, from then on Ajax were a completely different story. They were unbeaten in the league from then on, were able to beat Barcelona in the Amsterdam ArenA and came extremely close to beating AC Milan and securing second place in the group.
Those tactical changes from De Boer were the catalyst for Ajax defending their league crown.
Blind, not long ago a hated figure among the fans, has been incredible in the middle of the park, Schone, on the right wing, has been immense, these two are the only candidates for Ajax’s player of the season.
His tactical knowledge, the way he demands such a great deal from his players and his belief in his system gives Ajax an extra advantage in most encounters.
Furthermore, his man-management and the belief his players have in him as a coach ensures he gets the best out of his players.
And that’s the glory of the 43-year-old. This season is but a snapshot of his still dawning coaching career. He has been in this, Ajax’s only successful spell in the last ten years.
The Eredivisie giants hadn’t won a trophy since 2004 when he took over, their record in the Champions League and Uefa Cup was horrendous and there were only signs of degradation, not progress. They suffered as rivals PSV won four titles in a row, followed by much smaller teams AZ (under Louis van Gaal) and then FC Twente – winning the league for the first time.
Ajax was a complete mess and it was getting worse.
Football icon Johan Cruijff was the man who recommended through his weekly column in De Telegraaf ’s that then coach Martin Jol resign and Frank de Boer be brought in as head coach. Shortly afterwards, he got his wish and the young apprentice was in charge. But that was only part of his recommendations to turn the club around.
He demanded that ‘Ajax people’ be brought in to lead the club in administration posts as well as on the technical side. As his ‘velvet revolution’ came into effect and members of the board resigned and the likes of Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar came in as technical and marketing directors respectively, it helped get the club back to working towards sporting success and not merely financial.
It did, though, bring many disruptions in the way of the court case to remove Louis van Gaal as general director, the race row between Cruijff and Edgar Davids and the fan protests to encourage the club to give fulfil Pythagoras in Boots’ demands.
Throughout it all, however, with his playing style, his man-management, his faith in youth and his tactical knowledge that, despite the disruptions, the wars, the constant media attention, he kept his squad team focused, drilled and in great form. Ending their long trophy drought and going on to record a title-winning streak which the club has never seen before.
That’s not to say De Boer hasn’t made mistakes – throwing Nicolai Boilesen on against Manchester United in the Europa League three days after he played his first game in five months was a brutal, reckless decision which cost the team and the player dearly.
After a full season, the decision to buy Mike van der Hoorn instead of Virgil van Dijk looks like a complete blunder. The 21-year-old has only played two league games this term – one of which was a substitute 88 minutes in. Worse than that, it was he who, after coming on as a late sub, gave away the penalty in injury time which saw Milan earn a point in the Champions League. If not for that, Ajax would have reached the second-round. De Boer then through him on in the return game in Milan, with Ajax dominating, Van der Hoorn came on to stand up front and try and nod a cross down or direct it towards goal. This completely changed Ajax’s gameplan as useless diagonal balls were sent in towards the tall centre-back, but to no avail as the game ended goalless and Ajax were sent crashing out.
The game against Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League this season as also particularly daunting. The team seemed to have underrated their opponents who out classed them in every way in both legs and simply humiliated them.
De Boer’s record in Europe in general isn’t good, but he has had absolutely no luck in the draw. You cannot dismiss his wins over Barcelona, Manchester City and the way his team dominated both games against Milan.
He has, it seems, been learning from his mistakes. Boilesen’s injury was one of many severe muscle injuries Ajax suffered in that year, since then he has adapted his training style to alleviate the strain – it has worked immensely. Also, he has stopped throwing Van der Hoorn on for no reason. The player simply has to develop further before he will re-emerge.
As for the record in Europe, they have made progress under De Boer, but his goal has always been to remain in continent’s most prestigious club competition and, if he stays for another season, it will be his aim once again.
If there’s any coach who can guide Ajax to the next level, it is indeed De Boer. He has already lifted them to a higher level in his first four seasons as a coach and he maintains he still has a lot of work to do at the club.
Regardless, Ajax will lose him eventually. So for as long as they have him, the club, its fans and indeed all fans of the Eredivisie should recognise and enjoy the fact that we are in the presence of a special coach.