Four more years: Frank de Boer has rejuvenated Ajax
By Babette van Haaren
Ask Ajax supporters to name the best thing to have happened to the club in recent years and they will all give the same answer: Frank de Boer. Since he became Ajax’s head coach in December 2010, the club has won three championships in a row and more importantly: the fans recognise their Ajax again. It’s therefore no surprise that the fans are delighted that he has agreed to extend his contract until 2017.
Frank de Boer’s Ajax career came full circle when the former academy graduate coached his first game for the senior Ajax side. Although he had two years worth of experience coaching Ajax’s A1 (u19) side as well as a spell assisting Oranje head coach Bert van Marwijk, taking charge of the club he had once helped to greatness was a much more daunting challenge, especially as Ajax were no longer represented the pinnacle of club football in the Netherlands. De Boer’s first game couldn’t have come in more spectacular surroundings than the San Siro.
As a player facing AC Milan holds fond memories, being part of the all-conquering Ajax side that defeated them in the 1995 Champions League final. And what a debut as coach, recording a historic 2-0 victory at the San Siro – the first time Ajax had won there in their history (their 2-0 group win in 1994 was played at the Stadio Nereo Rocco). After the game De Boer remarked that “Football is quite simple” with tongue very much in cheek, adding, “The players followed the instructions I gave them.” There were echoes of Cruyff’s timeless quote that “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing”.
From the start it was clear De Boer would stick with the traditional Ajax model and style of play, as he had done with Ajax A1. “When it comes to playing football, movement on the field and attacking, I am close to Johan Cruyff’s philosophy,” De Boer said. “I like the 4-3-3 formation. I know you need the right players for that, but if you want to find them, then you will.” It sounded like music to the ears of many people who feel strongly about Ajax. It’s thanks to this framework (and of course van Gaal had a slightly different take to Cruijff) that the club has had his many success in the seventies and mid nineties.
De Boer himself gave a short summary of what his (and Ajax’s) philosophy is like: “Defending starts with the forwards. When we lose the ball, we don’t stop playing. We start to press the opponent in order to get the ball back as quickly as possible. Press left, right, from in front, from behind, all over. That’s what I say to my players”. He continues: “Saving energy is something you do when you have the ball, not when you don’t have it. When you have the ball, play it calmly around, take a breather and then start with a new attack.” To sum up the other parts of the philosophy: 4-3-3 with wide wingers and constant movement with and without the ball. Individualism and collectivism are intertwined as each individual’s strength combines to make a strong eleven: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Unlike Ajax under Martin Jol’s reign, the club are no longer reliant on one or two players (notably Luis Suarez). De Boer built his Ajax not around one player, he created a team. The topscorer this season, Siem de Jong, scored just twelve goals followed by Viktor Fischer and Christian Eriksen (both 10). Last season De Jong scored 13 goals, Sulejmani (11), Bulykin (9) and Vertonghen (8) followed closely. “Football is a team sport,” De Boer said. “With (only) a great striker you don’t become champion, you do it all together. Our strength is that we are not dependent on one person.”
De Boer’s idols have both played a big part in Ajax’s history: Louis van Gaal and Johan Cruijff. He doesn’t claim to be an innovator and he often pays tribute to the influence of the duo on him as a coach. More than most, he understands Ajax’s traditions and what the club stands for, hence the supporters’ song of: ‘Frank de Boer is een echte Ajacied’ [Frank De Boer is a real Ajax man]
It’s a remarkable achievement for such a young manager to win three championships in two-and-a-half years. When the season enters its final stages, Ajax turn into a winning machine. Since De Boer’s appointment they’ve played 29 games in March, April and May winning 27 and losing just once. This is largely down to a training program to have the players at their best in the final months.
De Boer has reinvented Ajax. They can’t play like they did 18 years ago. De Boer had to bring Ajax’s football up to date without losing the club’s principles. For that reason De Boer plays with a ‘third centre back’ or a ‘controller’. Anita did the job last season and since his departure Chrstian Poulsen and Lasse Schöne filled the gap. Their instructions couldn’t be more simple: win the ball and retain possession. Another change is the fact Ajax are no longer player with a ‘real’ No10 à la Litmanen. “Now we play with two attacking midfielders and one holding player”, De Boer said. “The philosophy remains the same though: create triangles on the pitch, engineer a numerical advantage in midfield, and create danger from that.”
A third successive championship sees De Boer equalling Michels (1966-68) and Van Gaal (1994-96). “I’m incredibly proud of that,” the 42-year-old said. “It is a very nice list to be part of. It is very special to have achieved what they did at this club. When you are compared with people like that, you can only feel proud.”
Winning the third championship in a row after a seven-year drought is the most wonderful feeling for every Ajax supporter. Everyone hopes De Boer becomes Ajax’s Sir Alex Ferguson. Something that would be possible as De Boer himself outlined that ambition. “There’s very little above Ajax”, the man said himself. Last summer the board considered offering a life-time contract. It’s unlikely he’ll remain for 26 years but he has just signed a new contract that will keep him in Amsterdam for four more years.
De Boer’s next challenge will be to return European success to the Netherlands and especially Amsterdam. “We want to move forward in Europe playing attractive football. If we succeed I’m convinced we can achieve something.” Time will tell if De Boer can also make this happen.