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The Hotel Woudschoten sits amid a secluded clearing in the middle of a forest near the central Netherlands town of Zeist. Its bedroom balconies offer panoramic views but some locals wonder whether Frank de Boer will be able to see the wood from the trees as he relaxes at his team’s idyllic European Championship base.
Assessment of the Oranje’s chances in the coming month are invariably loaded with caveats regarding the calibre of a coach whose recent managerial track record is, to put it politely, iffy.
De Boer was once a fabulously assured left-sided Netherlands defender who delivered a mean dead ball but, after a promising start to life as a head coach at Ajax, the 51-year-old has stumbled through subsequent postings.
His time in charge of Internazionale lasted only 85 days and his Crystal Palace tenure 77. At Selhurst Park, De Boer’s team lost his first four Premier League games without scoring a single goal.
José Mourinho, somewhat cruelly, dubbed him “the worst manager in Premier League history” and 19 subsequent, distinctly mixed, months in charge of Atlanta in Major League Soccer did not exactly serve as a reassuring corrective. Along the way the always intense, sometimes tactlessly blunt, De Boer alienated key players and claimed Atlanta fans were “a little spoilt”. He courted further unpopularity by dismissing as “ridiculous” the notion that the World Cup-winning USA women’s team should enjoy wage equality with their male counterparts.
He was, however, in the right place at the right time in September 2020. With Ronald Koeman having defected from the Netherlands job to join Barcelona, De Boer, recently released by Atlanta, took over. “I’m convinced I can be a good coach,” he insisted – before promptly becoming the first Oranje coach to fail to win any of his first four fixtures.
Results have improved and some critics believe a squad adorned by the Barcelona playmaker Frenkie De Jong – an authentic total footballer, not to mention complete midfielder – the richly gifted Lyon forward Memphis Depay, the Wolfsburg goal machine Wout Weghorst and the imperious 21-year-old Juventus defender Matthijs de Ligt, rank as tournament dark horses.
Mourinho is not among them. “Which Dutch players do I rate? Not many,” the former Tottenham manager recently opined. “Where are the Van Bastens? I don’t see them even reaching the semi-final.”
De Boer disagrees, at least partially. “We’re between the fourth- and eighth-best team,” he says. “We’re good enough to reach the semi-final but, of course, we aim to win the tournament.”
It should help that the Netherlands will play every Group C game – against Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia – in front of 12,000 fans in Amsterdam, less than an hour’s drive from their forest retreat.
For De Boer, that sanctuary represents much more than a physical place of safety. After a bruising few years in club management this latterly frustrated perfectionist is revelling in the reassuring embrace of an Oranje set-up in which he won 112 caps and later served as Bert van Marwijk’s assistant as the Netherlands reached the 2010 World Cup final in South Africa, losing 1-0 against a stellar Spain late in extra-time. Back then he was hailed as a key influence and Van Marwijk feels his country is in good hands.
“Frank’s an excellent long-term choice,” says the UAE coach. “He has a bond with this group of players but he can also stand above it if necessary. He always had that as my assistant. In addition he’s simply a good trainer. I don’t know what went wrong abroad but, before, Frank performed excellently with Dutch players, becoming champion at Ajax four times in a row under difficult circumstances.”
De Boer was noted for alienating senior professionals at Inter, Palace and Atlanta but his compatriots seem less inclined to confuse directness with disrespect. “I’ve come back to a safe environment I spent so many years in as a player,” he says. “But there’s always pressure. We’re a small country but everyone expects us to win tournaments with ease. That’s not realistic. So far we’ve one major trophy [the 1988 European Championship] and played in three major finals. That, in my opinion, is exceptional.”
Shambolic seemed a more appropriate description as the Oranje entered a tailspin which led to the 2014 World Cup semi-finalists failing to qualify for Euro 2016 and Russia 2018.
Koeman’s installation as manager three years ago not only lifted the gloom but coincided with the phasing out of several stalwarts including Arjen Robben. In came De Jong’s midfield artistry and appealingly understated off-field persona along with De Ligt’s defensive assurance. In 2019 Koeman’s ensemble reached the maiden Nations League final, losing against Portugal after defeating England in the final four.
That achievement caught Barcelona’s eye, paving the way for De Boer to build on his predecessor’s stellar foundation work.
Virgil van Dijk was, not surprisingly, the cornerstone of Koeman’s reconstruction and – as Liverpool discovered last season – life will be appreciably tougher for the Netherlands without their injured central defensive talisman. Van Dijk will be an unofficial member of the backroom staff, with De Boer convinced he can help to inspire a youthful, united squad.
“The Dutch national team today is a team of friends who all work for each other,” says the manager. “Look at the [famously disunited] Oranje squad at the 1990 World Cup – they weren’t friends and it didn’t end well.”
The replacement of creative tensions and ego-fuelled rivalries with harmony arguably explains why, in recent months, De Boer has overlooked the intelligent, often incredibly opinionated Weghorst, despite the 6ft 6in striker’s 25 goals in 41 games for Wolfsburg last season. “Wout can be an asshole on the pitch but especially for the opposition,” he said, perhaps pointedly, before including the striker in his tournament squad.
By scoring 32 goals for Lyon last term Depay emphasised his recovery from a ruptured cruciate ligament and is at pains to praise the ambience in the camp, lauding his teammates’ “honesty” and self-policing capacity to dispense and receive constructive criticism. De Boer likes to maintain a certain distance from players.
The team’s lack of natural width dictates they are not always able to properly exploit space on the pitch, so a coach once labelled dogmatic has turned pragmatic and expects to segue from a back five to a back four and a front two to a front three as the championship unfolds.
“If you’re not top favourite you have to see how you can maximise results,” he says. “I want to be able to switch systems.”
In goal Ajax’s 38-year-old Maarten Stekelenburg could yet find himself rotated with Norwich’s 33-year-old penalty specialist Tim Krul but Ronald de Boer believes that, rather than sow confusion, his twin brother’s new-found flexibility can confound the doubters. “Frank’s a winner; every loss, every dismissal is painful for him,” says the Qatar 2022 ambassador. “Holland certainly aren’t favourites but, with Frank in charge, everything is possible.”