London – Rewind to the 1998 World Cup and Dennis Bergkamp’s winning goal for Holland against Argentina at Marseille’s Stade Vélodrome. It is a moment of breathtaking skill that has been much replayed but often lost in the telling is the pass that made it happen. It came from the boot of Frank de Boer as he edged towards the halfway line and, as well as displaying great range, highlighted a quality Crystal Palace are banking on the Dutchman bringing to the club, having appointed him as their latest manager: vision.
Confirmed as Sam Allardyce’s successor at Selhurst Park on a three-year deal, De Boer’s principal task is keeping Palace in the Premier League. However, the decision of the club’s chairman, Steve Parish, and the American major shareholders, David Blitzer and Josh Harris, to opt for De Boer over, say, Mauricio Pellegrino and Sean Dyche, is also based on a long-term strategy of developing young talent and integrating it successfully into the first team, allowing Palace to become less reliant on big-money signings and quick-fix loan deals, as has been their way in recent years. In that regard De Boer fits the bill perfectly.
After all, this is a man who in his three years in charge of Ajax’s youth academy, from 2007-2010, helped nurture Christian Eriksen, Daley Blind and Toby Alderweireld, players who also benefited from De Boer’s coaching when he took charge of the first team in December 2010, alongside, among others, Jan Vertonghen, Siem de Jong and Jasper Cillessen. It is some roll call – a group who not only improved under De Boer but won Eredivisie titles before moving on for fees that allowed Ajax to invest money in and give opportunities to more young talent, such as Davy Klaassen, who has just joined Everton for £26m.
During his nine-year coaching spell at Ajax, up until May 2016, De Boer undeniably underlined not only his eye for a player but his ability to get the best of the resources at his disposal and the hope for Palace is he can transfer that alchemy from Amsterdam to Beckenham.
It will not be straightforward. For a start there is no guarantee Palace’s academy contains players whose potential is anywhere near that of Eriksen, Alderweireld, Blind and the rest, and even if there are, such are the physical rigours of the Premier League they may struggle to assert themselves sufficiently should they complete the rise to first-team level. But having become Palace’s fifth long-term manager in four years, De Boer has been told he will have time to fully implement his way of working; to give youth – from this country and abroad – a chance and if it does not work at first, try and try again.
For De Boer this is crucial, given his last managerial stint, at Internazionale, ended last November after 14 games in charge across 85 days. It was a brief tenure at a particularly shambolic time in the Italian club’s history and led to De Boer arguing, quite justifiably, that he needed more time to succeed at San Siro. The 47-year-old’s decision to move to England, having previously been linked with vacancies at Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Everton, has in part been based on assurances he will not be sacked hastily for a second time in succession.
There can be no guarantee, especially in the Premier League. Seven managers were sacked in the division last season, including one at Palace, Alan Pardew, after a start to the campaign in which the club slumped to within a point of the relegation zone just before Christmas. Should De Boer find himself in the same position at the same point in the year, then for all the talk of long-term plans it would not come as a shock if Parish pulled the trigger again. So De Boer will have to succeed in the short as well as the long term and his five and a half years in charge of Ajax’s first team suggest he is capable of that.
Having been appointed manager on a temporary basis as part of Johan Cruyff’s velvet revolution, De Boer made an instant impact at the club he represented as a player for 11 years and helped win the Champions League, alongside his twin brother, Ronald. He won his first match, a 2-0 Champions League game away to Milan, and, having then been given the job on a long-term basis, led Ajax to the Eredivisie title at the first time of asking.
Three successive title triumphs followed and while it is easy to belittle that achievement given this is Ajax, the 2010-11 championship was in fact their first in seven years and the reason De Boer took over as manager from Martin Jol in the first place was because the club was in a mess: bloated after years of unsuccessful spending and racked by an internal conflict until Cruyff eventually got his way over the board and instilled a technical heart at the club made up of former players. Alongside De Boer it included Wim Jonk, Marc Overmars and Bergkamp.
Cruyff wanted to see Ajax return to their guiding principle of developing young talent and giving them a chance to flourish in the first team, with De Boer leading the operation. And that is what they, and he, did, with the fruit of that work most vividly illustrated by the side who reached the Europa League final last month. Led by De Boer’s successor, Peter Bosz, the average age was 22 years and 282 days.
In De Boer’s final two seasons Ajax missed out on the title to PSV Eindhoven but on both occasions they finished second and ended the 2015-16 campaign with 82 points, their highest total under De Boer. There was no slow death to his tenure, the standard remained high throughout and during that time Ajax played a brand of football that was easy on the eye and had definite ties to the club’s distinct traditions.
Influenced by Cruyff during his time in Ajax’s academy and by Louis van Gaal in the first team, De Boer implemented the principles of both men as manager. His players were encouraged to express themselves, to be tactically flexible but also to work as a unit, specifically when pressing aggressively in order to trigger a quick transition. It worked more often than not and along the way there were some particularly notable scalps, including Barcelona, who were beaten 2-1 at the Amsterdam Arena in November 2013, and 13 months earlier Manchester City, who were defeated 3-1 at the same venue. Ajax all but ended City’s hopes of qualifying for that season’s Champions League knockout stages with a performance that brimmed with fast and elusive attacking play.
That should excite everyone associated with Palace and it helps the club’s cause that De Boer favours a 4-3-3 formation that deploys traditional wingers. Palace have just the men in Andros Townsend and last season’s outstanding performer, Wilfried Zaha. The 24-year-old signed a five-year contract extension with the club last month and, as an academy graduate, represents the type of player De Boer is tasked with developing while also keeping the Eagles soaring in the top flight. It is an ambitious brief but the signs are that Palace have the best man possible to see it through.
The Guardian Sport