After failing with Atlanta United, Inter and Crystal Palace, the former defender is now in charge of one of the world’s best national teams
Frank de Boer was the subject of perhaps Jose Mourinho’s most vicious press conference put-down.
Let’s set the scene: De Boer is a pundit, just a few months removed from a dismal spell in charge of Crystal Palace. Hired in June 2017, the Dutchman’s tenure at Selhurst Park ended just 10 weeks later, with the team losing their first four league matches of the season without scoring a single goal.
Still in between jobs in March 2018, De Boer then says on television that is a “pity” that Mourinho, as manager of Manchester United, is overseeing the development of promising young English striker Marcus Rashford.
The Portuguese, who has long railed against his reputation for overlooking academy players, was never going to let that slide.
“I read some quote from the worst manager in the history of the Premier League, Frank de Boer – seven matches, seven defeats, zero goals,” Mourinho told reporters.
“He was saying that it is not good for Marcus Rashford to have a coach like me, because the most important thing for me is to win.
“If he was coached by Frank, he would learn how to lose because he lost every game.”
Now, more than two years on from that embarrassing moment, De Boer is fresh off another unsuccessful coaching spell, this time at Atlanta United.
He may have won more games than he did at Palace but his spell ended in the same manner: with a firing. He was dismissed in July of this year, having been once again accused of trying to jam square pegs into round holes.
Yet, somehow, De Boer has fallen upwards. The legendary centerback is now in charge of Netherlands and will lead his homeland for the first time on Wednesday, in a friendly against Mexico.
A coach that has flopped in England, Italy and the U.S. has inexplicably ended up coaching a team containing Virgil van Dijk, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay.
So, how the hell did he pull this off?
De Boer’s hiring came as a response to Ronald Koeman’s departure, with the former Barcelona defender opting to leave the Netherlands job last month to succeed Quique Setien at Camp Nou.
With the Nations League ongoing and the European Championship just around the corner, the Dutch federation looked to turn to a familiar face to steady the ship on relatively short notice.
There were links with Frank Rijkaard and Peter Bosz, but it was, surprisingly, De Boer who ended up with the gig.
De Boer’s coaching journey began at the 2010 World Cup, where he was an assistant for the Dutch side that went all the way to the final.
Shortly after that, he was given the top job at Ajax, whom he led to four Eredivisie titles. However, De Boer resigned in 2016 after failing to capture another championship, a victim of the lofty precedent he had set in the years prior.
At that point, though, De Boer was in demand. He was linked with the Liverpool job in 2013, but opted to stay in Amsterdam. However, when Inter came calling after his Ajax exit, he made the move to Milan.
His spell at San Siro lasted just 14 games and 84 days, though, brought to a premature end after a run of four losses in five Serie A games. De Boer subsequently fared even worse in England, as Mourinho so savagely pointed out, yet was still taken on by Atlanta United in December 2018.
By joining MLS, De Boer was looking to rebuild his reputation in a league known for being patient with managers. He was taking charge of a well-oiled machine built by former Argentina and Barcelona boss Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, one that had won MLS Cup just a few months prior to his arrival. However, De Boer dismantled that machine.
Under Martino, Atlanta were a free-flowing, dynamic attacking team. Under De Boer, they were lifeless and devoid of the fun that defined the club’s early history.
From the moment De Boer stepped foot in Atlanta, he placed an emphasis on defending. Everyone on the team was required to do their bit, and that included the club’s most gifted attackers.
Consequently, he frequently clashed with stars Josef Martinez and Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez, and Atlanta played like a team that was trying to fight every attacking instinct it had in an attempt to do the coach’s bidding.
“Things have changed a lot, the way the club has played the game, and we don’t like it,” defender Leandro Gonzalez Pirez said ahead of the 2019 MLS All-Star Game.
According to the Athletic, several Atlanta United players cheered when De Boer’s former club Ajax fell to Tottenham in the Champions League semi-final in 2019.
Josef Martinez and Pity Martinez also walked out of training on separate occasions, frustrated by the coach’s training methods.
In 2019, the team was able to keep it together long enough to win a pair of trophies. Martino’s high-flying style evaporated, but the winning didn’t, with De Boer guiding Atlanta to a U.S. Open Cup and a Campeones Cup win over Club America.
Even with the unrest in the locker room, those trophies were enough to justify the change in playing style
However, by the end of this year’s MLS is Back tournament, the wheels had fallen off. Josef Martinez was out of action due to an ACL tear, leaving Atlanta without one of the league’s top goalscorers.
Although we didn’t know it yet, Pity Martinez was playing some of his final games in MLS before being sold to Al-Nassr in Saudi Arabia. And De Boer was coaching his final games in charge: a series of three successive 1-0 losses cost him his job. His Atlanta tenure had lasted just 55 games.
Despite the two trophies, his time at the club will not be remembered fondly. Atlanta is widely expected to return to South America for its next head coach, an attempt to return to the attacking foundations that Martino laid and De Boer subsequently destroyed.
Yet here De Boer is, just several months later, taking charge of one of the favourites for next year’s European Championship. Coincidentally, his first game in charge will come against Martino’s Mexico, as his new beginning comes against the man he replaced ahead of his latest failure. Should De Boer lead his new team to glory, his disastrous stints at Inter, Crystal Palace and Atlanta will be glossed over.
But if he doesn’t, if De Boer’s methods fail once again, he’ll find himself at a crossroads, surrounded by burnt bridges and coaching mishaps.
He’s been able to bounce back from Mourinho’s taunt before but, should he flop again, it will be hard to dispel the notion that the Portuguese may have been right about De Boer all along.