This head coach analysis was first featured on our dedicated analysis site, totalfootballanalysis.com.

This weekend, Atlanta United revealed that Frank de Boer would be Tata Martino’s successor. Martino’s departure was confirmed before their MLS Cup triumph. This created a lot of speculation over his replacement.

However, with the speculation finally over, in this tactical analysis, I will take a look at what Atlanta fans can expect from de Boer.

Frank de Boer’s managerial career

Often times, people remember failures over success. This may be the case with de Boer as his last two managerial roles last less than 20 combined league games at Crystal Palace and Inter Milan.

Before that, however, he was very successful. Rising through the coaching ranks at Ajax, de Boer took charge of the first team in 2010. Following this, he won four successive Eredivisie titles before resigning in 2016.

Style of play

Coming from the Ajax school of thought, de Boer very much favours possession based, total football. In their announcement, it was clear that this was a big reason why Atlanta appointed him. Carlos Bocanegra told Atlanta United’s website:

“Frank’s style of play was very important to us. His tactics feature an attacking, high-intensity style that mirrors our approach to the game.”

Although many become fixated on formations, this is something I’ve found de Boer is very flexible with. In his time at Palace, I was able to talk to the Dutchman on his football philosophies and here’s the insight he gave:

“Everybody always says 3-4-3 can be very adventurous and exciting but you can also say we’re playing with five defenders so it’s how you look at it.
“If you have a lot of the ball then it’s very offensive if you don’t then it’s very defensive.
“Louis Van Gaal used it at the 2014 World Cup, he played 3-4-3/5-3-2 but they mostly let opponents have the ball and had a lot of transition especially with the quality of Arjen Robben at that time.”

Total football

When talking about Ajax, a man that is always mentioned is Johan Cruyff. A student of the Dutch great, de Boer is no stranger to the ‘total football’ ideology having come through at Ajax and played under Cruyff at Barcelona.

This possession-based ideology has been seen throughout his career as a manager. For example, in his time at Palace, 81% of the team’s passes were short passes.

However, as aforementioned, total football also offers flexibility. This can be seen as de Boer has used a traditional 4-3-3 as well as three-man defences. However, it was at Ajax where he mostly used a 4-3-3. This can be seen the images below from a 2-0 over Heerenveen in de Boer’s last season in charge.

In the game, Ajax played a 4-3-3. The defensive, midfield and attacking groups are connected.

Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Ajax’s left winger tucks in to get involved in the play. This drags the Heerenveen right back out of his defensive line, creating a massive space in behind.
Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Ajax’s left back notices this and makes a run into the space. He’s found by a first-time pass which catches Heerenveen out and Ajax can break down the left.
Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
A Heerenveen midfielder goes to cover the right-back position, but the defence is already out of position. Milik holds his run and is found with a nice cross out of the reach of the defence before scoring.

Here we see the fluidity that de Boer’s sides can attack with. Although his Palace side failed to score, this was something that was also on show there.

As aforementioned, at Palace, he played with a three-man defence for the most part. With this, he was aiming to make them a more possession-based side that could cover more spaces than the opposition to always have passing options. This can be seen in the sequence below from his first game in charge.

In this game, Here, Palace were playing a 3-4-2-1. Jairo Riedewald was part of a three-man defence including fellow Ajax academy alum Timothy Fosu-Mensah. They were acting as the ball playing centre-backs.

Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Here, Riedewald plays the ball into left wing-back Patrick van Aanholt who pops the ball to Benteke. Surrounded by Huddersfield players, the striker can easily lay the ball off to Jason Puncheon, who was playing in midfield.
Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Out of traffic, Palace are able to recycle possession with their three-man defence.
Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Fosu-Mensah finds Ruben Loftus-Cheek as Palace attack the more spacious right. The midfielder losses his marker and threads the ball into the highlighted area to carve the Huddersfield defence open.

Unfortunately for Palace, in this instance, they couldn’t finish the attack. However, this shows that they were able to create patterns of play to build from and fashion chances.

This is something that Atlanta should have no problem taking this on board. In MLS last season, they were very flexible under Tata Martino. Their two preferred formations weren’t far from de Boer’s which should ease him in.

Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Atlanta United’s most used formations in 2018.

Off the ball

As well as looking at how his sides attack, it’s also important to look at how de Boer’s sides defend. In MLS last season, Atlanta benefitted greatly from being very intense off the ball. This was seen in the MLS Cup final against Portland Timbers.

In defence, de Boer also fits this mould, but with a bit more patience:

Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Here, Ajax are defending a throw in which is sent back to the goalkeeper. We can see their wingers have dropped to close off forward options and Davy Klassen picks up the central option.
Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
Here, Ajax are defending a throw in which is sent back to the goalkeeper. We can see their wingers have dropped to close off forward options and Davy Klassen picks up the central option.
Frank de Boer Atlanta United Ajax Crystal Palace Tactical Analysis
As the point of attack is changed, Klassen then joins Milik in the line of engagement. He then presses the defender on the ball. However, this leaves a player free behind him.

Here, we see that de Boer likes to dictate without possession as well as with it. Rather than immediately pressing, he likes his sides to wait until opposition players may be isolated to begin pressing.

Already having practice in this style of defending, this should also make Atlanta’s managerial transition better.

Promoting youth

Another reason Atlanta appointed de Boer, was his tendency to bring through youth players. Going into their third MLS season, this will be incredibly important for Atlanta. Especially as they will be playing in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2019.

Being an Ajax graduate, he was in line with the club’s philosophy of promoting youth. This was clear in his time at Ajax and Palace.

At Ajax, he gave Christian Eriksen his debut and as he flourished, the captain’s armband. At Palace, he showed he was also able to identify specific desirable qualities as he brought former Ajax players Riedewald and Fosu-Mensah to the club to implement his style of play.

This should encourage Atlanta United prospects and fans massively. De Boer has proven that he has an eye for talent and that he isn’t scared to give that talent a platform. With Atlanta fighting on a continental front also next season, this should give him more time to integrate youth products like Andrew Carleton and Geroge Bello into the side.

Summary

Overall, Atlanta’s appointment of Frank de Boer looks like a sensible one. When looking at what Atlanta are trying to build he could do well in taking them forward. His style of play is similar to Tata Martino’s, he will trust youth players and he has experience of battling on domestic and continental fronts.

Knowing this, I’d say de Boer has a great chance to take Atlanta forward in the coming years. However, whether the Five Stripes are able to keep hold of key players Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez may have a big effect.


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