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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Frank de Boer, Slaven Bilic early-season strugglers in Premier League

Frank de Boer is a stranger in a strange land at Crystal Palace. Familiarity has bred increasing contempt for Slaven Bilic at West Ham. Two London managers enter the international break with their teams pointless in three Premier League matches and both spent last Monday in talks with their chairmen.

For the moment, both survive. Indications from West Ham are that Bilic will be given more time to arrest the slide, though a Sept. 11 home match with Huddersfield, the first able to be staged at the London Stadium this season, will be a litmus test. Lose that while suffering the ire of Hammers fans, and co-chairmen David Gold and David Sullivan might have to reconsider. Joe Hart has conceded 10 goals in three defeats and such a state of affairs cannot endure.

"This is different, this is worrying," Bilic admitted on Saturday, his team having been beaten 3-0 by Newcastle, an opponent hardly oozing confidence before the weekend. 

De Boer, meanwhile, is yet more endangered. His players' inability to adopt his Ajax-schooled philosophy may yet force Palace's owners to admit they made a mistaken appointment and swiftly look elsewhere. Palace have not scored a goal this season and last's Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Selhurst Park to Swansea suggested why.

Palace sat back, inviting on previously goalless Swansea while offering nothing on the counter. Andros Townsend, a winger whose main trick is to cut in from the flank and shoot, was played in a central position off target man striker Christian Benteke. It was a plan never likely to find success when playing so cautiously and seemingly incapable of putting a passing sequence together.

"We have to show some balls from the first second of the game," de Boer said Saturday. "It wasn't until after we were 2-0 down that we showed we really can play." 

The lack of courage de Boer pinpointed might owe something to his players' conspicuous discomfort with his system, a 3-5-2 formation that demands possession football and not the direct play that predecessor Sam Allardyce employed to rescue Palace from relegation last season. Multiple reports have suggested senior players' dissatisfaction with de Boer's approach.

Should those fissures persist, then Palace and chairman Steve Parish have decisions to make. Appointing the four-time Eredivisie title winner was a step into the unknown, a diametric opposite to predecessors Allardyce, Alan Pardew, Tony Pulis and Neil Warnock.

For de Boer to properly succeed, a change in culture is probably required at a club still largely run on old-school English values rather than the continental approach the Dutchman worked with at places like Ajax and Barcelona, but the problems he has found in getting experienced players to follow his lead might suggest he is not actually worth taking such changes for.

"We did play better in the second half with four at the back," midfielder Luka Milivojevic said Saturday, rather pointedly.

The confusion writ large in Palace's play against Swansea and in losing 3-0 to Huddersfield on the opening day echoed the decidedly shaky start that Manchester United made under Louis van Gaal in the autumn of 2014 when, like de Boer, he attempted to implement a three-man defensive system.

De Boer might learn from his one-time mentor, who swiftly reverted to a four-man approach, and eventually steadied the United ship for a while. Stay stubborn and his length of tenure might be lower than the 85 days he lasted at Inter Milan before being sacked last November. Salvation could lie in the returns of injured Wilfried Zaha and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, but time and patience are dwindling.

Bilic has survived significantly longer at West Ham, but so far in his third season, it has become tough to discern any kind of playing system. The Croatian is more a motivator than a tactician, with some of his strategies seemingly sketched on the back of his trusty Marlboro cigarette packets, but a summer of significant spending has failed to improve West Ham. Hart, Pablo Zabaleta, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez have arrived, but aside from the Mexican's two goals in a 3-2 defeat at Southampton, the rest have flopped.

The wisdom of Manchester City jettisoning both Hart and Zabaleta has been vindicated by their performances thus far, and Arnautovic's thoughtless elbow on Saints' Jack Stephens has ruled him out for three matches. Meanwhile, how far Sullivan and Gold are prepared to push for remaining summer target William Carvalho this week may be indicative of their faith in the manager.

Much the same will go for Palace and de Boer, where transfer business before the window closes on Thursday will serve as the measure of faith in a manager who may not linger in South London for much longer.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.

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