Atlanta United: Sacking Frank de Boer a rushed but ultimately right decision

On Friday, Atlanta United announced the sacking of head coach Frank de Boer. The decision was rushed, even a little rash. But ultimately, it was the right one.

Football management is hard. It is a demanding, high-pressure, easily humiliating job. Conducted in the public eye and under the intense scrutiny of a baying fanbase and predatory media, there is a lot that can go wrong and it does not take much for the momentum to swing against you.

That is why, from a club’s perspective, continuity, patience, resilience, and the willingness to invest in the uncertain are vital characteristics. Rushing a manager — and, by extension, rushing the decision of who the manager is or isn’t — is rarely wise.

That said, the desire for results is insatiable. This relentless drive means that managers now have to win from the moment they arrive at a new club, and any blip in form is seen as a disaster, an entire smear of their capabilities, not just a potential bump in the road. Despite the need for it, there is little patience in elite football management.

This week, Atlanta United rushed the management decision.

After losing Tata Martino to the Mexican national team job at the end of the victorious 2018 season, the Five Stripes turned to esteemed Dutchman, Frank de Boer, who is perhaps better known for his elite playing career than a glittering coaching one.

De Boer did conjure up a beautiful Ajax team. He is steeped in Dutch ‘total football’ and is renowned for playing a beautiful style. And yet, since his exploits with Ajax, every job he has taken on, he has failed, including Atlanta United.

On Friday, Atlanta confirmed that they and de Boer had mutually agreed to part way. The official line of this being a mutual decision, however, is dubious. Make no mistake, this was a firing.

It came as a shock. Atlanta endured a difficult MLS is Back Tournament, yes, losing all three of their group games and failing to register a single goal, but given the unique circumstances of the competition and the absence of Josef Martinez, de Boer’s best and most important player, you might think the club would cut him some slack. You would think wrong.

This is not what de Boer deserved. He had inherited a brilliant team that lost its star creator in Miguel Almiron, was dealing with declining talent following the departures of Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez and Hector Villalba, all of which may well have been beyond his control, and was thrown the almighty task of handling a global pandemic and a behind-closed-doors, World Cup-style tournament that is played and hosted at Disney World. There are extenuating circumstances here.

And yet, while de Boer is justified to feel aggrieved about the decision, ultimately, this was the right one. Yes, it was rushed, and yes, Atlanta United should have shown more patience, but after a year of tepid football, aimless tactics, consistent tinkering, and a clear lack of definition and purpose to the team’s play, it was plain that de Boer was not going to lead the team forwards. Ultimately, this decision was only going to be made six months, a year, two years down the line.

Even de Boer’s successes were somewhat questionable. The Campeones Cup was a one-off game. The U.S. Open Cup is a straight knockout tournament which means the best team often does not win it. In the regular season, a much better barometer for the actual quality of a team, Atlanta suffered from huge discrepancies in form. It always felt as though they won matches in spite of de Boer, not because of him.

So yes, the decision to sack de Boer was a rushed one. And it does portray the high-pressure environment that modern coaches must work in. But it was ultimately the right one, and in the end, that is all that matters for Atlanta United.