Proud Americans were disappointed last season when Bob Bradley—the coach we hoped would be the Christian Pulisic of American managers, but turned out more like the coaching game’s Julian Green—was unceremoniously ousted from his coaching position at Swansea City after only 11 matches in charge. So Crystal Palace deserve our thanks for giving manager Frank de Boer the boot today a mere four matches into his Premier League tenure, and in the process establishing a new, even lower benchmark against which future managerial failures can be measured.
If you think it’s borderline insane to hand over the keys to your club in the summer to a new, highly regarded manager—one with a distinct playing style that even in the best case scenario would take lots of time and even more money spent on buying new players for the team to master—only to chuck him out just four games into the season when (shocker!) the team doesn’t hit the ground running, then you would be correct. Along most any vector of analysis, Palace’s decision making doesn’t make much sense.
Crystal Palace’s record so far this season has admittedly been pretty abysmal. They are winless in their four opening league matches, haven’t managed to score a single goal, and besides this past weekend’s 1-0 loss to Burnley, in which they dominated their opponents in every way except on the scoresheet, they’ve looked bad in the process. None of this should be much of a surprise, though.
Palace have a pretty good roster, one that with the right leadership should see them avoid relegation fairly easily. But what Palace’s roster lacks are the very kind of players a possession-prioritizing manager like de Boer needs in order to implement the style of play he’s known for. This discrepancy between what Palace have and what de Boer needed, and the lack of foresight involved in all parties not recognizing that disconnect, are the main reasons why we are where we are today, with a good manager like de Boer becoming the shortest tenured manager (by number of matches coached) in Premier League history.
De Boer, it should be mentioned, is not just some relative nobody to be kicked around in the way that Bradley was. As a player, he was an icon. The former defender has the record for most caps for an outfield player in the Netherlands national team’s history, won five Dutch league titles as well as the Champions League with Ajax, and later starred at Barcelona for a few years. He’s also a proven manager, taking over Ajax at a time of relative struggle and coaching them to four league titles in his six seasons there. His star has dimmed a little over the years as his Ajax teams late on in his career there failed to maintain their dominance, and especially after he was fired last year not even halfway through his first season as manager of Inter in Italy. But he nevertheless is still a big figure in the soccer world and one of the hotter names in the coaching circuit. If anything, Palace were a little fortunate to pick up a name like him when they did.
All of which makes de Boer’s firing today even more bizarre. If you hire a manager like de Boer, you should probably have a squad in place capable of playing the way de Boer’s teams play. If you lack those kinds of players, then you should go out and buy some who fit that bill. If you don’t want to spend the money on players like that, then you shouldn’t hire de Boer in the first place. For a club to have on its hands a team full of players who’ve looked their best when playing Big Sam Allardyce-ball and then to bring in de Boer, whose playing style could be accurately described as the exact opposite of Big Sam Allardyce-ball, then to fail to sign new players who fit the new style, and then to fire de Boer when the team’s ill-fitting players don’t mesh perfectly with the coach’s tactics right away, is for the club to expose its thinking as shallow, superficial, and short-sighted.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is all too common in the Premier League. Too many clubs think that simply by signing a big-name manager or player, without any eye toward how that manager or player will or won’t fit in, the club will have demonstrated its ambition and thus will succeed. And because the Premier League is such a cut-throat environment with such razor-thin margins, these clubs are forced to cut bait as soon as possible with their poorly conceived additions when things don’t go perfectly early on, lest they wait too long to act and slide down the table’s slippery slope and find themselves unable to claw their way back up. This creates an environment that incentivizes dumb planning and knee-jerk attempts to remedy the dumb plan’s predictable problems that oftentimes just exacerbate matters. That was the story with Bradley and Swansea last year, and it’s the same with de Boer now, and it will be yet again with someone or other before too long.
Knowing what we know now, Crystal Palace probably never should’ve hired de Boer. Once they did, they should’ve backed him more in the transfer market to make sure he succeeded. Failing that, if they ever trusted his vision in the first place, they probably should’ve given him more time to work with the players he did have in hopes that he could both adjust to his squad’s strengths and teach the squad to better execute what he wanted them to do. To hire him then and to fire him now is pretty much the worst possible series of decisions.
But hey, former England manager Roy Hodgson is reportedly on his way to save the day, and the squad is still perfectly capable of staying in the league, and if they pull off that feat then all will be forgiven. Even though the process was bad, it’s possible that Crystal Palace wind up with a more fitting coach that saves them from relegation and allows the club’s leaders to learn from this and make smarter decisions going forward. Still, it’s hard not to see this debacle and think of how preventable it all was, and how the EPL’s merciless nature inspires so many bad decisions like this.