Looking Back to Look Forward: An Assessment of Frank de Boer at Ajax
On 8th May, 2016, Ajax travelled to the home of De Graafschap, needing a win of any sort to seal their 34th Eredivisie title. In fact, the 17th placed home team had already arranged for a cake bearing the words ”De Graafschap congratulates Ajax for the championship 2015/2016”; even they thought the game and league crown had already been decided in favour of the capital club.
Just as Leicester have proven fairytales still have exist in modern football, Frank de Boer’s men proved further that mere formalities may not. De Boer’s historical tenure as Ajax coach hobbled to an end with the draw at the side who were relegated just a few weeks later. The aforementioned cake was eventually passed to journalists.
On the back of the last two trophyless seasons, it is easy to levy harsh criticism at De Boer, and he does deserve his fair share. But, the last six at Ajax have been tumultuous, with several off-field clashes and controversies. Amidst all the ruckus, Ajax’s on-pitch achievements were a saving grace and definitely some credit for this goes to the coach.
When Martin Jol’s departure left the coach’s seat vacant and Johan Cruijff initiated his ‘Velvet Revolution’, it was then-U19 coach De Boer who was handed the reins and eventually formed the cornerstone of the ‘Technical Heart’ – a group of ex-Ajax players selected by Cruijff to lead their footballing vision in various aspects.
With De Boer’s return, the traditional 4-3-3 also returned to the club where it was pioneered exceptionally. It was a return to the proverbial roots of the club; emphasis on aesthetically pleasing football, good passing and a healthy youth integration.
Most importantly, the telling feature of De Boer’s management is one vital to the viability of Dutch football, considering the volatility of player futures and foreign interest. The former Dutch captain insists that no player is bigger than the team itself, and made it clear right from the start; a contrast to previous years when the team was very much carried by talented individuals.
In the first few years of his era, the former defender had provided a breath of fresh air to a club that was growing increasingly stale on the pitch and rotten off it. Ajax were winning again, and in some style.
De Boer’s personality on the touchline is one that directly derives from the many decades of being a captain and a centre-back. Seldom is he not caught gesticulating wildly in his well-tailored suit, a vein popping on his forehead, his eyebrows permanently furrowed as he barks orders to his players or expressed frustration to the officials.
As someone who proclaims to adopt aspects of both the Cruijff and Van Gaal schools of thought, De Boer originally tried to find a convergence of individual growth and the collective strength.
“Defending starts with the forwards,” he said when describing his philosophy. “When we lose the ball, we don’t stop playing. We start to press the opponent so as to get the ball back as quickly as possible. Press left, right, in front, behind, all over. Saving energy is something you do with ball, not when you don’t have it. When you have the ball, be calm, play it around, take a breath and then start a new attack.”
Through De Boer’s philosophy of playing out from the back over the years, all of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Niklas Moisander and now Joel Veltman and Jairo Riedewald have found themselves being honed into elegant centre backs, who are rather adept with the ball at their feet. In the league at least, De Boer tightened the defensive ability of the team significantly. Compared to the four coaches preceding him, only Martin Jol’s tenure saw a marginally lower number of goals conceded per game.
One of the greatest aspects of the 4-3-3 is the ability for flexibility in play, with frequent interchanging of positions, especially in midfield. The defensive midfielder takes the role of a third centre-back, and allows the full-backs to push high into attack. This reinforces the triangle principle of passing that is so revered at Ajax and is taught to players right from the age of nine. In this system, a young Christian Eriksen thrived, with options available right, left and centre for him to spray passes to and direct the entire attacking phase of the team.
However, after the blistering campaign of 2012-13, cracks began to appear. Even though they emerged champions in 2013-14, Ajax never truly appeared convincing and seemed to merely get by on many an occasion. The loss of Eriksen and Alderweireld may have been crucial but it seemed like the freshness that distinguished De Boer had started to fade.
The very principles that allowed him to rejuvenate his club were starting to restrict him and his dogmatic, near-blind pursuit of these has been to Ajax’s great disadvantage.
The coach is not incapable of tactical tweaks; he did so with great success in 2012 when in the absence of better alternatives up top and in light of his chemistry with Eriksen, played midfielder Siem de Jong as a false No.9. Interestingly, he reversed the aforementioned duo’s positions in the two fixtures against Manchester City in 2012, in order to capitalise on Eriksen’s ability in small spaces and Siem’s height in midfield. In 2013, he returned Blind (then a left-back) to defensive midfield and the Dutchman went on to win Footballer of the Year and earned a transfer to Manchester United one year later. De Boer has been able to set up his team to tone down their passing dogma to sit back and capitalise on PSV’s weakness at the Philips Stadion two seasons in a row.
However, toward the end of his Ajax tenure, De Boer had seemed to run out of ideas, which is quite shocking considering the nascence of his coaching career. Some say that a team plays in the visage of its coach and for the better part of three seasons now, his Ajax side were painfully dull and at a paucity of ideas to create meaningful chances. Masters of horizontal play, their build-up was slow, replete with sideway passes between the centre-backs, and little synchronicity between the midfield and the men on the flank. In the Champions League match against Celtic at home, Ajax bombarded the Scottish side with crosses but seemed to have little else in the arsenal. While they tend to create a fair amount of chances, the quality of these chances left a lot to desire. Think 2015-16 Man United under Louis van Gaal, but poorer.
This has been exposed in the Europa League of all places, as Roger Schmidt provided a nearly flawless template with which to defeat Ajax; allow the centre backs to pass the ball around but press once the ball reaches midfield and counter-attack through the centre with pace. Sadio Mané revelled against the Ajax defence on the two occasions, with Kevin Kampl providing the passes to set him going.
De Boer often seemed to only partake in one tactical change; to play a 3-4-3 against teams that function in a 4-4-2. However, the impotency of this was exposed by Erik ten Hag’s Utrecht last season. When De Boer ‘changed’ tactics, it only really seems to be shifting around personnel without any alterations to the game plan and as such, good opponents eventually developed the ability to neutralise Ajax for the most part. De Boer’s substitutions mostly featured not as an effort to change a failing system but merely rolling a dice and hoping for individual impact. This works both ways and while his philosophy is founded on a principle of whole being greater than sum of its parts, his preferred systems do little to minimise the consequences of a potential individual error or make up for lack of extraordinary individual talent.
De Boer’s problem with strikers is also rather peculiar. To be fair, he has not had a Luis Suarez to work with, but even when provided with a talented young forward such as Arek Milik, the Dutchman seems to lack a certain trust in No.9s in general. He preferred Siem de Jong as a false striker to Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, and tried Davy Klaassen in the same role too. This dynamic may be interesting at Inter since their best player is striker Mauro Icardi.
The biggest criticism levied at De Boer in the wake of Ajax’s last-day-loss of the title, was his decision to substitute Milik — Ajax’s top scorer who had been having a hot streak since January — for El Ghazi, a winger who was not quite on form. De Boer’s justification of the Pole not having a good game was not really a justification because Milik had actually been involved in Ajax’s two best chances to get the second goal.
Indeed, a peculiarity closely linked to this was his belief that sticking 196cm tall centre back Mike van der Hoorn up front makes for an actual, valid Plan B. It was his go-to plan when qualification to the knock-outs was up for grabs in Milan in 2013, and it was his go-to plan in the dying minutes of the match vs De Graafschap, with the title in the balance. This raises some concerns as to his innovativeness in the face of being found out by opponents and lacking individual moments of excellence on a given day.
De Graafschap midfielder Bryan Smeets, whose goal denied Ajax the title, summed up the season well by saying, “PSV and Ajax were so incredibly close; that’s quite an achievement. But on the other hand, if you cannot win at De Graafschap, you do not really deserve the title.”
Before every match in the Amsterdam ArenA, the song ‘Bloed, Zweet en Tranen’ blasts from the speakers. A cult favourite, the voice of the late, iconic Andre Hazes reverberates around the gargantuan stadium, detailing a man’s reflection on his life. The final lines go “Met bloed, zweet, en tranen / Zei ik vrienden, dag vrienden, de koek is op” (With blood, sweat and tears / I say friends, bye friends, I am done.”). One cannot help but feel this was a pertinent emotion for Frank de Boer as he made his Ajax exit.
While criticism has been directed at him, the defining image of the De Boer era at Ajax will likely not be that of him limping away into the tunnel on 8th May, but the man who — even amidst the politics off the pitch — gave Ajax four league titles in a row, after seven painful years of drought.
De Boer’s success has come in a very special, very unique environment. Barring 2015-16, his Ajax achieved around the same point tally as the four seasons before he took over, which suggests that the lack of consistent and quality opposition must be factored into his titles. Furthermore, in the face of failure of the board to make good signings and/or the failure of a signing to fit into Ajax, De Boer has been able to call upon a brilliant arsenal of young players, who are not only individually gifted but also conditioned to play exactly in the 4-3-3 system of the first team and thus, need little acclimatisation. Indeed, De Boer has given 25 youth players their Ajax debuts and not every club can offer the same conditions. As such, there are quite a few factors too unique to his tenure at Ajax that make it quite hard to judge whether De Boer will be a success elsewhere, including obviously, Inter.
Inter’s average squad age is 27.7, which could work both ways for De Boer. On one hand, the likes of Icardi, Miranda, Antonio Candreva, and Ivan Perisic have played football at a high level, played at international tournaments and will not make the same, immature mistakes as his young crop at Ajax. On the other hand, older players are not easy to mould or adapt to a new coach’s style of football and training, especially since most of these players’ education has come from South America or Iberia, compared to the group he had at Ajax, who were all trained to play with the ball.
Planted in a better league, which is known for being ‘defensive’, De Boer’s own system fits well and may not be exposed too much or too often by teams. However, he himself has to work on finding and fine-tuning his philosophy of attacking when his team are in possession. He never played in Italy as a player too, so he has to get to grips with a new environment quickly.
Furthermore, at Inter, he has club owners to answer to and whose investment he has to justify with both his choice of transfer targets as well as performances on the pitch, and getting the best out of the club’s expensive signings. The fact that his first buy as Inter manager — João Mario for €45 million — is only €5.6m off his total expenditure over 5 years at Ajax stands testament to the fact that De Boer is now playing an entirely new ballgame.
He shrugged off questions about pressure at his press conference, quipping to the reporter about how demanding the ArenA faithful are. However, one must acknowledge that given it’s only his second job, and first outside a ‘comfort’ zone, this is a real test for De Boer, where the stakes are extremely high.
Indeed, Inter are often in the company of Real Madrid or Chelsea in terms of switching out managers at the slightest sign of worry. In the five-and-a-half years since De Boer took charge of Ajax on in December 2010, Inter have seen no less than seven different coaches. He will be under pressure from the higher-ups at Inter, in addition to the Nerazzuri faithful; the owners have already emphasised the need for Inter to challenge Juventus strongly for the title.
In his press conference, De Boer already seemed to have changed. He insisted that just because he used a 4-3-3 with Ajax, it doesn’t mean he will do so with Inter, which is an interesting contrast to some time back at Ajax, when he firmly insisted the 4-3-3 was integral to his philosophy.
Whether the success he has achieved with Ajax is replicable at Inter is not easy to determine, but it is bound to be valuable experience for the former Dutch captain if he uses the opportunity to learn and widen his tactical knowledge. His compatriot Ronald Koeman experienced quite a bit of managerial failure before finding recognition and relative success with Feyenoord and Southampton, and that is what De Boer must look to, in addition to the pursuit of success.