Atlanta United: No Frank de Boer philosophy not necessarily bad

ATLANTA, GA AUGUST 03: Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer applauds the fans as he walks into the stadium prior to the start of the MLS match between LA Galaxy and Atlanta United FC on August 3rd, 2019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA AUGUST 03: Atlanta United head coach Frank de Boer applauds the fans as he walks into the stadium prior to the start of the MLS match between LA Galaxy and Atlanta United FC on August 3rd, 2019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

During a recent interview with, Atlanta United coach Frank de Boer said some very revealing things about his philosophy, or lack thereof. Here is why it might not be the problem that everyone thinks.

Frank de Boer is a very polarizing figure for Atlanta United fans. From his comments on a spoiled fanbase to a ‘De Boer Out’ parody account on Twitter, ask any two Atlanta fans about their new coach and you will most likely get two different answers.

During a recent interview ahead of Atlanta’s U.S. Open Cup semifinal match against Orlando, de Boer revealed some of his thoughts on his past playing days, Atlanta’s season so far, and what he wants out of his team. Between Josef Martinez’s untimely injury and the semi-final win over Orlando, some important parts of this interview were lost in the news cycle. However, there are elements of the interview that contain vital information for Atlanta United’s future under the Dutchman, and they should not go overlooked.

Most fans are frustrated with de Boer’s approach to the game. The team’s scoring this season (1.7 goals per game) is far lower than each of their first two seasons (2.05 goals per game). Their points per game (1.63) is comparable to the inaugural 2017 season (1.62), but after such a strong season-long performance in 2018 (2.03), fans are often left disappointed and frustrated with de Boer’s possession-based style of play.

I asked five separate Atlanta supporters about their impressions from de Boer’s approach with Atlanta this season. These are serious Atlanta fans who are somewhat casual in their soccer observations (they generally started watching soccer once Atlanta joined MLS in 2017). Here are some of their responses:

  • “The possession part of the game has increased but on the other side the game against LAFC shows there is a happy medium between possession and [getting forward with the ball].”
  • “It’s not less interesting [than Tata’s teams] but I would describe it as more nerve-racking. I was never really nervous last year…but I’m always nervous before every game this season.”
  • “At first [de Boer] played a very simple game of move the ball around until you see an opportunity to advance the attack. This led to a very slow/stale approach and invited teams to bunker…possession football is still a big part of the style but we’ve definitely given up some of the holding time in exchange for a more expressive attack.”
  • “He [de Boer] tries to control the game (through possession) which doesn’t always go in his favor. It doesn’t look like he tries to force the counter-attack very often…”
  • “Pragmatic and flexible. Everyone says he’s defensive and I agree to the extent that he wants the backline to be organized and disciplined (which is hard for some of our guys who like to go forward)…What I do really like…is that he utilizes more of our roster…”

These responses show two main takeaways: an increase in possession this season, and gradual change from methodical possession to more attacking characteristics as the season progresses. For readers of the interview, it should come as no surprise that de Boer admits to not having a defined philosophy in his teams. However, some of his answers may provide hints for what Atlanta’s future holds.

The most interesting nugget from de Boer’s interview is this quote: “I don’t have much of a defined philosophy or formation.”

This is a departure from what many people, including myself, originally thought. There were a couple of initial thoughts upon de Boer’s hire; some people expected de Boer to bring a possession-based 3-4-3 formation, much like he’s used in previous coaching stops. Others expected a similar 4-3-3.

But while de Boer started the season in a 3-4-3, injuries and results have caused a plethora of changes in formation. He has utilized a 3-4-3, a 4-4-2 diamond, a flat 4-4-2, a 4-3-3, and more recently, a 3-5-2. Yet, despite the formation changes, de Boer has stuck with a couple of tactical choices: possession and defensive prioritization. They are the key components of how de Boer wants to play. Unfortunately, his emphasis on defense hasn’t sat well with players.

Upon first look, this lack of philosophy (beyond possession and more organized defense) is extremely frustrating to fans. How can the team move forward from its past success without a clear philosophy from the coach? But a further dive into the interview shows that this lack of definition may actually benefit Atlanta in the long term.

Supporters may be quick to say de Boer is stubborn and won’t change, based on his last coaching stops at Inter Milan and Crystal Palace), but that’s where another interesting quote from the interview comes into play: “Coming in after last year, you have to adapt and ask players to adapt. Both have to come to useful compromises.” De Boer’s mention of compromise illustrates his flexibility. This statement is also in line with his comments on not having a defined philosophy. Because of that flexibility, there is now a bright light at the end of this sometimes dim tunnel.

The front office of Darren Eales and Carlos Bocanegra have a vision for this club. That vision first and foremost includes attacking soccer. While some of that attacking flair has been lost this season, that doesn’t mean it won’t return. At another point in the interview, de Boer goes on to say “I want to dominate and create.” This is critical. This part of de Boer’s vision is perfectly in line with the culture of the club, and his flexibility means that he can mold his team into Atlanta’s desired attacking style of play.

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His defensive background is providing a few speed bumps along the way, but think about the future for just a second. Picture an attacking Atlanta United that is also defensively sound. Think about the dominance a team like that can impose on a league that is filled with parity. De Boer is a defender above all else; defense is what he knows best. Just because he’s working on improving that side of Atlanta doesn’t mean the Five Stripes can’t dominate offensively also. It is simply that defending will come first. Over time we may see this dual-dominant vision come to fruition, but growth is needed.

As de Boer speaks more about his coaching and what he wants out of the team, fans and media alike learn more about where the team is headed. However, there are some conflicting statements throughout the interview.

Despite saying he doesn’t have a defined philosophy, de Boer proceeds to outline, “Eventually you hope to convince them that your way is the right way.” If there is no clear-cut philosophy, then what is the “right way” for de Boer? That may be fleshed out over time. The team is even experiencing some of those growing pains at the moment.

It is already frustrating to see so much inconsistency in the team’s results and other, smaller areas (like formations). If de Boer doesn’t have a defined philosophy but knows the right way to play, this sounds like it may lead to more inconsistency and confusion. Hopefully, he and the club are on the same page; chances are, that is the case.

Next. Atlanta United Vs Orlando City: 3 things we learned. dark

The biggest takeaway from the interview is this, though: because de Boer is flexible in his philosophy and formations, this means he can mold himself to fit Atlanta United’s attacking identity. This is a great sign for Atlanta’s future. De Boer can add his defensive pedigree to create long-term dominance. An improved defense and staunch attack can bring years of dominance for a club that already holds itself to a standard of excellence.