Now the honeymoon period has well and truly fizzled out, extinguished by so much sideways football that soon Louis van Gaal will be making a pilgrimage to Selhurst Park to see what all the fuss is about, it comes as no surprise to learn Crystal Palace appear to be wondering whether the man who said he would make his new team play like Ajax might not be up to the task of managing in the Premier League.
Judging by the grumbling emanating from south London last week, some members of Palace’s squad appear to have made up their minds already about Frank de Boer. If the writing is on the wall for him, it is largely because his apparently dissatisfied players have wasted no time sharpening their pens and, although that kind of insurrection could be seen as yet another damning indictment of the state of modern football, it is worth remembering no manager is safe if his methods raise eyebrows rather than spirits in the dressing room.
Perhaps it reflects poorly on English football that De Boer, who led Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles in his first managerial job, has encountered early resistance at Palace (highest Premier League finish: 10th in 2015). After all, everyone was on board when he outlined his vision in the summer and demonstrated an awareness that refining Palace’s style would not be easy, promising “evolution, not revolution”. Three matches in, however, Palace fans are still waiting to celebrate a goal, let alone their first point. More worrying than the results are the insipid, cure-for-insomnia performances, the dogmatism that makes Van Gaal’s Manchester United look even more freewheeling than Brazil’s 1970 team.
But why did the Palace hierarchy not see this coming? Before De Boer, the home dugout at Selhurst Park was the domain of the Proper Football Man. Since winning promotion under Ian Holloway in 2013, Palace have employed Tony Pulis, Neil Warnock, Alan Pardew and Sam Allardyce, and the result is a gritty, direct team with few frills and little creativity or flair. One has got to go back 19 years to find the only other time they had a foreign manager, Atillio Lombardo, who could not save them from relegation during a brief spell as caretaker player-manager. Hiring De Boer was a departure from the norm for Palace and maybe it was to be expected they would experience teething problems. They will be accused of impatience if they decide to cut their losses; in reality, however, their biggest crime would be failing to lay the proper foundations for such a big change to their identity.
It would hint at the kind of structural shortcomings stemming from a lack of a philosophy within the club. Allardyce one minute, De Boer the next: it was too extreme. Palace had just survived a relegation scrap and there was no sense they had been gearing up to become the English Ajax. It is no wonder the squad has struggled to adapt to De Boer, who said his players lacked courage on the ball after the home defeat by Swansea City.
This can be a consequence when clubs attempt a quick fix instead of building gradually. Last month Palace hired Dougie Freedman as a sporting director. Yet it is difficult not to conclude Freedman should have arrived before De Boer and it is baffling that clubs with Palace’s resources do not seek to emulate the model at Southampton, where long-term planning ensures they are equipped to handle a change in the dugout. The expertise of the Pozzo family helps Watford punch above their weight despite their rotating cast of managers. What mattered more when Leicester won the title: hiring Claudio Ranieri or scouting N’Golo Kanté?
The director of football role remains staggeringly underrated in England. When it was put to Arsène Wenger that Arsenal could benefit from appointing one, he sounded as if he had been told to change his name to José. “I don’t know what it means,” Wenger said. “Is it somebody who stands on the road and directs the players left and right?”
A director of football could have challenged Wenger’s authority, forcing Arsenal out of their comfort zone. Instead his bosses shied away from making a tough decision at the end of last season, condemning Arsenal to two more years of stasis.
These are troubled times in the capital. Only West Ham’s miserable goal difference keeps Palace off the foot of the table. Time is running out for Slaven Bilic, who was found wanting tactically a long time ago. Yet while Bilic is fortunate to have his job, West Ham’s main problem is David Sullivan’s idea of a director of football seems to be David Sullivan. Gaping holes have not been filled and the club’s decision to focus on short-term acquisitions has left the team looking slow and old. How appropriate was it for the man in charge of transfers to be on holiday in Spain on deadline day?
So nothing changes. With the De Boer project looking doomed, Freedman is expected to step in on a temporary basis before making way for Roy Hodgson. Another emergency will force Palace back to square one, but it could have been avoided with greater foresight.
De Boer, schooled at Ajax and one of the most technically gifted defenders of his generation, appeared to have the credentials. More relevant than the 85-day stint at Internazionale, however, is the way Ajax became stagnant in his final two seasons, boring the Amsterdam Arena with laborious passing. Johan Cruyff disciples came to view De Boer as a Van Gaal man. He promised to bring excitement to Palace but so far he has offered precious little evidence of his Cruyffism.