"Play the ball with a message"
Frank de Boer began his playing career as a left back at Ajax before switching to centre back, a position he made his own for many years in the national team. He won both the UEFA Cup and Champions League while at Ajax. In 1998 both Frank and his twin brother Ronald, joined FC Barcelona for 22 million pounds. However, they were unable to repeat their earlier triumphs. Frank briefly moved to Galatasaray in the summer of 2003 before joining the Rangers in January 2004. He left Rangers in 2004 after Euro 2004 to play the rest of his football career in Qatar with Al-Rayyan. Furthermore, he represented his national team 112 times, making him the most capped player in the history of the Netherlands national team, until Edwin van der Sar surpassed him. De Boer made his debut for the Netherlands in September 1990 against Italy and announced his retirement from football in April 2006.
In 2007 de Boer took up a coaching role at his former club Ajax where he was in charge of the club's youth academy. During the 2010 World Cup, he was the assistant of the Netherlands national football team, with fellow retired player Phillip Cocu. On 6 December 2010, after the resignation of Martin Jol, de Boer was suddenly appointed head coach of Ajax. His first game in charge was a UEFA Champions League match against AC Milan. There he was on the edge of his seat in the dug-out of the immense San Siro stadium. He eagerly directed his team and was continuously making forward movements with his hand, the attacking play worked and de Boer and his team managed to beat AC Milan in their own home.
His debut was in one word overwhelming. In front of the cameras, but most of all on the field. The poor, partially uninspired AC Milan were at times even outplayed on their home soil. The final score was 'only' 0-2, but De Boer and co left behind a great impression on that eighth of December! With Christian Eriksen as a guide on the field and de Boer on the sidelines Ajax entertained football fans around the world with a classic showcase of Ajax football.
De Boer smiles when he is confronted with that evening. Modest as always he reacts: “Yes, it was a beautiful evening, though we're far from not there yet. As a head coach you're mostly looking to the future. It's not just a matter of thinking lets continue with this group. You're already thinking about transfers. Players that want to leave or players that get an offer. So you always need a contingency plan. Another thing that's new for me are all the meetings and consultations; with the medical staff and the general director. With the U19s this was only twice a week. I haven't really talked to the board of directors yet, they showed their support for me when I was first assigned, but they already know me. I have been here for four and a half years.”
After two years with the U13s and two and a half years with the U19s he suddenly became the head coach just before the Champions League match against the Italians. Martin Jol resigned a couple of days before. ”It's not ideal of course”, De Boer admits. ”But on the other hand, there are always different phases. One moment you think you can do it - lets go for it, the next you know it's not all that easy. I might still make mistakes, but I'm in such an important position for a reason. I think I control enough aspects of this job to coach at this level. But I still need to gain a lot of experience. That's logical. And my tasks have changed. I'm not training in the academy anymore, now I must just perform. With the U19s you are stimulated when you are told to hand over your best player to the first or second team. That is the most important thing for that player. Now I'm working with the end product, that's something else.”
At the youth he began with a clean slate. He did everything on feeling. His ideas and exercises came from his years as a top player and as a apprentice under various coaches. For a brief period of time, only a month, he gained some experience as a head coach in Qatar, when the former head coach of Al-Shamal was sacked. “That was nice, yes. I just did the types of training sessions that I believed to be good for the group. Look, if you're 25 or 26 years old, you live more conscious as a football players. You think about your body, you look at the training session, etcetera. Than you save a lot of things on your 'hard disk'. But when I went to Galatasaray in Turkey, I thought; like this anyone can become a coach. I learned nothing from the head coach, Fakim Terim. Except that he came to the training every day in different clothes. Every day, for a half year! Unbelievable.”
"IF YOU HAD TO SPRINT TILL THE CONE, I SPRINTED UNTIL THE CONE AND DIDN'T SLOW DOWNFIVE METERS IN FRONT"
Louis van Gaal was his big example. Ajax won the club world cup in the nineties with Louis van Gaal at the helm. “Wherever he stood, you would noticed that that group was training sharper than the other group. He demanded a lot from the players. I do that too. But that's just in me. I have always,every training, done my absolute best. If you had to sprint till the cone, I sprinted until the cone and didn't slow down five meters in front. Louis is also like that. And besides that you tell the boys that, although they have a professional contract, they aren't there yet. You can always improve.”
De Boer also learned from other trainers. You pick up on details. “Hiddink for example could create a certain atmosphere, whereby everything in the team would fall into place. I read in an interview once with Björn van der Doelen that he, in his time at PSV, always had the feeling he was very important. But he never played. And nevertheless he always had the feeling that he was part of the team. Admirable. That is something intangible in the sub consciousness. Hiddink is a real 'people manager'. From Dutch national team coach Bert van Marwijk, with whom he worked closely the last two years as an assistant, De Boer learned other things. “Van Marwijk is clear and really likes respect. He likes a good preparation, which you must do together. Involving the staff and really thinking about what you're doing.”
Under Van Gaal De Boer did a lot of small sided games like five or six versus three. Something you will see back in the matches, when you repeat it endlessly in training sessions. “We would practice it a thousand times”, laughs De Boer. “It had to become automatic.” De Boer is the same way. With this you get even more efficiency out of passingshooting exercises. Where Martin Jol, his predecessor, saw this as a nice warmingup exercise, with De Boer this is top priority. “First of all I want a rolling ball. Because when the ball is rolling your teammate will start to react. The man off the ball decides. The ball is never dead. At most with a free kick. My strongest point was that I could think three steps ahead as a player. But Van Gaal told me that not everybody was able to do that and that I had to take that into account. That is what I do now.”
A number of sugar cubes are positioned on the table by Frank de Boer, he wants to explain why he trains so much on being open to receive the ball between the lines. You do not want to receive the ball between your opponents, but you also do not want to sprint forward to be open to receive the ball. A few steps back and you lose your opponent. If you receive the ball in that position (in between the lines), you simply turn around and you're gone. Jari Litmanen in his Ajax-time was a beautiful example. Although De Boer says that it wasn't practiced in much detail under Van Gaal.
Everything with a ball. Of course the preparation of a season looks a bit different and than he listens to his conditional trainers. But, de Boer believes sprinting eight times forty meters is more effective with a ball. Than it becomes fun. Remarkably enough De Boer wasn't directly informed of the vision at the academy when he started four years ago. De Boer: ''Look, I of course know the training philosophy at Ajax. Summarized: very demanding, without losing your creativity. A lot of position play with passing- shooting and individual actions. We're very critical on how you play the ball. You must play the ball with a message. At the Dutch national team I can easily see who comes from the Ajax school. Those players pass the ball much harder. Apparently we focus much more on that than at Arsenal, PSV or another club. Further we play in a 4-3-3 system, that's clear. But we can, if needed, also play 3-4-4 or 4-3-3 with the point forward or backward. The Ajax youth doesn't adjust to the opponent, but we do watch where we can get an advantage. We always pressure forward. If you can get a player free by playing with the point backwards, you must do that. Trainers here, at De Toekomst (which means 'the future' and is the name of the Ajax youth academy - ed.), surely don't all have the same exercises, but they do all have the same intention, the same message. You must pass the ball to the correct foot and with the right speed. The right speed doesn't always mean very hard, it can also be a sensitive through pass. That is what they demand from every trainer here.”
De Boer calls the youth academy of Ajax mentally heavy. In the morning players leave their mothers home at seven and they get back in the evening at eight or nine. After school there is a training, the lunch, homework, a training and than homework again. Compare that to the players in the first team, who in principal only train in the morning at ten thirty till eleven thirty. After the lunch they can go home again. During a week when they play on Sunday-Wednesday- Sunday, they train even less. De Boer: “Don't forget: rest is also training. And everywhere, in Scotland, Turkey, Qatar or Spain they do the same. Short, intensive training with full concentration. At Barcelona too. Only we at Ajax always try to get better by the training. That's the difference. Look, you have more training hours than match hours. So take advantage of that. I saw my U19s really make steps forward by training a lot. That's how the automatisms we're trained. Than you can sit more relaxed in the dugout during a match and that is what you want to achieve as a trainer.”
De Boer got became calmer over time. Where he in his first period sometimes thought that go could yell his U13s to the Champions League final, he with time learned to take a step back. On the other hand, during a training where a hundred balls are passed, he sees it as the ultimate goal to pass them all correctly. If someone isn't concentrated, he has a problem with De Boer. The hardest part for de Boer when training the U13s was knowing what to expect from 13 year olds. De Boer had never received child development training during his education as a coach. De Boer actually believed his education was too short. But on the other hand he adapted quickly. He worked a lot with Jan Old Riekerink, the head of the youth academy at Ajax. They worked on De Boers weaker aspects: being alert and the communication to the group. “If I burned a player down, I didn't tell that to the leader first. Little, but very important things. Besides that I talked a lot in the I form. I should have said 'we'. Or Bob and I. Little things like that, but very important.”
Another important aspect is trust. In his Barcelona time De Boer claimed that eigthy percent of a sport performance is based on trust. During his time at Camp Nou he had a three week period in which he played very poor, which all started after the Catalan press blamed him for everything bad that happened at Barça. As an example De Boer points from his chair to the office door, 3 meters away from us. “If that door was wide open back than, I wouldn't have been able to shoot the ball through it. I was the 'son' of Louis van Gaal and became the scapegoat. If Puyol lost a heading duel and I was positioned on the other side of the field, I would still be blamed for it. That was a really bad period for me and it all had to do with trust. You don't just forget how to play football all of a sudden, it’s a mental issue.”
De Boer will never admit it, Eriksen is De Boers favorite, his pupil. You notice that in everything. Eriksen was good against AC Milan and even better in the match after that against Vitesse. Under Jol the Danish talent had a place on the bench, or at times as a left midfielder. With De Boer Eriksen can count on a starting spot, as a central midfielder. “He's always moving, always turns to the right side. He has what Sneijder or Kaká also have. You just have to give your trust to those players.” After a final explanation about covering through and the importance of video analysis, the sugar cubes are placed back into the box. De Boer has to leave. He is the busy head coach of Ajax now...