Trying to fathom Atlanta's switch from Latin to Dutch

As someone who has made a small study of what a newly appointed coach does on arrival at his new club, I have to tell you that the happenings at Atlanta are rather perplexing.

When the new coach takes over a team that is going through a rough patch, you can be pretty sure that he will crack the whip, lengthen training sessions, increase their intensity -- anything to show that “things are going to be different around here” -- i.e. tougher.

That is hardly the situation at Atlanta. The club is coming off an enormously successful season -- arguably the most successful season any club has ever had in the 23-year history of MLS. Something rather different is to be expected under those opposite conditions.

Yet here is the new man, Frank de Boer, prolonging the first training session with a 30-minute 11 v 11 scrimmage. Unusual. Unfortunate, too -- for defender Franco Escobar, who ended up with a broken collar bone, an injury that will sideline him for at least six weeks. A serious injury to a key player, suffered in a training session? Not good.

Brek Shea (also a new arrival at Atlanta) commented after the session: “He’s going to push us, he knows the team was good last year. He will try to continue with a different approach.”

A new approach? Surely not -- why would that be necessary for such a supremely successful team? But Shea has no doubt got it right. At his introductory press conference, de Boer stressed the importance of the preseason as a time when “we’re going to decide how we want to play.”

An extraordinary thing to say. A quick look at the Atlanta roster -- and de Boer must have studied the roster closely -- reveals that Latin American players make up most of the core of the team’s top players. From (the now-injured) Escobar and Leandro Gonzalez Pirez in defense, Miguel Almiron (unless he departs), Ezequiel Barco, and Eric Remedi in midfield, and forwards Josef Martinez and Hector Villalba.

Various combinations of that group worked brilliantly last year. Add an Argentine coach in Tata Martino and the playing style was -- well, what would one expect? -- distinctly Latin American.

What’s to change? Well, the big change has already been made -- by the Atlanta directors -- with the signing of de Boer. A Dutchman to coach a strongly Latin-oriented team.

A good idea? That will depend entirely on the ability of de Boer to adapt to the players. De Boer does speak Spanish -- presumably picked up during his time, as a player, with Barcelona. Otherwise, his experience of Latin soccer seems negligible. Actually that may be irrelevant. Because de Boer, being a Dutch coach, would likely want his team to play in a Dutch style anyway -- even if all of them had just landed from Mars.

Talking of “a Dutch style” inevitably brings up images of Total Soccer from the 1970s. Positive images of lively, rapidly-moving, attacking, skillful soccer. Those images are not entirely trustworthy, because all the best of them feature the sublime skills of Johan Cruyff. Without Cruyff, Total Soccer became a rather ordinary affair, in which physical effort and tactical discipline took over from skill.

Not much has changed. Dutch soccer today, far-removed from the Cruyff heyday, is very much a chess-board version of the sport, and tactical astuteness is still the key. De Boer will want that type of game -- a 4-3-3 that also involves a high, pressuring, defensive line.

As in any mode of play, success depends on having players who fit the system. De Boer himself told us just that at his press conference: “Style of play depends on what type of players you have.” But does he really believe that?

The question can be asked because of what happened when de Boer, after six very successful years coaching Ajax Amsterdam, ventured outside the Netherlands to coach at Inter Milan. Suddenly he encountered a problem that had never come up in the Netherlands. At Inter, logically, the bulk of the players were Italian. Latins, if you like. In this situation de Boer lasted only 85 days before he was fired.

De Boer’s explanation of the disaster, in an interview with the Italian press, is revealing: “All'Inter ho provato a fare un calcio posizionale” -- “At Inter I tried to introduce soccer based on positional play.” This was obviously something that did not go down well with the Italian players. De Boer lamented: “I’ve never seen anything like it. The boys in the youth teams at Ajax do it better. The Inter players didn’t see the value of any of my routines. I explained that these were essential concepts for understanding how we wanted to play. They quickly ignored them.”

This business of trying to get players to fundamentally change their playing habits was repeated in his next job, in 2017, at Crystal Palace -- where he was sacked after just 77 days. He was viewed as totally inflexible; later he complained that players had resisted his approach, and he blamed the club for not signing more suitable players.

De Boer claims that he has learned from his mistakes. But the only mistakes he acknowledges were those made by the Inter and Crystal Palace players who, he claims, refused to follow his directions.

The thought that he might be asking players to do something so foreign to their soccer instincts that they were simply unable to comply, does not seem to cross de Boer’s mind.

A truly intriguing thing about de Boer’s coaching history is that it closely parallels that of another Dutch coach -- Louis van Gaal: having success with Dutch teams, but finding life much more difficult when employed by foreign clubs. Asked during the press conference about coaches who had influenced him, de Boer at once began to talk about and to highly praise van Gaal.

Van Gaal began his coaching career with a very successful six-year stint (1991-97 -- it included winning the European Cup in 1995) at Ajax. Nineteen years later, de Boer did much the same (no European Cup). Van Gaal moved on to Barcelona, where a successful first season was followed by two turbulent years highlighted by a bitter feud between him and the Brazilian Rivaldo. Van Gaal demanded that Rivaldo play as a left winger, Rivaldo insisted he was a central midfielder. Despite Rivaldo winning the 1999 FIFA Player of the Year award, van Gaal benched him.

Barcelona and van Gaal parted company in 2000, amid heavy press criticism that the rigidity of van Gaal’s playing system did not allow playmakers to use their skills. The fans were not happy, attendances were down. A February 2000 headline in the Spanish sports paper AS -- Van Gaal vacia el Camp Nou (Van Gaal Empties Camp Nou) -- was obviously an exaggeration, but the average per-game attendance had sunk to 57,000, the lowest of the decade.

Next, in what looked like a bad joke, van Gaal returned to Barcelona. This time he lasted only half the season. His bete noire Rivaldo was no longer around, but his replacement was an Argentine, Juan Roman Riquelme. Another Latin star whom van Gaal left on the bench.

In a spell at Bayern Munich, van Gaal had a successful first year, but was fired at the end of his second year. Two seasons at Manchester United followed. The FA Cup was won in 2016, but van Gaal was fired two days later. His style of play had proved too ordinary, the club was used to a more exciting type of soccer.

(During this time, van Gaal was twice in charge of the Dutch national team. Flopping badly the first time, as he failed to qualify the team for the 2002 World Cup, doing much better the second time, when he led his team to third place in 2014).

Throughout his career van Gaal was plagued by accusations of arrogance (sardonic heading in a story in AS October 18 1999, “Van Gaal Nunca Se Equivoca -- Van Gaal Is Never Wrong), and by the criticism that his playing system straight-jacketed his skillful players.

It would be regrettable if van Gaal, whom de Boer admits has been “very influential in how I think” has passed on those attributes to de Boer. The thought is in order because the word “arrogant” cropped up during de Boer’s short term with Crystal Palace, and it was evident de Boer’s rigid approach to “positional play” did not go over well either at Palace or Inter.

If that same approach is to be used by de Boer at Atlanta, it is difficult to see how it can improve an already excellent team. But not difficult at all to envisage it causing problems.

It was Almiron -- wondrously adventurous, ubiquitous and unpredictable -- who was at the heart of so much that was good for Atlanta last year, who set the tone for the team’s personality. Can anyone see Almiron (if he’s available) as the sort of player who would thrive within the confines of intricately precise Dutch tactical instructions?

Hardly. Almiron is much closer to Rivaldo and Riquelme -- world-class South American players whom van Gaal preferred to see on the bench rather than on the field.

On the positive side, de Boer does speak Spanish, and he has told us that he believes the “South American mentality is very good” for MLS. As for the game that the fans will see, he asserted that “we want to make it as attractive as possible for the fans.”

But he also, during his press conference, made some rather unsettling remarks which seemed to be paving the way for a style of play that would be appreciably different from last year.

He reminded us, three times, that 2019 would be a “whole different year,” saying that playing in the Concacaf Champions League would mean “a lot more games.” The message was clearly intended to emphasize the increased importance of a physical aspect of the game: player fitness.

And that reference to playing attractively was immediately followed by a totally unnecessary caveat -- “but we also want to win.” Of course. But de Boer is evidently one of those who does not have faith in the ability of attractive soccer to produce results. This is his version of a totally false premise so often argued in soccer: that you have to choose -- either good soccer, or winning soccer. Make your choice. You cannot have both.

A blatantly dumb argument, but one that is always around. Surely de Boer is aware that Atlanta last year managed to win the MLS Cup and to play the most attractive soccer in the league? So why does he have to tell us that “if I have to choose, I’m always choosing to win”?

So de Boer leaves us wondering. Of course, he will change things -- it is impossible for a new coach to take over and not bring along his own ideas. In his press conference he told us how much he will retain from the Martino era: “90 percent will be the same, with some details different.”

That’s a remarkably generous tribute from a coach whose last two jobs have seen him attempting, unsuccessfully, to completely alter the playing style of new teams and, of course, their players.

A continuation, then, of last season’s attacking excitement? Let us hope so. But some doubt creeps in, because de Boer, with his persistent emphasis on the physical requirements of this “whole new year,” is leaving the door open for a radically different approach.

16 comments about "Trying to fathom Atlanta's switch from Latin to Dutch".
  1. John Bauman, January 21, 2019 at 4:16 p.m.

    Right! Why is it that all of the best Latin players want to go to Europe?  Also, there doesn't seem to be a big line of the European players wanting to play in Latin America?  Or even the US, unless they are about finished thier careers in Europe and see the big bucks they can make here in the twilight of same?

  2. frank schoon, January 21, 2019 at 5:28 p.m.

    First of all PG questions De Boer's ability based on his early terminations by Inter and Crystal Palace, of which both teams have had SERIOUS problems in leadership and direction in the past decade. Since 2010 CP has  had 14 coaches of which all have been English except de Boer. Therefore you can also conclude CP has difficulty with English style of coaching as well as Dutch,perhaps.
    Likewise Inter has had 12 coaches in the past 8years. Again to blame de Boer for his coaching style, is a joke. Gee , too bad PG didn't find out the criticisms about the other coaches Inter had.  PG's criticism of De Boer is specious at best.All I can blame De Boer for is not choosing a more stable club.

    I think PG's hyperbolic speculation of what De Boer will change in style of play is way over the top.Lets just wait till the season starts to see what's going to happen. I have no inkling right now how Atlanta will play but any coach with any common sense will try to stay within the bounds of what made Atlanta good; therefore No major changes, thus. 
    No doubt, De Boer will introduce some new elements, and why shouldn't he? Tata, likewise would needed to introduce new aspects if he stayed for you can't continue to play the same way otherwise the team becomes too predictable.
    My hopes for the long run is that de Boer will be successful but also more importantly the aspect of how to play the "positional" game will further become also part of the US playing DNA. Postional  socccer requires more thinking, knowing the next one or steps ahead, more technical skill,relying more on the letting the ball do the running..If there is one thing US soccer needs is more thinking, less running, more technical savviness. You need to be able to play positional soccer if you want to play a possession game...

  3. Gonzalo Munevar, January 21, 2019 at 8:17 p.m.

    I think that Paul's concerns are completely valid and very well documented.  Crystal Palace and Inter might have several coaches who failed for a variety of reasons, but de Boer failed because he trie to impose positional play.  And his hero failed for he same reason, plus the tendency to bench the most skillful playmakers.  Atlanta should have hired another Argentinian coach.  A truly excellent article, Paul.

  4. frank schoon replied, January 21, 2019 at 8:38 p.m.

    Gonzalo, can you explain to me what non positional plays,means ,exactly. 

  5. Wooden Ships replied, January 21, 2019 at 9:16 p.m.

    Frank, my view would be imaginative versus cognitive, individual versus prescribed. I agree with Paul regarding the Latin style/preference from a players view. 

  6. frank schoon replied, January 21, 2019 at 9:47 p.m.

    Ships, to me imaginative is more applied to the front line where creativeness individuality is applied in the opponent’s third, but coming to that opponent’s third you need a more disciplined approach in order to not lose the initial two-thirds maintaining the ball through possession oriented style. But then again that be substituted by counter-attacking opportunistic soccer which is something we don’t want. 

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, January 22, 2019 at 7:27 a.m.

    WS that was actually a pretty good stab at Frank's question. I do have a problem with saying that positional play is not a Latin style of play. 

    In my view positional play is very Spanish and that it merged with Dutch Style principles under the influence of Cruyff at Barcelona to become a system of play rather than just how players supported off the ball while attacking.

    I entirely disagree with Paul's view that positional play is not "Latin" or that "Latin" players will reject it. I also think that Dutch Style principles are just general principles of good soccer and not Dutch at all.

    No matter how a coach sees the game, there will always be some players who don't share or respect the coach's view. Those disagreements by themselves are not an indication of a bad coach. Every coach on every level has to earn the respect of his team. Sometimes that means benching or trading players. If those disagreements did indicate a bad coach, then the world has never seen a good coach. 

  8. R2 Dad, January 22, 2019 at 12:35 a.m.

    FdB will definitely have his hands full, the club coming off a sucessful title run AND playing attractive ball. He has a long way to fall, and only a short time to prove otherwise before the heads  start dropping. But I think he does have a history of rigid thinking that does not bode well in the short term. Given a couple of seasons he should be able to re-craft the team--if he lasts that long. Now all-of-a-sudden Atlanta is a winner, wants to keep on winning, is less tolerant of lukewarm results. Look at how Moyes fared after Fergie, and Lopetegui after Zizou. I suspect a more rigid counterattacking side will be the result. Which can work, but will not be as fun to watch week in and week out. As long as Almiron stays FdB should be able to qualify for the playoffs, but there will be grumbling in the stands and whistles unless they get off to a flying start.

  9. Bob Ashpole, January 22, 2019 at 6:57 a.m.

    Paul, you are Monday morning quarterbacking, and today is Friday--the game hasn't been played yet. 

    I don't see anything strange at all about a new coach including a 30-minute 11v11 team scrimmage at the first pre-season training session. You make it sound like playing soccer is a punishment that players hate. 

    I can understand your point that de Boer is not Tata, but Tata left. I don't understand your using the Inter player's poor reaction to positional play to indicate that "latins" at Atlanta will refuse to adopt new ideas. Or even understand your assumption that de Boer sees the game differently than Tata and will without need change how Atlanta plays.

    In general I think of Italian soccer as the antithesis of attacking soccer. Sacchi was successful at AC Milan but he used Dutch players at the heart of the attack. I don't think the success of positional play in Spain can be attributed to using Dutch players or that Ajax Dutch Style play (Total Soccer) without Cruff is doomed to failure.

    Your criticisms of van Gaal are not the first I have seen. My view is that good soccer is good soccer regardless of what border you cross or what language you speak. Replacing Tata at Atlanta is a good test of de Boer's coaching ability. Lets give him a chance.      

  10. Bob Ashpole, January 22, 2019 at 8:08 a.m.

    Paul, here is something to think about regarding the "Latin" style of play. Soccer in the 1970s was very different then because teams were usually attacking man-to-man defenses. Individual flair was an excellent method of defeating man-to-man defenses. (As was attackers switching positions to draw markers out of an area in "total soccer".) That defenses changed as zone defenses became the norm. "Latin" style as a result had to evolve as did everyone. Individual "flair" is not the way to defeat zone defenses. Organized zone defenses have to be pulled apart by passing. After the zone's integrity is destroyed by passing, then individual "flair" can once again be effective in scoring goals.

    What I am suggesting is to think about the evolution of attacking styles from the perspective of the defenses that they faced. 

  11. frank schoon, January 22, 2019 at 9:49 a.m.

    Great Stuff Guys, Bob, Ships, R2. The question I pose to Gonzalo, "what is non-positional soccer" was meant to be tongue in cheek to show how rediculous the discussion of playing positional soccer has evolved as if it is meantto be  some kind of style of soccer, which I blame  totally on PG and others who don't understand the game. Van Hanegem, who I mentioned from time to time, once defined soccer as "position, position, position". Someone asked Ronald Koeman, a former Barcelona and Ajax player who was coached by Cruyff, was asked to describe Cruyff practices. He stated, all we do is play postional games, nothing else, we don't practice corners ,directs kick, or other aspects. Michael Laudrup at Barcelona was asked the same question and stated 'all we play is positional games, nothing else. Guardiola, likewise, idem ditto.
    Soccer is not a game between 2 players, it is not a 1v1 game and each player has a little goal to protect. The moment you have more than one player on the team ,in this case 10 field players, then the next question is how can these players function best in relation to the ball. Next, you have to ask yourself 2 questions, where can a player POSITION himself best to get the ball and in order to increase the quality of play meaning quality of ball movement, improving the speed of ball movement. And that is done by the player positioning in a manner that allows him to quickly pass the ball to the next station and on. That is not a style of soccer but a way of quick ball movement which is much faster than running with the ball to these various stations. All players no matter if it is South American, European,  or Martian, must play in an efficient manner, not style, but efficient and funtional. South American teams, learned this lesson real quickly at the WC'74 when they played the dutch...It wasn't Total Soccer, like PG wrongly inferred in a previous column, that beat the South American teams but efficient soccer as propagated by the Dutch, which is still taught  world wide and seen by Guardiola, Barcelona, Bayern and other teams of today. NEXT POST.

  12. frank schoon, January 22, 2019 at 10:21 a.m.

    I agree much of what R2 states of what FdB faces. The criticism of rigidity is nowhere backed up with examples, other than he likes playing positional soccer which is not a style but an efficient manner of playing. PG does not give any specific of FdB rigidity. So now  Rigidity has become monetized to fit FdB when criticizing him, based on his failed experience with 2 teams, Crystal Palace and Inter. 
    Both teams combined in the past 8 years have used up a total of 24 coaches.  I would assume that FdB first thought was ,as a coach, that these 2 fiasco teams need some kind of structure to follow DUH! Hmmm ,structure, rigidness, perhaps, in order to be a coach  of one of these teams which is like  coaching loose sand....
    Italy and England is where the mistake lies. FdeB should never have  coached there, especially in Italy where they don't care how you play as long as you win..this is why Bergkamp was a flop in Italy. But Dutch coaches prefer to play nice soccer as a way to win as promulgated by Cruyff. 
    Similarly , England is not known for its cerebral game. Guardiola was smart for he came to a team with loss of money and therefore picked the players that fits in how he wants to play, a luxury that was not afforded to FdB.

  13. Ben Myers, January 22, 2019 at 4:24 p.m.

    The experience of Jose Mourinho at Man U serves as a cautionary note for de Boer.  Mourinho has always been rigid, almost beyond belief.  So Pogba languished on the bench and the rest of Man U was mediocre.  But now, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Man U has become creative again, more fun to watch and undefeated/untied so far.  Now Pogba is having fun.

    At any level of soccer, having fun is very important.  de Boer needs to allow his players to have the fun of being creative.  If he does not, Atlanta Union will have some difficulty.

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, January 23, 2019 at 12:26 a.m.

    Ben, I don't think "rigid" is the best description of Mourinho's coaching philosophy. I think "negative" is a better fit. He fears possession of the ball because bad things may happen when his team loses possession. His solution is to avoid losing the ball by avoiding possession of the ball. How he sees that as rational thought, I don't know.

  15. frank schoon replied, January 23, 2019 at 7:05 a.m.

    Ben, you are confusing rigidness for the style/philosophy of coaching that has made him one of the most welll known coaches in the world

  16. Jogo Bonito, March 7, 2019 at 7:22 a.m.

    I just read this now. (Been busy) and I can’t believe anyone would question PG on this one. FdB was a ridiculous choice by ATL. He will not last the season. I hope I’m wrong because I do not enjoy seeing people fail, but I can’t believe they thought this would work. PG (as usual) is spot on here. 

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