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Frank de Boer: What can he bring to Atlanta United?

In many ways, Atlanta United re-invented Major League Soccer after joining the league in 2017. Under the guidance of former head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Atlanta became just the third expansion club in league history to reach the MLS Cup in its inaugural season. Then in 2018, the Five Stripes became the first Atlanta-based sports franchise to win a major title since the Atlanta Braves won the World Series in 1995.

On the way to the title, Atlanta also broke countless attendance records, including the average single-season attendance for a US soccer team in 2017. In 2018, the club became the first club in MLS history to average over 50,000 visitors per game with an average attendance of 53,002. 

The secret to the success? The club’s philosophy of identifying young South American talent, in particular Miguel Almirón and Josef Martínez, combined with identifying in the much-maligned MLS SuperDraft — 2017 Draft pick Julian Gressel became an instant success — and signing a high-profile coach in former Barcelona manager Martino.

Martino was named 2018 MLS Coach of the Year and helped hasten a football revolution to North America. 

But now he is gone. Frank de Boer will guide MLS Cup winner Atlanta United in 2019, while Martino guides the Mexican national team. 

What can Atlanta United fans expect from the new coach?

With de Boer at the helm, Atlanta is not setting the stage for another soccer revolution. Instead, the approach is more subtle. Atlanta is trying to build on the foundation laid by Martino during the club’s first two years and create slow and steady progress from what has been a wild ride in the first 24 months of league play — an evolution that may be revolutionary in its own way.  

“The club’s sportive ambitions, as set out in a long-term strategy to be the best in class, clearly fits my personal ambitions,” de Boer said in a club statement released after his hiring. “I would like to build on the current success to develop a secure, solid foundation for the club at the top of MLS and beyond.”

De Boer’s preference for 4-3-3 and 3-4-1-2 formations mean the 48-year-old Dutch coach will in many ways continue the tactical school of thought brought in by Martino. 

It is for that very reason Atlanta targeted de Boer — who won four Dutch titles with Ajax before moving onto Inter Milan and Crystal Palace — in the first place.

“Frank’s style of play was very important to us,” Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said. “His tactics feature an attacking, high-intensity style that mirrors our approach to the game. And his track record for player development, of pushing youth players into the First Team, speaks for itself.”

Many MLS clubs seem to dip in the same talent pool for coaches, which at times has made it difficult for true tactical innovation to emerge from the league.

One of the reasons for the lack of tactical innovation in MLS is that many clubs seem to heavily rely on coaches rooted in the North American or British tradition of the game, or alternatively in coaches with a playing background in MLS.

In 2018, for example, of the 29 coaches that were employed in the league throughout the season only Veljko Paunović (Chicago Fire), Rémi Garde (Montreal Impact), Domènec Torrent and Patrick Vieira (both New York City FC), Mikael Stahre and Matías Almeyda (both San Jose Earthquakes) and Martino were not historically tied to the league.

“When it comes to tactics the MLS, in general, is still in the development phase. Most games are tough to analyze because many teams rely on athletic abilities rather than tactics,” Constantin Eckner, editor of the tactics and analytics website Spielverlagerung.com, told Pro Soccer USA. 

Martino helped change that trend. His Atlanta United team was aggressive on attack, deploying a high press, trying to dominate possession and looking to finish chances as quickly as possible. As a result, the Five Stripes ranked fourth in the league for shots per game (12.55) and first in hitting the target (41.81 percent). The majority of those shots were taken within an 18-yard radius of the goal, the most dangerous area for scoring, which made Atlanta the most efficient team in the league by scoring the most goals (79).

Martino also cultivated strong wing play. Atlanta completed 74 percent of its attacks from the wings (36 percent from the left flank and 38 percent from the right flank). The Five Stripes also led the league in crosses with 678.

Knowing athleticism was vital to winning MLS games, Atlanta relied heavily on fast attacking players and wingbacks that could help press forward when the team switched from defense to offense. With 620 progressive runs in 2018, Atlanta was only second to Sporting Kansas City (701 progressive runs). Atlanta United also played 107 key passes in 2018, which once again was behind only SKC (119). 

All those numbers are the base-code of Atlanta United and led the second-year team to the 2018 MLS Cup. It is also the sort of soccer philosophy de Boer will have to work with once the 2019 season kicks off in March. 

“Frank de Boer is a typical Ajax head coach and prefers 4-3-3,” Eckner said. “It means he wants plenty of movement in midfield and he easily gets frustrated when players lack movement in the middle third. His wingbacks are known to press forward aggressively (like Martino’s).

“Later on at Crystal Palace, Frank de Boer often experimented with 3-4-2-1. There, however, he struggled with his limited ball possession approach. Palace tended to struggle whenever the opponent pressed high up the field.”

That last part, in particular, seems to be a significant issue for Dutch coaches heavily influenced by the Ajax school of thought.

De Boer’s successor at Ajax, Peter Bosz, played a similar style of football, which brought success to Ajax but struggled at Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga at the beginning of the 2017-18 season. Dortmund was susceptible to a high press and leaked too many goals. Bosz was fired that fall. 

De Boer faced the same problem during his post-Ajax career. His point average dropped from 2.02 in the Dutch Eredivisie to 1.21 in the Italian Serie A with Inter Milan and to just 0.6 in the five games he was in charge of Crystal Palace in the English Premier League. 

“In general, his style could fit well [in the United States],” Eckner said. “He will, however, have to adjust to the level of soccer played in the league.” 

Fans will have to wait and see if de Boer’s philosophy that worked so well in the Netherlands will translate to MLS, but continuing the path blazed by Martino will set him in a positive direction from the start.

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