Frank de Boer’s appointment as Crystal Palace manager took the number of former Barcelona players now managing in the Premier League to five, 25% of the total workforce and a ringing endorsement for the philosophy of Total Football Johan Cruyff introduced to the Catalans after making it famous in his native Netherlands.
De Boer, who signed a three-year deal with Palace yesterday, joins fellow Dutchman Ronald Koeman, former team-mate Pep Guardiola, plus two other Barca alumni in Mauricio Pellegrino, the new man at Southampton and Mark Hughes of Stoke. Add to the mix Jose Mourinho, who learned to coach under Bobby Robson at the Camp Nou and it is clear how much impact the Catalan club has on modern football, a fact De Boer acknowledged while paying tribute to Cruyff, who passed away in 2016.
“Cruyff started it with total football at Ajax and then Barcelona. He died two years ago, but his legacy lives on. It’s about technical football, smart tactics,” said de Boer.
“Barcelona is a great training ground for managers because they showed you can win matches with the kind of football they play. Of course you always need players who are strong and fit, but you also need those with special qualities who are very smart, and with that combination you can win things.”
De Boer was made fully aware by Palace’s ambitious chairman Steve Parish the south London club are no longer content to rely on late season heroics to survive, but want to build a stronger base, and have a footballing philosophy with Palace’s DNA running through the club.
While de Boer’s disastrous experience at Inter last year has taught him not to promise instant results or an overnight transformation, he understands what Palace want, and believes he can deliver. Even the unhappy experience at Manchester United of Louis Van Gaal, another huge influence on de Boer, did not put him off. “I spoke to Van Gaal and he told me what to expect. He had a big influence on me as a coach, just as Cruyff did at the beginning of my career as a player.”
It all comes back to Cruyff and Ajax, who have managed the trick of producing a seemingly endless supply line of talent for other clubs, while still being successful. De Boer won the Champions League with Ajax as captain, then led them to four consecutive league titles, even while having to sell star players such as Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen. The first superstar, though, was Cruyff, the original Dutch master. “Cruyff started a revolution in football,” added De Boer. “So it was very important for me to listen when he talked about the small details in football. For me that was fantastic.
“It all starts with defence and that was the same at Ajax under Cruyff, and Barcelona under Pep Guardiola. If everyone is involved, both in attack and defence, you can win things as a team. You have to know when to be dominant with the ball, and also when you don’t have the ball, it is important everyone knows what is happening so you have a shape, move together and dominate in that way, become dangerous in transitions.”
It is a far cry from the Route One football Sam Allardyce returned to when he took over from Alan Pardew last Christmas with Palace deep in a relegation battle. Allardyce went back to basics, got the players fitter and played percentage football, including wins at Chelsea and Liverpool and over Arsenal.
“Sam Allardyce showed what a good manager he is, what he did here in the last six months was fantastic, beating some big teams,” said de Boer of his predecessor.
But Steve Parish wants more than the survivalist football Palace played.
“When I first came here seven years ago, we developed a certain style of play because it’s partly the DNA of the club, and also because it’s less expensive. If you want to play on the break in the Championship, it’s less expensive than if you want a lot of technical midfielders, and that’s stuck with us a little bit.
“Now I think firstly we have players here who are better than that and capable of doing a bit more, and secondly I don’t think it’s a sustainable model. When I watched Swansea and compared them to us, I thought their way of playing football gave them a better chance of winning.”
Frank de Boer has been instructed to end the “anxiety” and “near-unbearable pressure” that descends every year at Crystal Palace.
De Boer already revealed plans to implement a more expansive brand of football but arrives with chairman Steve Parish desperate to avoid the relegation struggle they have experienced every season since promoted in 2013.
Parish spoke at the conclusion of the 2016/17 campaign about the need for Palace to finish in the top half of the Premier League, and at De Boer’s unveiling said: “The pressure (of relegation) is almost unbearable.
“Everyone says you get the parachute money which was always 55% of the TV money, so it used to be £10m, then £20m, now it is £45m or £55m. Where will it go in the next TV cycle? “Some people in this room won’t have a job if we get relegated: we have 400,000 fans on our database, the fans’ hopes and dreams, fears and jobs rely on it.
“(Club co-owners) Josh (Harris) and David (Blitzer): for them the stress is almost unbearable, but it is our job to see through those moments and to steer us away from danger. It is the worst feeling in the world, I won’t lie to you. We’re steadily improving the club and to lose it all in one season would be terrible. Frank’s number one brief is to reduce mine and every supporters’ anxiety.”
Whether de Boer can implement the Barcelona way, and get Crystal Palace playing sophisticated AND successful football, remains to be seen. But he’s got the best possible pedigree.
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