They very often say that the game of football is entrenched in tradition and it’s tradition itself that has hindered its progress over the years. It’s always wonderful to have something desirable to hark back on, but the borderline that separates evolution from tradition never blurs out when it actually must. And rightly so, Chris Anderson and David Sally open their book ‘The Numbers Game’ by criticising football’s tendency to never stop taking a dip into the primitive.
It says: “The beautiful game is steeped in tradition. The beautiful game clings to its dogmas and its truisms, its beliefs and its credos. The beautiful game is run by men who do not wish to see their power challenged by outsiders, who know that their way of seeing the game is the true way of seeing the game.”
In the very next paragraph, the criticism becomes a lot more vivid: “The beautiful game is wilful in its ignorance. The beautiful game is ripe for change.”
While the book goes on to talk about the increasing use of technology and statistics, football’s inability to emerge from what is already being done is a major reason for why it never embraces change. It may be the beautiful game, there are times when the reluctance to change undermines the scope for becoming all the more beautiful. And it would be fair to say that the English game is the least open to change.
Premier League sides still seem to seek a lot of inspiration from the old ways of playing the game- the kick and rush style and hardly seek thrill from the new ways of playing until they get going straight away That exceeds the limits when the manager who professes this style is treated as an outsider, be it Louis van Gaal or Pep Guardiola in recent memory.
When Louis van Gaal joined Manchester United, it wasn’t the expectation of playing the way English sides always have that brought him down within two seasons. The expectation of playing the United way rather than adhering to his own of achieving his targets became a prime reason for his downfall. His possession-oriented style was deemed to be boring, as the fans and the media alike were always on his back to play the ‘United’ way and never really allowed the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss to settle into his own rhythm at the Theatre of Dreams.
Pep Guardiola, who helped Manchester City to a third-placed finish last season, was ridiculed and laughed at for attempting to start off something new in a foreign territory. His methods were deemed alien and the playing style that he continues to strive for getting right was told to be not good enough for the Premier League. The Spaniard is slowly coming close to imposing his own way at the Etihad, but the pressures of the media were evident in his every press conference that he gave.
In steps former Ajax boss Frank de Boer. Rather unexpectedly though, at Crystal Palace from Croydon. The Dutchman, who is responsible for bringing a whole host of Ajax and Dutch players to international attention, was axed as the Inter Milan boss last season after being in-charge at the San Siro for just 85-odd days. At Palace, he has brought the promise of bringing in a fresh approach to how things work at a club that has hardly felt the breath of freshness.
The club may have established itself as a Premier League regular ever since it achieved promotion to the top flight, but has edged close to going down over the past two campaigns. Palace narrowly avoided the drop under Alan Pardew in the 2015-16 and did the same under the now-retired Sam Allardyce last season.
The two campaigns and the ones before that saw Palace resort to playing direct, no-nonsense football that can’t exactly be termed as ‘long-ball’, due to the presence of pacy wingers like Wilfried Zaha, Yannick Bolasie and now Andros Townsend out wide. The style was more pragmatic under Big Sam and it was a mere expression of the former Sunderland and West Ham boss’ usual approach to winning games.
The tradition of the club corresponds to that of the English game which takes pride in playing their own, unique ‘kick and rush’ style. It slowly has become a rather derided approach to playing a game that has increasingly taken a more aesthetic turn than the English would believe.
De Boer’s usage of the attractive, possession oriented style moulded many Ajax players into versatile ones who could operate at a variety of positions due to their technical abilities on the ball. Be it Tottenham duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, Manchester United star Daley Blind, current Ajax skipper Lasse Schone or former star Siem de Jong, their versatility has always been a vital part of their armory. Their completeness as players was a result of a philosophy that the great late Johan Cruyff imposed during his stay at the helm of affairs at the Amsterdam based club. Players who excel technically aren’t just adept in a variety of positions, but are very good in adapting to the style that Cruyff has always been a professor of- the Total Football style.
De Boer’s approach at Ajax boasted of using an individual’s panache and made impeccable usage of possession to entertain the onlookers. De Boer recent words about how he’ll go about things suggests he may well look to replicate how things were at Ajax.
De Boer said: “I have my own type of coaching and style of playing. We want to be dominant when we can, but also dominate when we don’t have the ball. Also, for the fans, we must try to be attractive. Palace has a very enthusiastic and passionate fanbase, so they will want to see that.”
While that does sound promising enough, installing such a structure at the club always takes time. Clubs like Ajax take pride in long-term thinking and allow managers the time to settle in and make a mark in all aspects of the organization. They have a knack for developing youngsters and they’ve always have specified tactical identities over the past few decades. And de Boer is among those managers who believes in long-term processes and building for the future.
Judging by how Guardiola was consistently mocked for doing something at City, it wouldn’t be too big a surprise to see De Boer be the receiving end of similar treatment. He too, like Pep, intends to bring something new to a country that needs a new tactical identity and has to stop copying the Spaniards and Germans in the international fora. The arrogant reluctance of the media though, will make sure that De Boer never gets settled in easily at Palace. If they could give someone like Guardiola a tough time at a club like Manchester City, it wouldn’t be too big a task for them to do the same to De Boer.
The inability to adapt to something new and accept that it could be more useful than what’s being done at the club for sometime now always plays a vital role in this. Once things start to go wrong and the pressure kicks in, the ruthlessness of the media takes its toll. And when the fans are at the back, demanding things to change around, a manager hardly has the time to use his style to change things. What is needed is pragmatism and desperate measures.
And while De Boer showed glimpses of tactical flexibility at Ajax, but a manager has to change his approach when things go wrong in England, with all kinds of pressures grilling the man at the helm. He would have to forget about what he has been known for and succumb to what England is known for- the kick and rush style and the short-term approach of running the club.
It’s undoubted that Palace have the youngsters that will make De Boer feel at home – Sullay Kaikai, Hiram Boateng and Freddie Ladapo and the club has enough money to bring in players who may fit into De Boer’s possession based style. Ruben Loftus-Cheek is close to a move and with two months still to go, players will be roped in. The club spent a bit more than €50 million last summer and shelled out around €38 million in January, proving that De Boer’s at a club that has the capability to spend to bring in the players he wants.
Despite that though, the future could well be looking bleak. It may be optimistic from the outside, but pessimism may well dwell in there if you dig deep.
I agree with the principle but I think FdB has as good an opportunity as anyone to succeed in the change of style. Firstly because it was a conscious decision from the chairman to bring him in as he, who is popular with the Palace fans, believes it’s the right thing for the club to change its style. This should give him a bit more time if things don’t work out right away, as potentially will the fact that he’s a very respected character in the game who has a lot of credibility. Also being the Palace manager means he won’t get as much attention as Pep or LvG got, and there’s less pressure as he’s not expected to win most games as they are.
Another advantage he has is that palace are actually more suited to this type of football than people realise. They played more of the ‘kick and rush’ style out of necessity last year, but in actual fact the players at the club aren’t just as limited as that may suggest. Jedinak and Ledley have moved on and Delaney was never going to be first choice at 36, leaving players like cabaye, puncheon, milivojevic and McArthur who are all comfortable on the ball, as well as Dann and Tomkins at the back who can pass the ball out if instructed to. Even Benteke is good with the ball at his feet considering he’s seen as a target man, his first touch is often better than Lukaku’s for example. At the beginning of the 15/16 season when Pardew tried to implement a more attractive style of play it was very successful up until Christmas, but his own limitations and the lack of squad depth meant it didn’t last when they had a couple of injuries.
It will undoubtedly be a big culture change and the fans will have to adjust as much as anyone I expect, but it will be very interesting to see how it turns out. As mentioned Stoke have had moderate success in changing their style lead by a man who played in England and pre-Cruyff (as manager) Barcelona, so there’s no reason to think someone who played for Ajax, post-Cruyff Barcelona and Netherlands shouldn’t have as least as much success.