As Frank De Boer prepares to take his Netherlands side into the Euro 2020 last-16 knockout stage, the head coach may take a moment to reflect on how far he has come.
It was only five years ago that he had faced the ultimate humiliation of being sacked 85 days into his reign as Inter Milan boss. The Italian giants were in dire straights and it quickly became clear De Boer wasn’t the right man for the job.
When he arrived at Crystal Palace with the task of transforming the South London outfit into a team capable of challenging for the European places, it felt like things would be different.
The Eagles had been left staring relegation in the face when Alan Pardew was sacked, but with Sam Allardyce at the helm, they finished 14th to secure another season of Premier League football.
The experienced boss opted to leave the club at the end of the season, making De Boer their third manager in the space of six months.
Palace were searching for stability, a project that the fans could get behind rather than staving off the threat of being sucked into the Championship once again. Hiring a former Ajax manager who had won the Eredivisie four times felt like the right way to go about it.
“The aim is to be a solid Premier League team, not to struggle with relegation,” said the Dutchman in his first press conference.
“That is our main target – if we do more that’s nice.”
Allardyce had spent the best part of £30m in January on Jeff Schlupp, Patrick van Aanholt and Luka Milivojevic, meaning that the club’s coffers were somewhat limited for De Boer to reshape his squad.
But there was a strong suggestion Palace did not have the players available to play the type of attacking, possession-based football demanded by De Boer. They lacked the technical ability and it told on the pitch when Palace were humbled 3-0 at home by Huddersfield Town.
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Then came defeats to Liverpool and Swansea, again without scoring, and De Boer found himself under pressure. These results were no longer viewed as anomalies, but rather, the new norm.
And by the time that he had overseen another dismal performance with the 1-0 loss at the hands of Burnley, Palace had made history for all the wrong reasons. They had become the first team to go four league matches of the season without scoring a single goal in 93 years.
De Boer was only 77 days into a three-year contract but the situation was serious enough for Palace chairman Steve Parish to pull the plug on his failed experiment. He was shown the door and replaced by Roy Hodgson.
It was believed that some Palace players had questioned his methods, playing with a back three. Influential winger Wilfried Zaha’s honest assessment laid bare Palace’s failure to get the right man in: ”There wasn’t really the right mixture [of players] for the way we wanted to play,” he said.
Some managers were sympathetic at the speed in which he was disposed with. ”I am sorry for him. You ask for a bit of time for your work,” said then-Chelsea boss Antonio Conte.
Others were not quite so warm and understanding. After receiving criticism for his handling of Marcus Rashford at Manchester United, Jose Mourinho brutally described De Boer as “the worst manager in the history of the Premier League”.
As harsh as his words were, factually it was true — and De Boer must have feared for his managerial career.
Fortunately, there were still believers in his ability. Ambitious MLS outfit Atlanta United hired De Boer to replace Gerardo Martino and they would win the US Open Cup in 2019 before parting ways in 2020.
The Netherlands turned to their former international who won 112 caps as a player when Ronald Koeman left to take the Barcelona job and perhaps finally, he was back where he belonged.
But if good things come in threes, four is a cursed sequence — or at least it is for De Boer. Once again, the manager had failed to win his first four matches in charge of his nation and the writing appeared to be on the wall for another premature departure.
But with the Euros fast approaching, the KNVB decided against wielding the axe and kept faith in their boss. De Boer rewarded their faith, winning back-to-back games in the Uefa Nations League.
Coming into Euro 2020, their first international tournament in seven years after failing to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, the Netherlands were on an unbeaten run of five matches led by the brilliance of Georginio Wijnaldum.
His side play with energy, with the marauding wing-backs Denzel Dumfries and Van Aanholt providing width down the flanks and the explosive front pairing of Memphis Depay and Donyell Malen.
It is not popular with everyone, however. Some fans felt angered enough by De Boer’s tactics to shell out for a plane to fly over their training ground with the message: “Frank. Just 4-3-3”, urging him to revert to the Netherlands’ favoured formation under Koeman.
Such opposition is unhelpful and when teams win tournaments and trophies, they are almost always united in every aspect. So when Wijnaldum sided with the fans, saying that his “heart” is with the 4-3-3, it served to undermine his coach.
De Boer’s tactical stubbornness appears to have paid off, with the Oranje taking maximum points from their three group games against Austria, Ukraine and North Macedonia and scoring eight goals in the process.
For De Boer, it is a rare moment of pride to reflect upon during the most difficult period of his managerial career. Taking the team to the last-16 knockout round of a major tournament is something that his predecessors Danny Blind, Dirk Advocaat and Guus Hiddink managed.
Up next is the Czech Republic, who have raised some eyebrows with their displays after finishing second in England’s group. But the Netherlands are sure-fire favourites to overcome their opposition and the nation expects them to progress to the last eight.
Even if there are some waiting for him to fail, De Boer’s recent revival suggests they may be in for a long wait.