As the players and staff at Ajax prepared themselves for a daunting second leg away to Real Madrid in the Champions League, Frank de Boer was preparing for his own testing away day against Mexican side Monterrey.
The uncertain nature of football meant it was impossible for De Boer to predict this path when he began coaching, if only because his current club Atlanta United did not exist when he first took the reins at Ajax in late 2010.
Despite Atlanta being only three seasons into their Major League Soccer journey the club has been through a lot.
Tata Martino’s two years at the helm brought highs, heartbreak, and ultimately a first MLS Cup success. The bar is set high for De Boer. In his introductory press conference in January, questions came thick and fast. How would his team play? Would he seek to change what Martino had built?
“I will not try to change everything because what’s good is good. Of course, what I think we can change, we will. But the hardware is there. We’re going to update it a little bit, but not change it a lot,” De Boer said.
De Boer has not changed everything, but he has shifted the way the team plays. In Martino’s second season he introduced a back three that was dynamic in possession, and his foundation of aggressive attacking football played alongside an occasional pragmatism that saw him adapt his approach to the situation (especially when the team reached the playoffs).
The back three has remained, but already there appears a more cautious tone to things under De Boer, and a greater emphasis on controlling possession. The lightning counter-attacks have been few and far between, but that may be a consequence of selling Miguel Almiron in January.
Preferring instead to operate with a 3-4-3 that can become a 5-4-1, De Boer has also put more responsibility on the midfield to dictate proceedings. Defenders are no longer encouraged to be ambitious with the ball. Their job is to supply the midfield.
It’s a stark contrast from what Atlanta’s defenders spent two years doing under Martino and gives a subtle insight into De Boer’s coaching influences.
At Ajax, he was handed his debut by club legend Johan Cruyff but spent the majority of his time at the club playing under Louis van Gaal. De Boer has often defined himself as being influenced by both, but his disciplined (often cautious) approach is when a kinship with Van Gaal presents itself.
It is perhaps understandable that he admires the 67-year-old so much. On the surface, Van Gaal has worked at five different European clubs and won league titles with four of them as well as coaching an unfancied Dutch side to third place at the 2014 World Cup.
Sadly, De Boer’s own time in management has not been as consistently successful, and more recently his reputation has been polarising. At his peak, he won four consecutive Dutch league titles with Ajax, while his professional nadir came more recently when Crystal Palace dismissed him after just 77 days in charge.
That said, his arrival in MLS is another chapter in the league’s coaching evolution. Traditionally, Europeans arriving fresh into the league have been stumped by the unique mechanisms at play; salary caps, designated players and allocation money, but to mention a few.
In the last few years Patrick Vieira, Domènec Torrent, and Remi Garde have all arrived in the United States without a familiarity of MLS and in some cases brought with them fresh tactical ideas. The hope is that De Boer will do the same.
For Vieira, an impressive two and a half years with New York City FC was the precursor to landing a job back in his native France with Nice, where he now sits 8th.
The same trajectory —from MLS to Europe— is possible for De Boer. His managerial career deserves more context and nuance than merely being success and failure, but it remains vital that he does not reinforce the criticisms from his past while in America.
So far, there is only one valid conclusion to be drawn; this is a work in progress.
That was his evaluation of the 2-0 defeat to D.C. United, during which his team had just two shots on target. “I think if we are much further in the season, we’re going to create more chances,” he said. “That I’m convinced of.”
His job now is to persuade Atlanta United fans of that fact. Their time in MLS has been brief but exciting, and patience is just another one of the changes De Boer is now ushering in. It’s new, it’s different, but eventually it must be exciting if De Boer is to last.