This could, we admit, be much ado about nothing much. The best coaches make the best of what they have, and Atlanta United has more than any club in MLS. But the Dutchman Frank de Boer is different from Tata Martino, not to say that anybody is an exact copy of Tata Martino. (Though a close approximation of Frank de Boer does exist: His name is Ronald de Boer. They’re twins.)
Frank de Boer has the classic background in what, when it came to prominence in the 1970s, was known as Total Football. He started at Ajax – pronounced “AYE-ax” – of Amsterdam, which had become legendary under coach Rinus Michels, the architect of TF, and the talismanic Johann Cruyff, the most stylish attacker of his generation.
The 1974 World Cup offered the rest of the globe a crash course in what Michels had wrought: He coached the Netherlands, which Cruyff lifted to a 1-0 lead – he was fouled in the box; Johann Neeskens converted the penalty – barely two minutes into the final against host West Germany. But the Germans, as ever, steadied and prevailed 2-1, which seemed the wrong result. The Clockwork Orange, as the Dutch had been dubbed, had ushered soccer into the future.
Total Football was a system that offered players the freedom to trade positions. A defender could attack. A right winger could show up on the left. It was thrilling to watch, and soon it was popping up other places, most notably at Barcelona, where Michels moved to coach and Cruyff to play. The latter would become the transforming figure at that massive club. When he stopped playing, he managed the team. Of all the luminaries to work and play at Barca – the first Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Anders Iniesta, Lionel Messi – Cruyff left the broadest footprint.
Frank de Boer – and Ronald, too – would wind up at Barcelona. (The former was a defender, the latter a midfielder.) Total Football would evolve, eventually morphing into the possession-based system that would bring Spain, which consisted largely of Barca players, two European titles and the 2010 World Cup. At times, though, Spain could appear devoted to possession for possession’s sake – “tiki-taka,” as the drumbeat of short passes became known.
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Pep Guardiola, who came through Barca’s youth academy when Cruyff was the team patriarch, would win two UEFA Champions League trophies with possession-based football, but in later managerial terms at Bayern Munich and Manchester City he backed away from tiki-taka. The system most in vogue worldwide is known as Vertical Football, which got its start in Argentina under Marcelo Bielsa, who coached Newell’s Old Boys as an attacking midfielder was getting his start. The midfielder’s name was Gerardo Martino, though most called him Tata.
Apologies for the half-baked tutorial, but it seems germane. Atlanta United won the MLS Cup by pressing high and going like mad when possession was gained. United led the league in goals last season; it was fourth in possession. There was no tiki-taka here, which was surely one of the reasons 70,000 folks kept showing up to watch this club. This was full-tilt football, fast and furious. (Apologies for sounding like Dan Quinn.)
Asked Monday what manager had influenced him most, de Boer first mentioned Louis ban Gaal, who checks all the Total Football boxes – stints at Ajax and Barcelona and with the Dutch national club. For all his success, van Gaal lasted only three seasons at the English giant Manchester United, where his teams were good at keeping the ball but less skilled at putting it in the net.
De Boer won four consecutive titles as Ajax’s manager, but he was dismissed after one year at Inter Milan. In the fall of 2017, he lasted but five games at London’s Crystal Palace. In four league matches, de Boer’s team managed no goals. (Jose Mourinho, then of Man U., described him as “the worst manager in Premier League history.”) Every Brit pundit agreed that five games was too few to render a fair judgment, though most conceded de Boer seemed wrong from the start. Said striker Wilfried Zaha: “He wanted to make Palace into a team that had more possession.”
Asked how much he would seek to graft his preferred style of play onto what Martino established here, de Boer said Monday: “Style of play depends on what type of players we have. I have to still experience the players myself … Then we’re going to have to decide how we want to play. We will do what gives us the most possibility to win games and make it exciting for fans. But at the end fans want to win.”
Then, a bit later: “I will not try to change directly everything because what’s good is good. I will update a few things.”
That’s his prerogative. He’s in charge now. But United became – in the span of two giddy seasons – the class of its league because Martino’s men played his way, and his credibility in South America built a pipeline to the A-T-L. Josef Martinez, the MLS MVP, is from Venezuela. Miguel Almiron is from Paraguay. Hector Villalba and Ezequiel Barca were born in Argentina.
Of all the inspired moves Atlanta United has made – and when you go from expansion team to league champ in two years, most have been spot on – the best was hiring Martino. He was always going to be a tough act to follow. That said, de Boer is especially intriguing choice. His background is as different as is possible to find on Planet Football, and those who came through the Ajax/Barca chain haven’t tended to be flexible in their views. (The imperious van Gaal was known as “King Louis.”)
But say this for Atlanta United: It has hired the creator of maybe the greatest goal in World Cup history. On July 4, 1998, Frank de Boer hoisted a 50-yard pass in the 90th minute that Dennis Bergkamp brought down, pushed around defender Robert Ayala and banged into the net to give the Dutch a 2-1 quarterfinal victory over Argentina. If you care about soccer, you’ve already seen it. If you haven’t, Google it.