London- Steve Parish had taken to Twitter on Sunday night on the way back from Burnley and his team’s latest scoreless defeat. There were irate supporters to address and plenty of disgruntled fans pointing fingers at a board who, up to now, have been relatively immune to criticism given their achievements in hoisting Crystal Palace from the second tier. The chairman’s responses verged on the defiant, from “football teams lose games” to “we know we are better than this”. In among the series of tweets, too, was one suggesting “we have to stick together”.
As it transpired that call for unity, echoed by first-team players on social media, did not extend to the relationship between hierarchy and manager. After a night contemplating what happens next, Palace confirmed Frank de Boer’s tenure would not extend beyond the 11-week mark, provoking an understandable wave of bewilderment from those on the outside looking in.Why sack De Boer for managing like De Boer? Surely he needed proper time, and more investment, to instigate the change in style even Parish had acknowledged was desirable? Did the improved performance at Turf Moor, where 23 chances were created but none taken, not demand a stay of execution at least until Saturday’s visit of Southampton?
Parish and the club’s American major shareholders, David Blitzer and Josh Harris, who were in attendance in Lancashire, would acknowledge that logic. They would surely concede, too, that mistakes have been made. Embarrassing errors that damn all the due diligence conducted over that month-long summer recruitment process following Sam Allardyce’s surprise resignation. The chairman, it should not be forgotten, had admitted “every time a manager fails at this club, I fail, so if Frank fails it is my failure too”.
There is no hiding from this fiasco, whether or not talk of fans’ protests is followed through on Saturday lunchtime, or even if Palace rouse themselves under Roy Hodgson to clamber clear of trouble. The fact remains that it was always unreasonable to expect a manager schooled in one clear footballing way to be parachuted into a club and an unfamiliar league and successfully change everything overnight. He is even less likely to succeed if his squad are bolstered by only two young loanees and a £7.9m signing from Ajax. There was a splurge on Mamadou Sakho, a talismanic figure for Allardyce’s side last term, on deadline day but, by then, De Boer’s influence on transfer policy had all but evaporated. Looking back, what chance did he realistically have?
Not that the owners will have warmed to the idea of Palace becoming a laughing stock. There is nothing to celebrate in a club emulating a 93-year record for dismal top-flight starts one day, then casting the manager adrift after the fewest number of games in charge the next. But at some stage, for all the desire to develop on the pitch, fear kicks in. Palace cannot afford to drop out of this division. This is a fifth year at elite level, the longest in their history, and their wage bill has never been higher. The owners – it is safe to assume the American investors, in particular – cannot contemplate slipping into the Championship. Once De Boer offered no clear plan as to how he would kickstart the team’s season in a meeting with Parish and the sporting director, Dougie Freedman, on the last Monday in August, the writing was on the wall.
Given the schism that had developed behind the scenes, the surprise was not that the axe fell after four games but that the manager had still been in charge for the trip to Burnley. This relationship had fractured beyond repair after the defeat by Swansea last month when a manager who had pledged for most of the week to revert to a more comfortable system had ended up reverting to type just before kick-off in selection and tactics. The sight of the Dutchman bemoaning his players’ lack of “courage” on the ball in his post-match observations was too much for the owners to accept. One would have hoped the interview process might have highlighted any potential personality clash but clearly something had been lost in translation mid-summer. De Boer had apparently pledged “evolution, not revolution” but his approach suggested otherwise. Parish might argue some of the Dutchman’s tactics were evidence he had been hoodwinked.
What so infuriated the board was De Boer’s apparent naivety when it came to the demands of the Premier League, as perverse as that may seem in relation to a man who excelled as a player at Barcelona, earned 112 Holland caps and claimed four Eredivise titles in six seasons as Ajax’s coach. Tony Pulis and Allardyce proved at Palace that the starting basis for any kind of success at a club of this size is a solid defence; be hard to beat first, and build any kind of progressive play from that base. De Boer could point to a fine defensive record in Dutch football but fell back on his principles, his weight of experience as a player and coach, and a favoured tactical game plan: a 3-4-3 forged on possession and patient buildup as if it was lifted from his Ajax days.
It did not seem to matter that some of the players he had inherited, purchased by Ian Holloway to Pulis, Alan Pardew to Allardyce, were clearly uneasy with the whole approach. Or merely confused. So it was hardly a surprise what they delivered wasa mishmash. Palace have still regularly flung balls forward in hope for Christian Benteke – no other Premier League side have played as many long passes this season – but they have lacked the width to exploit their target man and, before the game at Burnley, any zest in their buildup play to stretch opponents.
Before Turf Moor, when the manager’s selection had hinted at a willingness to change, the players had looked bewildered. Their only periods of dominant play had come in the final half-hour of the Carabao Cup second-round tie against the youngest team Ipswich Town have ever selected, the second half against Swansea once the visitors were sitting on a 2-0 lead, and in arrears at Burnley. On all occasions, Palace had reverted to something akin to a 4-3-3, the formation that would appear to fit the personnel.
The issue had been raised with the manager before the Swansea match, the hierarchy almost pleading with him to give himself and the players the best chance of thriving, but it fell on deaf ears. By the end of that plod of a performance, Palace had reverted to playing Joel Ward at left-back, Lee Chung-yong on the flank and Martin Kelly at centre-half. It came as little surprise that the latter’s display was so frazzled given he had effectively been made available for transfer only to be thrust back into the picture almost overnight.
Maybe those players’ involvement reflects the inadequate nature of Palace’s squad, a highly paid yet imbalanced playing staff blessed with seven centre-halves but only one fit centre-forward. Plenty of players were permitted to move on but their contracts are bloated and prohibitive for suitors outside the Premier League. That they were not shifted limited what changes the new man could implement.
Other issues alarmed the ownership. The fact Luka Milivojevic, a revelation in defensive midfield after signing in January, featured as a centre-half throughout pre-season before being deposited back in midfield on the opening day against Huddersfield seemed self-defeating. The same could be said of Ward – deployed at centre-half for much of the summer only for De Boer to pick him as a right wing-back in the first competitive fixture. Ward duly laboured, scored an own goal and appeared utterly lost.
Plenty about the selection for that game against Huddersfield had alarm bells ringing, not least the fact Jairo Riedewald, at 20, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah, the 19-year-old secured on loan from Manchester United a few days previously, flanked Scott Dann in the new-look back three. As talented as the two youngsters may be, it seemed unwise to fling them into the fray in tandem in such a brutal division, even against promoted opponents. Better teams than Palace would struggle if reliant on such a green backline.
Then came the inevitable rumours of player discontent, always the precursor to managerial change, which had been seeping out for a while. Some did not take kindly to De Boer’s showboating in training, tricks and flicks and free-kicks bent in from distance, a la Glenn Hoddle. Others, it should be said, had no such complaints and felt they were steadily growing accustomed to his demands. The corner would be turned. Palace would revive. We will never know whether that was realistic.
Perhaps De Boer and Palace was never going to be the right fit. Even after four years dining at the top table, this club can still feel like a throwback. A set-up where only a certain kind of manager can thrive and, even then, not necessarily for very long. Sean Dyche, linked heavily with the post in the summer, would have been a more appropriate appointment in the circumstances when money is relatively tight and the implications of failure so immense. De Boer probably realised how awkward the alliance felt as quickly as the owners. He might argue he was too progressive at this stage of Palace’s development. The club would presumably counter by pointing at the dreadful results which have left the team playing catch-up, and ask whether De Boer is equipped for a dogfight.
Hodgson, in contrast, suddenly feels a safer option. He is anything but a leap into the unknown, and can come in and be as pragmatic, as he was with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. Yes, he is saddled with memories of Iceland but the Croydonian will consider Palace a homecoming and a chance to restore his reputation. Coping with the unremitting scrutiny of Premier League management will arguably be his biggest challenge because there is quality aplenty in this team which, if tapped properly, will steer them clear of trouble.
Turning to a 70-year-old hardly smacks of long-termism but Palace have probably waved goodbye to that aspiration. Four games in and everything is about survival once again. The board decided De Boer was not the man to achieve it.
The Guardian Sport