As the Amsterdam sun beats down on one of Ajax’s many pristine training pitches, ex-Netherlands defender Frank de Boer, complete with crossed arms and impenetrable stare, keeps a watchful eye on the final session of the day. A product of the Dutch club’s renowned academy and their former youth team coach, the 1995 UEFA Champions League winner is in very familiar surroundings.
Appointed first-team coach of title-chasing Ajax in December 2010, De Boer, a mainstay of the Oranje for 12 years, has enjoyed a successful start to his new career. He spent some time with FIFA.com to discuss his move to the bench, his approach to coaching and the figures he looks up to in the game.
FIFA.com: Two years ago, you stated that you had the requisite single-mindedness to perform this job. Can you now confirm that today?
Frank de Boer: Yes, I can! (laughs) I got a lot of confidence from coaching the youth team, but I didn’t know if I was ready or not. You don’t really know until it happens. I felt deep down that I was capable of doing a good job, and for now I’m pretty satisfied, overall. I started working towards my coaching licences four and a half years ago. I wanted to become a respected youth coach, but had never really considered taking charge of a senior side straight away. Sure, I had the ambition, but I wanted to rise up through the different levels one by one, starting with the young players. I thought that it would take me three or four years to become a first-team coach. Then the opportunity presented itself, and Ajax took a chance on me, as well as giving me the freedom to bring in my own staff.
After having risen to the top so fast, did you fear that you might be a little out of your depth?
When you’re in charge of a team like Ajax, the responsibility is huge. You’re constantly under the spotlight. You really can’t compare it to working with the younger players – it’s like another world, any way you look at it. It’s a different beast, and you have to be really meticulous about everything, as well as making sure you surround yourself with the right people. In terms of how I work on the pitch, there’s no significant difference between the senior side and the youth team. My approach hasn’t changed, but that’s the Ajax way. Here, we use the same system for every age group. The same style of play, the same training methods too. They just last longer and are slightly adapted to suit. Everything’s identical, apart from the need for results. As far as the youth teams are concerned, winning is not as important. It’s not the be all and end all. Since taking over the first team, my duties have extended far beyond simply coaching at training sessions.
When you’re in charge of a team like Ajax, the responsibility is huge.
What did you learn from coaches that you worked with in the past?
I’ve always tried to put myself in the shoes of coaches that I worked with, asking myself if I would have made the same decisions, or handled certain situations differently. I’ve tried to take on the strengths of each one, be it the man-management skills of Guus Hiddink or Bert van Marwijk’s organisational abilities. I share Louis van Gaal’s desire to make continuous progress, to demand that your team constantly push things to the limit. We both expect every player to give 200 per cent at training. Real matches are a reflection of your training sessions; you play at the weekend how you train during the week. Van Gaal commands respect from his players, but they also fear him, and that’s what makes him so successful.
You admitted recently that you sometimes have difficulty understanding the younger generation. Why is this?
It’s more difficult because the new generation is very different from what I experienced as a player. I’ve therefore had to make adjustments. Personally, I just always wanted to play, to work on my game, to even extend training sessions, but there were not as many distractions off the pitch back then as there are now. But that’s the direction society has taken, and football is no exception. For example, my 11-year-old daughter wants a mobile phone – for her, that’s a reasonable request. And my players are the same.
Your primary ambition when taking the reins was to get the players to enjoy their football again. How did you go about doing that?
You play the game to create a bit of magic on the pitch, and to do that you invariably have to take the initiative. And for that, you need to have the ball. The Ajax system has always entailed building from the back, with movement and nice interplay. We had to ensure that the players bought into this idea again, and rid themselves of a certain apathy that was evident on the field. That was the feeling I had when I watched games from the stands. The full-backs rarely moved up the pitch and the centre-backs kept pumping long balls forward, when they should in fact be free to dribble if the situation calls for it, and relaunch an attack properly. Martin Jol’s system did have some success – the club won the Dutch Cup in his time here, after all – but it clashed with the traditional Ajax approach, which I know like the back of my hand. This is my club: I’m an example of what it can produce. My ambition is to get the team competing at the highest level again, and I hope to stick even more closely to the ‘house style’ next season.
Are Barcelona, coached by your former team-mate Pep Guardiola, a source of inspiration for you?
Absolutely, but we don’t have access to the same financial resources, so the inspiration comes from certain smaller details. In the modern game, you tend to dominate if you have eight or nine players behind the ball, just like Barça. Leaving two wingers up front glued to the touchline doesn’t help an awful lot. You have to be dynamic, full of movement. Keeping possession of the ball seems like a silly thing to say on paper, but on grass it’s actually even more important than it sounds. Guardiola has stuck with his approach, and has shown that he’s capable of making difficult decisions, be it with Samuel Eto’o or Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He knows what he wants and he doesn’t waver from his choices.
Like you, Guardiola was a great player, which often ensures instant respect from a squad. Do you think this is important for a coach when taking on his first job?
Players’ respect lasts two, maybe three weeks. After that, you have to start building and sustaining respect based on other factors. Sure, I think it’s better to have been a former successful player – in fact, it’s ideal. But it’s not absolutely essential, as someone like Van Gaal has proved. For me, he’s as good a coach as you can get, with very academic methods. But he would be the first to admit he did not have a high-profile playing career.
At the time, could you see that Guardiola would go on to be a highly successful coach?
Yes, there was no doubt. On the pitch, he was already just like a coach, with natural leadership skills and a real footballing brain. Even at 24 or 25, he already had it in him. It’s as if he was born to coach.
Could the same thing be said of you?
No, I only started to think about coaching at 32 or 33, when I was at Galatasaray. When I was 25, it never even crossed my mind! But as you get older, you start to see football in a different light. Towards the end of my career, I began to attach much more importance to tactical aspects of the game. I tried to step back to get an overview, instead of just peering at things from the perspective of my own performances.
How has the transition from player to coach been for you?
When you’re a player, you focus solely on yourself, without concerning yourself too much about your team-mates' concerns. As a coach, you’re effectively a surrogate dad to 26 lads, so you need to pay attention to everything. Again, in that area, Van Gaal set the benchmark. He was always aware of what was happening in players’ lives away from the pitch, and always knew just the right thing to say, as a sign that he understood. And he was very good at spotting signs too. It’s essential to properly keep an eye on what’s going on around you. A coach really needs to be a father figure.
How important is the psychological side of the job?
I would say that it’s very important in the last few weeks of the season, with the league title on the line. That’s when my work becomes more psychological. I need to focus on giving us a mental edge, on finding the right word that’ll ensure that every player gives 100 per cent.
You worked as assistant coach with the Dutch national team during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. What did you learn from the experience?
That you should believe in your objectives. Having goals isn’t everything, but when you do have them, you need to sincerely and constantly believe that they’re achievable. We had a clear mission, which was to win the World Cup, and I witnessed our team’s self-belief grow hugely match after match.
Can you predict where you will be in five years’ time?
I’ve never made any career plans for more than two years at a time. I still want to take things step by step. Becoming a first-team coach happened earlier than I’d expected, but I’m glad. Ajax is my club, and Amsterdam is my home, so for the moment it’s my dream job.