For the first time in the two year history of Atlanta United, boos filled the Mercedes-Benz Stadium after a game.
The boos weren’t necessarily directed at the players though. The jeers were aimed at new manager Frank de Boer and the noticeable change in style, system, and results he’s brought the Five Stripes.
Is it fair? Is it way, way, waaaay too early to judge de Boer?
Let’s debate in a new section called “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” with High Press Soccer site-runner (and Atlanta resident) Chops and MLS writer Harrison Hamm.
Frank de Boer: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Chops: Put me in the contingent of skeptics of this hire from Day 1. Frank de Boer had a good run at Ajax, yes. Four straight titles, even in the Eredivisie when your only real regular competition is PSV and occasionally Feyenoord, is still a difficult feat. But his incredibly disastrous stints at Inter Milan (oof) and Crystal Palace (double oof) seemed to be a better indicator of what the future held. It’s easy to feel validated from early results.
Harrison Hamm: You’re right that de Boer failed at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace. Those were tiny sample sizes, though, with groups of players that didn’t have time to coalesce around de Boer’s possession system. His six years at Ajax, on the other hand, produced world-class players and those four titles. Atlanta and its emphasis on cultivating and selling on youth is more similar to Ajax than Inter or Crystal Palace. It’s a long-term project.
Chops: I’m totally willing to admit that 1) it’s still early, and even the likes of Klopp and Pep needed a year and a transfer window (or two) to start seeing the kind of results everyone expected, and 2) for the most part, United has faced a difficult schedule. But it’s also irresponsible to ignore how badly de Boer’s last two stops went. I mean, Palace didn’t even score a single league goal. Not one!
Hamm: There are legitimate concerns there. Perhaps, though, this is only an indication of the complexity of de Boer’s system. Players will adapt, and de Boer will figure out how best to deploy them. I’d guess this oddball 3-4-3 he’s been trying will go away sooner rather than later. That his tactics are this difficult to implement is undoubtedly a flaw, but it doesn’t mean Atlanta won’t eventually come around under de Boer.
Chops: To your point, he already shifted the 3-4-3 offensively to create more opportunities on Wednesday against Monterrey. Where he wants to build from the back, ATL just doesn’t have the personnel to play like that. Seriously, Guzan had more possession last night than Josef Martinez. It was nuts. Although adding Florentin Pogba to the backline may help, he looked solid with that ball at his feet (can’t believe I just typed that). And Miles Robinson looked like a poor man’s Virgil van Dijk. Still, I’m grasping at straws. Aside from last night, I was there at the season debut with FC Cincinnati. The early Josef Martinez goal obfuscated how toothless Atlanta’s attack was for the game and their general lack of urgency in general. Counter-attacks were listless. The team looked disinterested and unhappy. You can see it on their faces and in their body language. There was no link-up creativity. Everything that defined United the past two years–that made the city embrace them–was missing.
Hamm: All of that will improve as players figure out what de Boer wants. Pity Martinez looks tentative and out of place, but MLS is a difficult league to decode for foreign players, especially given the rude awakening of Concacaf Champions League. He, along with Ezequiel Barco (at some point!) and others, will adapt. Atlanta is talented enough to scuttle along until de Boer gets what he wants out of this group.
Chops: FdB probably will get a long enough leash to make it work. If Arthur Blank runs ATLUTD the way he runs the Falcons, he’ll give the manager enough time to either hang himself or right the ship. For de Boer apologists, this is a good thing. You’ll have enough time to be proven right. However, with the 1-3 aggregate loss to Monterrey, and no wins in MLS, at what point do results start to matter over process?
Hamm: I think it would become a serious concern at the point that Atlanta are consistently dropping results and looking directionless doing it. I can’t see that happening any time soon, considering the cohesion they brought from last year and de Boer’s pedigree. But fans are restless, and Atlanta’s ambition suggests they could prove quick to the trigger if poor form continues. It’s worth noting, however, that Atlanta had similar issues attacking bunkered shapes last year under Tata Martino. A lot of these difficulties aren’t new.
Chops: The problem there is players hear and see everything now. They now the heat is on de Boer. If they don’t buy in, and right now it doesn’t look like they have, this very quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. One problem they can’t solve is the absence of Miguel Almiron. It’s also become very obvious that Miggy was the the fulcrum of the attack. Pity has potential (I think, still waiting, but small sample size) but he’s not the replacement we thought he’d be (yet) and neither is Barco (who shines in fleeting flashes). Both have high work rates, much like Almiron, but neither have the ball-handling skills or vision that the new Newcastle man has.
To that point, do you think that de Boer needs to bring in new players to fit his system? And can the MLS facilitate that as quickly as the Premier League or La Liga? Isn’t that going to be a problem?
Hamm: I don’t think there’s an urgent personnel need; only at left wingback is there a noticeable gap in quality. They will surely search hard for a splash in the summer transfer window with as much cash as they can muster, given their lack of a DP spot, but this is on de Boer to fix with the players he has, and to prove he is the managerial answer. I’m sure that Atlanta would love to mine Europe for talent at this point in the season, but that will likely have to wait until the summer.
Chops: I certainly hope FdB finds the answers. No true fans want to see him fail (even after he called them “spoiled”). De Boer though needs to be more flexible in his thinking and approach, and tweak his system to suit his players strengths, or the #FDBOUT chorus will just sing louder and louder.