Is it too soon to admit that Frank de Boer might not have been the right hire for Atlanta United?
With a 3-0 loss to Monterrey on Wednesday in the CONCACAF Champions League, his start at Atlanta United has been far from inspiring.
Full disclosure: I’m in the camp that thought this was a dreadful hire the second it was announced. I appreciate the measured take by writers like J. Sam Jones at DirtySouthSoccer. It’s the right way to view it. Wider lens. However, this is a situation where you can have opinions on both sides of the argument and still be right.
While de Boer’s (super) brief tenures at Inter Milan (yikes) and Crystal Palace (YIKES!) were certainly reasons for skepticism, the more substantive take had to do with how his coaching philosophy and system might not have been the best fit for the personnel the team had. This was an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” situation. Poor de Boer wasn’t set up for immediate success. And if immediate success didn’t happen, a viscous confirmation loop was going to start among those who care more about his recent history (me me me!) than his (distant) past success–and a rabid fan-base who may not have the patience to see if de Boer can make it work.
Typically when coaching changes are made, organizations go for the polar opposite of the previous coach. That’s because most coaching changes are made because that previous coach wasn’t succeeding.
Not the case with the Five Stripes.
But here were are. Tata was loose. FdB is strick. Tata started practices late sometimes. FdB considers five minutes early to be late. Tata came from recent success. FdB not so much.
Atlanta Has Earned Benefit of Doubt…Right?
Atlanta United has gotten just about everything right since its inception. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned it.
New coaches and systems don’t click overnight.
However, the players and the system did work fantastically the past two years.
All but one of their key players is back (caveat: the key player who left, Miguel Almiron, was the MLS’s best player and has transformed Newcastle United since arriving on record-transfer). One player brought in, Pity Martinez, is a moderate facsimile to Almiron. The emergence of Ezequiel Barco (looks legit) is almost like adding a new player. The talent is there. The drop off shouldn’t be significant if the players buy into de Boer’s system.
But if the results aren’t there as they were last year, will they actually buy in?
Is It Fair to Judge de Boer Against Recent Opponents?
Timing is so important in every element in life. FdB wasn’t given the easiest early slate.
In the CONCACAF Champions League, he drew Monterrey in the quarterfinals. Monterrey is literally the best team on the continent.
While FiveThirtyEight might want to tweak their prediction algorithm, their Global Club Rankings is still a valuable tool. Monterrey ranks 96th, the highest Liga MX team and by far higher than the New York Red Bulls (187) and Atlanta United (196). Monterrey is ranked higher than Brighton, Fulham, and Cardiff City in the Premier League. Atlanta shouldn’t beat them. It should be closer, though. Sure, United led possession 51-49%, but Monterrey fired off 17 shots (5 on target) to Atlanta’s 5 shots (1 on target). Reigning MVP Josef Martinez’s work rate looked like LeBron playing defense for the Lakers. Despite all of this, the game was still close until the end. This is where de Boer having a better feel for his team would come in handy. As Joe Patrick at The Athletic noted:
The substitution pattern (or lackthereof) was very strange tonight and I think you can legitimately question whether it cost Atlanta at least one of the last two goals. But more credit should be given to Atlanta for frustrating Rayados and hanging tough for 80 minutes.
— Joe Patrick (@japatrick200) March 7, 2019
In the MLS, the Five Stripes started their season away against a strong DC United squad. The 2-0 loss was disappointing, but its not like they were playing Orlando.
Where Does It Go From Here?
I’m in Atlanta. This city has real pride when it comes to the Five Stripes. The team is loaded with talent. While United owner Arthur Blank has shown patience when it comes to coaches and his Falcons, will he take the same approach with Frank de Boer if the Five Stripes keep laying eggs?
The good news for United fans is: there’s almost nowhere to go but up from here, and the talent is there. Hopefully de Boer is watching Maurizio Sarri‘s struggles at Chelsea and learning that being rigid and not adapting systems to players isn’t always the best approach to success.