Atlanta United move quickly and smartly to appoint Frank de Boer
Background photo: Daniel Meyer, CC BY-SA 3.0
Despite a cabinet filled with trophies, Frank de Boer was sacked abruptly from his last two jobs. Although Inter and Crystal Palace showed far less patience with the Dutchman than Chelsea and Manchester United demonstrated with Jose Mourinho, it’s a career trend the two managers reluctantly share. Both are also set in their ways. Markedly different in said ways, the comparison ends there even though each spent time at Barcelona.
As Sean Lunt noted recently, United and Chelsea [in Jose’s second go-round] possess strong identities at least off the pitch. Along with Real Madrid, they were unwilling to “bend to Mourinho’s will”, unlike Porto, Chelsea in the early Abramovich years and Inter in Massimo Moratti's final seasons.
Because Italian football prides itself on defending. Inter was doubly suited to the Portuguese’s harsh methods. The Nerazzurri didn’t need to change much for the defensive-minded tactician. For De Boer, they did. Despite a playing career in the back four, De Boer prefers to attack, especially from the wings. When the Dutchman’s radical change didn’t take immediately, the club’s new owners panicked.
Accustomed to fighting relegation, Crystal Palace hired De Boer to give them some attacking wings. After four losses to open the campaign, the London club lost its resolve as well.
Atlanta United are neither Internazionale nor Crystal Palace. Even though the franchise has played just two seasons, the Five Stripes [no relation to Jack and Meg White] are comfortable within their skin.
Built from the ground up by Argentine manager Gerardo Martino, the club won the MLS Cup in their sophomore campaign. The New York Red Bulls pipped them to the Supporters Shield for the 2018 regular season’s best record on the final weekend but were thoroughly dismantled when the two sides met in the Eastern Conference Final. The Portland Timbers had no chance in front of 70,000+ United fans in the Cup final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A Seven-Nation Army wasn’t going to hold United back this year.
Atlanta’s class and Major League Soccer’s first 30-goal man, Josef Martinez, rendered the team all but unstoppable in the regular season. The manager’s announced intention to resign following the playoffs removed ‘all but’ from the equation. The squad wasn’t going to disappoint their creator in his final match.
Crowned champions, the club’s executive turned their focus to replacing their Argentine tactician. Despite his recent failings or perhaps due to them, De Boer’s an excellent choice to succeed Martino.
The Argentine built a side who attack with speed and width. The Dutchman won four Eredivisie titles with Ajax using similar tactics. Ajax under De Boer were a club who moulded young talent into champions. Atlanta United under ‘Tata’ Martino are young talents who became champions. He may tweak the system but he won’t abandon it.
That said, De Boer for Martino is not a like-for-like transition.
Not a perfect match
Martino drew heavily on his South American connections to build the United squad. Although Venezuelan Martinez was struggling with Italian side Torino [and previously Swiss club Young Boys] when the newly-appointed United manager signed him, Miguel Almiron, Hector Villalba, Yamil Asad and Ezequiel Barco arrived from Lanus, San Lorenzo, Velez Sarsfield and Independiente respectively.
De Boer doesn’t have extensive contacts in Argentina and Paraguay. Atlanta’s at risk to lose both Martinez and Almiron to European clubs in the January window. The Dutchman may need to draw on his own connections to retool for a title defence. Ajax chairman Edwin van der Sar may find one or two youngsters who need playing time that he’d be willing to loan an old friend. La Masia isn’t what it once was but the Barcelona academy still supplies young talent to clubs throughout Europe. Expansion into the American market might appeal to the Cules.
Veteran forward Ryan Babel’s another option. The 32-year-old might be half a step slower these days but Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic adapted to MLS brilliantly without any pace of which to speak. Struggling in the Super Lig, Turkish side Besiktas is shedding its pricey veterans in favour of cheap, impressionable youth [and possibly Mesut Ozil]. In addition to Martino’s one European gem, German playmaker Julian Gressel, Babel could be an excellent lynchpin in a De Boer rebuild.
Daley Blind might be another strong veteran option in the summer, once Ajax’s campaign ends. The left-back-slash-holding-mid’s recent hattrick against De Graafschap suggests the erstwhile Manchester United bit-part player has some petrol left in the tank.
Will money ruin the relationship?
If Atlanta hang onto Martinez and Almiron, recruiting won’t be a major issue for De Boer. In any event, MLS’ arcane salary cap, designed to promote league-wide parity, rules out further expensive signings before any went out the door. Again, Atlanta seeks consistency, not change for change’s sake.
The Five Stripes undoubtedly factored the league’s glass ceiling on wages into their managerial search. De Boer’s an ideal choice to cope with financial restrictions. His championship-filled reign at the AmsterdamArenA came while operating under Ajax’s self-imposed budget and dealing with constant poaching from bigger European sides. Manchester United signed Blind from the club following the 2014 World Cup.
De Boer faces pressure to hit the ground running in Atlanta albeit not due to his recent travails. If he doesn’t, the club will be more patient than either Palace or Inter. United owner Arthur Blank, who also owns the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, understands a new coach requires time.
The problem is the CONCACAF Champions League runs simultaneously to the MLS preseason. The competition’s format resembles the FA Cup. The big dogs from LIGA MX [Mexico] and MLS sides enter the competition late.
Focussing on their run to the CCL final this past spring derailed Toronto FC’s MLS title defence right out of the gate. Despite manager Greg Vanney’s rotation policy, subsequent injuries prevented the Reds from getting back on track.
An unfamiliar squad lacking match fitness while required to travel distances that make away games in Europe seem like crosstown commutes represents a stiff initial challenge for the Dutchman to overcome. Toronto withdrew from a failed partnership with De Boer’s former club a few years ago. Nevertheless, the club signed former Ajax right-back Gregory van der Wiel from Cagliari last season. Perhaps a back channel exists through which De Boer can reach out to Vanney for advice.
Despite the early obstacles and his recent coaching history, Frank de Boer’s experience and style match well with Atlanta United. If the franchise maintains the patience to make it through the teething process, they may well thumb their noses at the league’s insistence on parity to forge a dynasty in the fire sparked by their first title.