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.