Frank de Boer, the new manager of the Netherlands, treads cautiously in Italy.
As a player who was never shy of volunteering an opinion, he used to speak critically of Italian football’s defensive, cagey mindset. De Boer was a defender himself, but with a creative instinct and a brilliant eye for a pass.
As a manager, it is safe to report he found the Italian game unreceptive.
De Boer, who takes Holland to Bergamo tonight for the Uefa Nations League meeting with Italy, was Inter Milan's manager for a brief, easily forgotten period four years ago. It lasted a mere 14 matches; De Boer’s Inter lost half of them.
There is no great rarity in Inter propelling a coach briskly in and out of the revolving door of the manager’s office, but De Boer’s rapid exit raised eyebrows because so much had been expected of him.
He had been lured to Serie A from an impressive five years at Ajax, his first senior job as a manager.
Part of his bad luck at Inter was to have succeeded a figure much admired at the club: Roberto Mancini, Italian title-winner with Inter, and so popular there he was invited back for a second time as their manager in 2014. Mancini’s resignation two summers later led to De Boer’s appointment.
On Wednesday, they meet as opponents for the first time, or at least the first time since, 30 years ago, they played against one another in a friendly for the national teams they now guide.
Once again, De Boer has now come into a new job with a tough act to follow. Ronald Koeman, who gave up the Dutch post to take over at Barcelona, is credited with resurrecting a Dutch squad that had fallen into a deep trough, failing to qualify for Euro 2016, and failing again to reach the 2018 World Cup.
Enter Koeman – by the middle of 2019 the Dutch were in the final of the inaugural Nations League, their ticket to Euro 2020 (the tournament now postponed to next year) secured via some extravagant scorelines, including a 4-2 away win against Germany.
It is safe to report that De Boer, in his two games so far, has not taken up that particular baton.
His Dutch team lost 1-0 to Mexico last week, and, in Nations League A, Group 1, were held 0-0 by Bosnia-Herzegovina at the weekend. “I am not a Ronald Koeman Mark Two,” De Boer insisted on his appointment, and in one respect he certainly is not. Koeman’s 20 games in charge of Holland featured 43 Dutch goals. De Boer is still waiting for his first.
He also has a reputation to make good. Inter was not the only setback in his coaching career; he was asked to manage Crystal Palace for the 2017-18 season. Four goalless Premier League games later, he was asked to leave.
"The worst manager in the history of the Premier League," Jose Mourinho once bluntly labelled De Boer, who, while working as a pundit, had criticised an aspect of Mourinho's management of Manchester United.
De Boer was certainly one of the least enduring Premier League managers.
A more settled period, 18 months, at Atlanta United of the MLS followed, with a pair of minor Cups lifted.
In Atlanta, he also had a hard act to follow: Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, the Argentinian now managing Mexico, had been admired and successful there; De Boer could not maintain that momentum.
In short, De Boer has something to prove, not least that his dogmas about the sort of football his teams should play, cherishing possession, are not an obstacle to seeing how to make the best use of available resources.
A perception that he was too wedded to his pass-and-move principles trailed him out of Palace and out of Atlanta.
A national squad drawn from the players of a relatively small nation obliges its manager to be pragmatic, even if that nation is as proud of its distinct, elegant football identity as the Netherlands.
Against Italy, who lead the group and who beat the Netherlands 1-0 in Amsterdam last month, De Boer can welcome back Memphis Depay, his most potent striker, from suspension.
For his part, Mancini will be without the forward Andrea Belotti, who picked up a yellow card and a suspension against Poland at the weekend. That fixture finished 0-0, too.
In this group, goals have become rather scarce. Mancini’s Italy have plenty in the bank – they beat Moldova 6-0 in a friendly last week and rounded off their successful Euro qualification with nine against Armenia – whereas De Boer will just be grateful to see his first Dutch goal as Holland’s new manager.