Greatest European teams: Ajax 1971-73

2 days ago by Seban Augustine

On March 18, 1900, came into existence the "Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax", more popularly known as 'Ajax Amsterdam’. But the origin of its name stems from an even older source – Greek Mythology. The founders of the club felt it within their reason to name their new venture after the 'Great Ajax', a cousin of Achilles, described in Homer's Iliad as a warrior of great stature and strength. 


The founders, though, didn’t live long enough to see their club achieving the greatness they had dreamed of. But the club did achieve all that and much more, eventually. In fact, the Ajax sides of the late sixties began a revolution in football that shaped it into the sport that we watch these days. The Ajax team created by Rinus Michels perfected the concept of ‘total football’ and remains the textbook from which Pep Guardiola, Arsène Wenger, Arrigo Sacchi, Marcelo Bielsa, and most modern-day managers, to an extent, have drawn their core football philosophies from. Such was Michels’ contribution to football in general, FIFA chose him as "Coach of the Century" in 1999.


The Identity

Core to his football philosophy was heavy pressing, constant player interchange and an expertly marshalled offside trap. Attacks started from the goalkeeper, the ball being played around very quickly, with midfielders and defenders urged to push forward, making Ajax's players devilishly difficult to man-mark. But it wasn’t like playing tiki-taka up and down the field. They moved the ball forward with a vengeance, constantly pushing their opponents, and when with the ball, passing it to any player moving into a good space irrespective of whether he was five or ten or forty yards ahead. 



“In four passes we would be in front of goal. Nowadays they take twenty passes — backwards, sideways, backwards. We didn’t play like that. We went for the goal.”

– David Winner quotes winger Sjark Swaart in his book Brilliant Orange.



And they had true wingers, hanging on the touchline always as a passing outlet, and when with the ball draw defenders wide before crossing, which opened up spaces in the centre of opposition defences, to which midfielders or an occasional defender can run into. If the opposition failed to clear a cross, there were Ajax men everywhere waiting to pounce on the ball and take it home.


But what made this simple strategy such effective was about how it was executed. Ajax employed the most fluid of systems, full-backs operating as auxiliary forwards, strikers dropping deep to stiffen the midfield, defenders rampaging forward to create and to score. This constant position interchange between players was what that made Ajax unplayable. At their peak, Ajax was so unmatched for the opposition that they went on to win three successive European Championships in the early 70s.



"People couldn't see that sometimes we just did things automatically. It comes from playing a long time together. Football is best when it's instinctive. This way of playing, we grew into it. Total Football means that a player in attack can play in defence – only that he can do this, that is all. You make space, you come into space. And if the ball doesn't come, you leave this space and another player will come into it.

– Adriaan Hulshoff, defender, Ajax  1966-77


The Players



The final piece to the puzzle were the players. The playing style required quality players suited to the system, and Ajax had or developed quite a brilliant core that more than suited the purpose. Goalkeeper Stuy, for instance, one of the best sweeper keepers in Holland, could initiate counter-attacks, once even played as a centre-forward and a few other times, played as a makeshift defender. His qualities more than suited the high-defensive line Ajax preferred to play with.


In front of him played Blankenburg in the ‘Libero’ role— a technically gifted defender, comfortable at initiating counterattacks, with good ball-control and passing ability. His role was more fluidic than the one played by his counterpart, Hulshoff. Hulshoff was the ‘Vorstopper’. His game was to man-mark the opposition’s centre-forward and be aggressive. Any mistakes he would make should be covered by the ‘Libero’.



 In front of him played Blankenburg in the ‘Libero’ role— a technically gifted defender, comfortable at initiating  counterattacks, and with good ball-control and passing ability. His role was more fluidic than the one played by his counterpart, Hulshoff. Hulshoff was the ‘Vorstopper’. His game was to man-mark the  opposition’s centre-forward and be aggressive. Any mistakes he would make should be covered by the  ‘Libero’.


 Incidentally, the then left-back Ruud Krol would four years later, replace Blankenburg as the new ‘Libero’, which alone is a testament to the technique and versatility Ajax had in their left defence. The right-side, though, probably had the technically weakest of all Ajax players, Wim Suurbier, but whose incredible  athleticism often brought an extra dimension to Ajax’s game.

 Ahead the defence played a three-man midfield, the key player being Johan Neeskens, also "Johan the  Second”, a polyvalent player comfortable at playing any role and with great physical strength. It was said  that Neeskens controlled the game with raw power and steel, while Cruyff, Keizer and Swart brought magic into it. Keizer was at his best when running at defenders while Swart, also known as ‘Mr Ajax’,  brought width and thrived in combination plays with Cruyff. And Cruyff, he was everything. 


The three-time Golden ball winner was the soul and the identity of 'total football' employed by Ajax. He was like a busy orchestra conductor, pointing vigorously in all directions and availing himself to the ball even when surrounded by defenders. He ordered everyone about what to do, including the referee, linesmen and occasionally, the manager as well. He could do that because his abilities commanded respect. He could outpace most defenders, could dribble through most defensive traps, and had a vision not rivalled by many that played the game. And unlike Pele or Maradona, he was also great thinkers of the game, which came evident with his managerial stint at Barcelona where he established a football philosophy that still guides the template the Catalan club plays their football. 


The Honours

The Cruyff-led Ajax will go through their most successful period in its history, winning seven Eredivisie titles, four KNVB Cups and three European Cups during the 1966-1973 period. However, the significance of their achievement isn't limited to their trophy count but should include the seismic shift they brought in the way football was played and followed in Netherlands. Before the 1960s, Netherlands as a footballing nation was non-existent—their European Nations Cup record was blank, their World Cup record laughable, one game, one defeat in each of the 1934 and1938 competitions – their sole contribution. 


But things changed in the 1960s with a youthful Ajax side making it all the way to the 1969 European Cup Final before being crushed 4-1 by Milan in Madrid. A year later, Feyenoord became the first Dutch club to claim the title, beating Celtic 2-1 in extra time in the San Siro. Feyenoord made the history but it was Ajax who sealed it with their three-time triumph over the whole of Europe (1971-74).


Dutch football thrived and Ajax was its torchbearer. They humbled the entire Europe during their maiden ride to the crown. If there were signs of a perfect team in that campaign, it was perfection the second time they won the competition. Stefan Kovacs, who replaced Michels as the new manager, relaxed the reins, allowing Ajax to attack with more freedom. In the core, it was still a Michels team but now with fewer restraints, Ajax was at their most fluent when they beat Inter Milan 2-0 in the final to their second European title. 





The following year, by winning the European Cup again, they became the first side since Real Madrid to complete a hat-trick of titles. They were virtually unplayable in the competition, hammering Bayern Munich 4-0 in the quarter-finals before beating Real Madrid in the semis. The aggregate score of 3-1 barely did justice to their superiority. They were so dominant that during the game, that Ajax player Gerrie Mühren started to juggle the ball to keep hold of the play until his side regained the shape.


"I knew I was going to give the ball to Krol, but I needed some time until he reached me. So I juggled until he arrived. You can't plan to do something like that. You don't think about that. You just do it. It was the moment when Ajax and Real Madrid changed positions. Before then it was always the big Real Madrid and the little Ajax. When they saw me doing that, the balance changed. The Real Madrid players were looking. They nearly applauded. The stadium was standing up. It was the moment Ajax took over.”

– Mühren later recalled.


Ajax was at the height of its confidence when they faced Juventus in the final. The game ended in 1-0 victory for Ajax , but it was as emphatic as a one-goal victory can be as, having taken a fourth-minute lead, Ajax taunted the Italians with long strings of passes – what we might today think of as sterile domination but at the time seemed a thrilling daring way of humiliating beaten opponents.



But that was the end. Freedom became indulgence and at the end of the season, in circumstances that have never been fully explained, Cruyff left Ajax for Barcelona. Just like his stubbornness and his eccentricities constitute the foundation of the team, they were at the same time the cause of it’s sinking – he left his team in a dispute and it disintegrated slowly. 


Cruyff, Michels and their method of total football would later find its home in Catalonia. Cruyff eventually became the manager there, setting down principles that stood the test of time, enthusing and inspiring a young player called Pep Guardiola who, in the fullness of time, would later pick up the baton.


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