Last summer seems a very long time ago. So long, in fact, that Mauricio Pellegrino and Frank de Boer were both highly regarded, sought after managers with growing reputations in football across Europe.
It was a time when neither were viewed as sub-standard managerial fallacies, with one struggling to keep a previously stable Premier League side in the top-flight and the other being sacked in humiliation with their career in England over having only just begun.
Pellegrino had recently guided newly promoted and highly unfancied Spanish side Alaves to eighth in La Liga and finished runners-up to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey. The Argentine was renowned for his disciplinarian, tactically astute style – playing a rigid system that was difficult to break down. There was a sense that he was breaking the traditional Spanish football normalities by having success with a side hardly technically gifted but instead hardworking and difficult to beat due to their defensive qualities rather than possessing vast quality.
De Boer’s increasing profile stemmed from his Ajax days rather than his brief, abruptly terminated spell at Inter Milan. The legendary former Netherlands international won four successive Eredivisie titles with the Dutch giants and his coaching career had already taken him to a World Cup Final as an assistant to Bert van Marwijk with the Dutch national team. De Boer was regarded as a revolutionary tactician in the mould of his mentor, Johan Cruyff, and his ‘total football’ philosophy was beginning to become popular in Europe, most notably due to Pep Guardiola’s success with Barcelona and Bayern Munich using a similar system.
Pellegrino and de Boer were at the top of every shortlist as the Premier League’s annual managerial revolving door came into effect at the end of last season. Pellegrino had stepped down as Alaves manager following the Copa de Rey final and favoured a move to England which he eventually earned when he joined Southampton. It initially seemed that the former Liverpool assistant would be appointed as manager of Palace but the Eagles were dithering with their own appointment process having lost Sam Allardyce to ‘retirement’ following the final game of the season, allowing the South Coast side to swiftly appoint him after the harsh sacking of Claude Puel.
Meanwhile, Palace ultimately appointed de Boer following an excruciating five-week recruitment process. His tenure was a mess from its very beginning to its swift and timely ending. The Dutchman was sacked after four league games – all of which ended in defeat – and had amassed several negative records on the way to his disgraced exit, leaving the Eagles with a mammoth task of remaining in the division for a sixth consecutive campaign. The former Barcelona defender failed to even last as manager until Palace faced Southampton in the fifth league game of the season.
While de Boer’s tenure was a complete failure, Pellegrino has overseen Southampton’s sudden regression and is perhaps fortunate to still be in his job. The Saints are eighteenth, a point from safety and will struggle to reach last season’s points tally of 46. The Argentine is not whom one would associate with a typical Southampton manager and it was a similar predicament for de Boer at Palace, who had been preceded in the Selhurst Park dugout by Allardyce, Alan Pardew, Neil Warnock and Tony Pulis.
There is a sense that Palace and Southampton confused their appointments. A scenario akin to when new-born babies are given to the wrong parents at birth. There is a suggestion that the respective appointments only occurred based on the wishes of each manager rather than the preferences of the clubs. Pellegrino was not keen on Palace and his preference was Southampton, which is why he jumped at the chance to join the Saints when they parted company with Puel. Likewise, de Boer instead favoured Palace – a club who, in his own words, could “grow further and further” under his management with the addition of vast spending.
But neither club truly desired their eventual appointments. The immediate favourites to replace Allardyce following his resignation were Pellegrino, Marco Silva, Chris Coleman, Slavisa Jokanovic and de Boer. The first four are far removed from de Boer’s style and instead form more similarities with the old-fashioned British managers that Palace had – and now still have – a reputation for appointing. It is far from extreme to suggest that Palace wanted a far smoother transition from the Allardyces, Pardews and Pulises into the new era and de Boer was not initially favoured by the Palace hierarchy.
Southampton sacked Puel despite him having a successful season at St. Mary’s Stadium. His connection with the supporters was lost based on his tedious football that drew few comparisons with previous Southampton managers. The Frenchman’s predecessor was Ronald Koeman who, like de Boer, was a ‘Cruyffian’ – favouring ‘total football’. Southampton needed to return to the successes of Koeman to maintain their status as a club aiming to finish every season in the top half of the Premier League and de Boer was perhaps the best and most obvious candidate to achieve this. Pellegrino appeared a strange choice of appointment given that he was hardly the complete opposite to Puel.
At Southampton, de Boer would have had a far better infrastructure than the one he inherited at Palace. A bigger training ground and players of better technical quality would have made his philosophy easier to implement. A successful Category One academy that has produced the likes of Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and a host of more recent highly-rated prospects would have suited de Boer’s willingness to develop players from the academy more than Palace’s Category Two set-up which is based at a rented facility.
Pellegrino would have inherited a squad more capable of imposing his own style upon at Palace than the one he found at Southampton. The Eagles’ squad had been put together by four typically ‘British’ managers who favoured the structured and direct style that Pellegrino became renowned for at his previous clubs and has gone on to utilise with little success with a Southampton side more familiar with fluid, high-pressing and attacking football. In hindsight, neither appointment screamed ‘success’ and their early promise was based on both managers achieving positive results with clubs which suited their own contrasting philosophies.
Neither Pellegrino nor de Boer are bad managers. Their success in previous roles proves this point, even if de Boer winning the league with Ajax is arrogantly and patronisingly deemed by the British to be a non-achievement. Both are simply the victims of an ill-advised mix-up in which they ended up at the club that the other should have been at instead.
A de Boer-led Southampton could currently be challenging for Europa League qualification, playing a fluid style of football with wing-backs Cedric Soares and Ryan Bertrand key to the system and a Dutch core with Virgil van Dijk opting to stay loyal to his countryman in the wake of interest from several elite clubs. At Palace, Pellegrino could be leading the Eagles to a mid-table finish with an excellent defensive record and a system designed for Christian Benteke to thrive.
The pair could have been long-term appointments for both clubs. Each side require stability having both gone through several managers since they were promoted but will no doubt be searching for new bosses in the near future with Pellegrino struggling to keep the Saints up and new Palace boss Roy Hodgson now into his seventies, despite miraculously lifting the South Londoners away from the bottom three.