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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Premier League's 'Barcelona Brigade' reduced to three as Koeman and De Boer sackings put Dutch methods under spotlight

The early season departures of Koeman and De Boer, as well as the Netherlands' struggles on the international stage, have shone a light on the famed Dutch way of football.

Ronald Koeman was sacked as Everton manager with the club in the Premier League relegation zone. Lee Smith / Reuters
Ronald Koeman was sacked as Everton manager with the club in the Premier League relegation zone. Lee Smith / Reuters

A couple of months ago, with the Premier League season about to start, these pages featured an uncanny coincidence – the fact that one in four of all the managers embarking on the campaign had been part of the same dressing room, as players or assistant managers, at Barcelona in the late 1990s.

That those five men, none with any experience of English football back then, would 19 years later all gravitate from Barca, with a distinct, even dogmatic approach to the way football should be played, to the sometimes hectic, moneyed Premier league showed the global respect for the so-called ‘Barcelona Way’.

Their presence added lustre to English football, especially Pep Guardiola, the admired former Barcelona captain now thriving in charge at Manchester City, and Jose Mourinho, Barca’s studious assistant manager back in 1999, at United.

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There was excitement about Ronald Koeman, once on the coaching staff with Mourinho at Barcelona, handling an increased budget at Everton, while Frank de Boer, and Mauricio Pellegrino, both playing colleagues of Guardiola’s at Barca, promised progress at Crystal Palace and Southampton respectively.

By the middle of September, the gang of five numbered four, De Boer having been sacked by Palace after four defeats in four league games. By the third week of October they were just three, Koeman dismissed with his club in the relegation zone.

The Barca Brigade have dwindled at an alarming rate. Above all, the annual managerial sack race, a soap opera that has become one of the best established spin-offs in the theatre of the Premier League, is being told in Double Dutch.

Koeman and De Boer share so much background, it is natural to ask if their downfalls have shared symptoms. They are both Dutch, and very much of the school that centres on Ajax, where both played as attack-minded defenders and both built their managerial reputations.

They both represented Barcelona, too, while that club was absorbing and developing the possession-based outlook of Johan Cruyff, the late, great, opinion-forming Dutch master.

As Peter Bosz, the former Ajax manager, now at Borussia Dortmund puts it, Cruyff informs the ideas of almost all Dutch coaches: “He’s a huge influence and it’s important for Dutch football that he is remembered for his way of playing.”

Both Koeman and De Boer worked closely with Louis Van Gaal, who last year ended a two-spell managing Manchester United. He left having underachieved. Van Gaal tends to carry his dogmas around with him like a large placard, and though they have been hugely successful at times in his career, at United there was too often a bad fit between players and manager - the football ponderous, the spark dampened.

De Boer came across as big on theory, too. At Palace, a club whose anxiety about relegation has defined their existence in the Premier League, he promised to guide a team who had played direct, rugged football towards a more pass-and-move style.

De Boer would argue the transformation process was given too little time to take root; his employers lost faith that his methods could apply in the impatient lower half of England’s top division.

Koeman, older and more worldly than De Boer, is a little more pragmatic, but the sort of Everton he seemed to be fashioning lacked balance and speed, that defining ingredient of the helter-skelter Premier League.

He has left without having found an efficient way of combining the talents of the three creative players recruited in the last transfer window, Davy Klaassen, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney, each of whom operate best in the area between midfield and the sharpest point of attack.

Seven Dutch managers have quit English clubs within the last four years, and if Guus Hiddink, twice taken on by Chelsea in an interim capacity, departed with a smile, the others must sense their brand is not quite as fashionable as they used to be.

The Netherlands national team is in decline, having failed to qualify for the next World Cup and the last European championship. The country’s fame for sophisticated tactics and shrewd strategy seems bruised.