Frankly A Mess As Records Tumble With De Boer Sacking After 77 Days In Charge
So here we are again. After weeks of speculation, Crystal Palace confirmed on Monday that Frank de Boer had been sacked as manager after just 77 days and four Premier League games in charge.
The records, for both parties, do not read well but will undoubtedly have more enduring consequences for the Dutchman.
De Boer lasted just 85 days at Inter Milan, and now replaces Les Reed as the shortest serving manager in Premier League history, departing as the only boss in the division’s twenty-five year existence not to have seen his side find the net.
Had the decision come two weeks earlier, the sense of injustice might have been more subdued. Many felt that Sunday’s improved performance against Burnley warranted at least one more chance at home to Southampton but, in truth, the decision had already been made.
Over twenty attempts on goal and sixty-five per cent possession might have papered over some of the cracks on the pitch, but the gaping ones behind the scenes only seemed to be growing wider. Steve Parish took to Twitter after the game in a bizarre rant, urging players and fans, that “we have to stick together” – a rally cry which clearly did not extend to his manager.
To a certain extent, the chairman’s hands were tied. Palace have suffered the worst start to a top-flight campaign since Preston North End in 1924/25, and after almost leaving it too late to sack Alan Pardew last season, Parish wasn’t willing to wait and see if things could get any worse. With games away to the two Manchester teams coupled with a home fixture against champions Chelsea in the offing, de Boer had not done enough to convince the board that he was the man to spark any form of revival.
There were, of course, several things which conspired against the former Ajax man. He cannot be held accountable for Lee Chung-yong’s backpass which, even if it had not been intercepted by Chris Wood, would still have fallen twenty yards short of its intended target. Nor can he legislate for Scott Dann missing an open goal with a free header from six yards out, while any manager unable to call upon the likes of Wilfried Zaha, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mamadou Sakho for the majority of his tenure has a right to feel hard done by.
There was, however, a sense that de Boer was turning Palace into his experiment rather than his priority. Even in the opening game against Huddersfield, square pegs were already being forced into round holes: Joel Ward was deployed at right wing back, despite having spent the entirety of pre-season at centre half. Andros Townsend was dropped to the bench and Loftus-Cheek, Palace’s best midfielder in the preceding friendlies, was stuck out on the right wing. Meanwhile, de Boer’s failure to play midfield general Luka Milivojevic in his best position has become increasingly puzzling.
At that point, though, there was reason to give de Boer the benefit of the doubt. Two more defeats later, however, that doubt was growing into more than just a nagging concern. Palace weren’t just losing, but they were dropping points against relegation rivals. The Eagles did not so much succumb to Swansea as they did roll over and have their tummies tickled, and as Jordan Ayew brushed past Wayne Hennessey to double the away side’s lead, alarm bells really started to ring. Even with absences, the fans and the board know that this set of players are capable of so much more.
From the outside in, Palace’s decision may look rash and impulsive, but de Boer’s sacking is about more than just four games. His reluctance to stray from three at the back represented an inability to properly assess the squad at his disposal and a failure to use players in their best positions. He arrived at the club offering ‘evolution’ rather than ‘revolution’, but that is something which needs to be implemented over the course of a season, rather than overnight.
In each of the three opening games, Palace switched to 4-3-3 and the players looked more comfortable, but there was a sense that by the time de Boer reverted to a more familiar system from the start against Burnley, it was more out of desperation than anything else. He might argue that he deserved more time, but the Premier League doesn’t afford a bedding-in period for anyone, regardless of the reputation that goes before them.
There is, though, no innocent party in a divorce as shambolic as this. Parish has now accounted for three of the fifteen shortest managerial reigns in Premier League history, and there’s reason to suggest that de Boer should never have been appointed in the first place.
It seems, in hindsight, a marriage which was destined to fail. While most fans celebrated the Dutchman’s appointment, Palace’s reluctance to financially back a manager intent on implementing a new style meant relations were instantly strained, and de Boer’s outwardly cold temperament was one which clearly didn’t resonate with a squad more accustomed to big personalities like Allardyce, Pardew and Pulis who had preceded him.
Unlike de Boer, Palace will get a second chance, but it will be little consolation for a club who appointed the former Netherlands captain with long-termism firmly at the front of their mind. A recruitment process which spanned just over a month was supposed to avoid this very situation, and serious questions deserve to be asked now that the Eagles find themselves searching for their fourth manager in less than a year.
Ultimately, there is a sad air of inevitability about this bitter end. Palace find themselves in familiar waters where the extraordinary has become the ordinary, and with Roy Hodgson widely expected to take control of the team in the coming days, the club have already accepted that they are in another relegation battle.
While the club has acted swiftly on this occasion, Hodgson hasn’t managed since Euro 2016, and will become only the third 70-year-old to manage in the Premier League, following in the footsteps of Sir Bobby Robson and Sir Alex Ferguson. If his powers haven’t dwindled, however, there is every chance he could keep Palace up, given his records at Fulham and West Brom, two clubs of similar stature where he refined a reputation for getting the best out of his players.
It is, however, another short-term fix for what is now a long-term problem, and the club needs to assess why it continues to be in this position year-on-year. Relegation would be financially crippling for a club with the 20th most expensive squad in world football, yet for a fifth season in a row, Palace have sleepwalked into the middle of a fire which needs putting out, and it is very much a self-inflicted one.