Frank de Boer’s Crystal Palace Reign Was Doomed From the Beginning

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Football managers are held to notoriously fragile standards but even for the Premier League seeing Crystal Palace sack Frank de Boer four games into the league season was a brow-raiser. The Dutchman lasted only 77 days in charge at Selhurst Park. They hired him in June and fired him in September. He never really had a chance.

The problem was: it's Crystal Palace. Not exactly known for technically supreme total football, are they? Nothing wrong with that if they wanted to go down that road, a reinvention of the club, but it's worth looking at who they chose to implement the metamorphosis here.

De Boer made his name as a brilliant player but his managerial stocks depend on his wonderful spell with Ajax for whom he won four consecutive Eredivisie titles. A poor season in 2015-16 and he resigned, three months later he was unveiled at Inter Milan.

Now, Inter Milan haven’t been the team they once were for a while now – although they’ve started this season fantastically – but this wasn’t quite a team in rebuilding either. De Boer was taking over for Roberto Mancini and all that stuff was already in place – like the signings of Joao Maria and Gabby Barbosa, for example. Nobody expected Inter to win the title but they were supposed to do a lot more than they did. A three game winning streak in September (including victory over Juventus) went okay but they also somehow lost 2-0 at home to Hapoel Be’er Sheva in the Europa League in the middle of that streak.

Aaaaand then a 2-1 defeat to Roma (Mauro Icardi’s 76th min own goal deciding things) sparked a spell of three Serie A defeats in a row. The one reprieve was a 1-0 win over Southampton in Europe in which the English team completely dominated but couldn’t quite find a goal. A few days later Inter lost 2-1 to Atalanta.

On October 26, FDB’s Inter beat Torino 2-1 thanks to an 88th minute Icardi goal. On October 28 the club CEO, Michael Bolingbroke, gave de Boer his very public backing over the state of his job. On October 30 Inter Milan lost 1-0 to Sampdoria. On November 1 Frank de Boer was sacked. A week later that CEO also resigned.

(“It’s too bad that it’s over. This project needed more time to carry out. I want to thank the fans for all the support you’ve given me these months. Forza Inter.”)

Frank de Boer lasted 85 days at Inter Milan, only eight more than he lasted at Crystal Palace. That’s the manager that Palace hired. They were apparently close to getting Marco Silva before he instead chose to manage Watford (who are undefeated through their first four PL games). Mauricio Pellegrino and Sean Dyche were also strongly linked – Pellegrino eventually going to Southampton and Dyche staying at Burnley. Roy Hodgson was mentioned in passing. In the end they went with Frank de Boer to replace… well, to replace Sam Allardyce.

Naturally Chairman Steve Parish had a classy response to Marco Silva joining Watford…

You already know what kind of football Sam Allardyce prefers. He’s a no-nonsense old-fashioned football man. Strong defensive shape and lots of crosses into the box. It’s not that Big Sam has any allergy to fancy football – remember Jay-Jay Okocha!? – but it’s never been the priority for him. Hence why he’s a genius at avoiding relegation, something he did with Palace last season despite the hole he inherited from Alan Pardew.

But Palace wanted more than narrowly avoiding relegation and they took Allardyce’s unexpected retirement as an opportunity to expand the menu. Add a few more flavours to things. Here’s the Chairman speaking in June as FDB was unveiled…

Steve Parish: “There were 37 managers on the shortlist. I talked to all the potential managers and said: we need an evolution over a period of time. We’ve been in the bottom three two seasons in a row for home form, sooner or later that’s going to catch up with us. Frank’s No1 brief is to reduce the anxiety for me and the supporters.”

Evolution over a period of time. Exactly what De Boer said he needed at Inter Milan but never got. Except the undefined ‘period of time’ turned out 77 days, all that future thinking evaporating when De Boer’s team failed to score a goal in four league games. Their only victory was a 2-1 League Cup win over Ipswich, also the only goals they scored under FDB. They weren’t as bad as it sounded – they were unlucky not to do better in a 1-0 loss to Burnley in FDB’s last game, they just couldn’t put those chances away. They were still pretty terrible, though.

The Palace board got frustrated. It wasn’t only the results, it was the style of play. It was De Boer criticising the players for a lack of courage. It was De Boer’s apparent reluctance to make allowances in his strategy for the English style of play. It was the 3-4-3 formation in a team used to playing behind the ball. It was Christian Benteke being expected to play against his natural skills in favour of a possession-based game. It was implementing too much change at once. De Boer did revert to a back four in the Burnley game but it sounds like they’d already decided to sack him by then.

Yet somehow Palace have still played more long balls than every team except West Ham and that about sums up where they are right now. They’ve a squad almost completely arranged for Sam Allardyce - De Boer’s only signings are the loans of Tom Fosu-Mensah and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, young Ajax centre back Jairo Riedewald and Mamadou Sakho who played on loan under Big Sam last term – hence they’re stuck confused between two extremes. No manager's gonna make it work under those circumstances. 

They’re dirty things, these manager sackings. It’s safe to say that Palace made a big mistake in expecting De Boer to make such drastic changes at a club whose last five managers have been: Sam Allardyce, Alan Pardew, Neil Warnock, Tony Pulis and Ian Holloway. They weren’t ready for this. And while De Boer deserved more time if they were serious about change, it was De Boer who uttered the phrase ‘evolution not revolution’ and there was nothing about his reign that seemed to suggest any natural selection. It was an unfortunate marriage on both sides – just be glad it’s over.

As for Roy Hodgson, who's rumoured to have the job now, the last former England manager they hired did alright in the job. Hodgson was a youth teamer back in the day with Palace plus he’ll want one last positive gig to erase some of that England legacy. Hodgson’s got more style than people give him credit for and if you think of the De Boer vs Allardyce ideal as a rolling scale then Woy drags them one manageable step towards Total Football.

One. Manageable. Step.

Maybe with the next manager they go slightly more in that direction and the one after a little further. That, Mr Darwin, is how evolution happens in football. Unlike that regrettable saga we just saw at Selhurst Park.


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