Total Football Philosophy and the AFC Ajax of 1970s (Part 1) | Shantanu Singh

Shantanu Singh

Open game, open game, you can’t afford to neglect the wing.”

– AFC Ajax couplet from 1930s

The setting was a street in the ‘concrete village,’ a cheap housing system for the working class near Ajax Football Club’s ‘De Meer Stadion’ in Amsterdam of, presumably, the late 1950s. Like all spaces vertically opposite and complimentary, a kid with a football saw a football ground. The instance was no different for young Johan Cruijff who saw fellow footballers in the shape of roadside kerbs. Albeit unpredictable in their return passes, the kerbs were the ones that instilled the ability to anticipate and play that killer pass that nobody else could see. Playing one-twos with the kerb and keeping from falling on the ragged surface of the concrete were the simple things that taught young Cruijff the lifelong lesson on how to ‘turn a disadvantage into an advantage’. To a disingenuous thinker these are merely the dialectics of life but to Cruijff it meant that this life gave a chance to learn – the question was always of having the correct perspective.

As it was, young Cruijff’s world was one that was only a decade and a half out of the Second World War. Things were tumultuous to say the least and a vision was needed to be established for what the future would hold.

This interregnum was not only the state of the world but also of Ajax as a football club too. Jack Reynolds had worked with the club in three separate stints since 1915 and finally quit as manager in 1947 – managing them for their last league title before the late 1950s. Ajax had nothing to show for a decade after Reynolds’ departure and hired Vic Buckingham in 1959 to begin a much needed rejuvenation.

Reynolds had worked day and night to structure and impart his ways to each youth level teams at Ajax through youth coach Jany van der Veen. Thorough work on skills and technique laid the foundations of the system that would impress Buckingham on his arrival. He despised the kick-and-rush style of play that had embodied teams in England. Buckingham appreciated the talent that he found at the academy levels and made possession football their guiding philosophy. It was refreshing to him that as an institution, Ajax only needed the initial push in terms of guidance from him for the team to start playing the beautiful game they had always known through the youth ranks. The team was able to move 30-40 years on the pitch, showing a metronomic instinct, and along with the ball possession intact. Ajax won the domestic title in 1960 but made little impact on the European stage. Eventually, the love story would last no longer and after giving a significant debut to seventeen year old Johan Cruijff, Buckingham was sacked in 1965.

It was Buckingham whose work at Ajax, along with that of his predecessor, was the spur that reinvented the wheel and set it into motion. The two Englishmen had enriched and set in stone that football at Ajax was to always be attacking, skilful and a game that professed quick passing. Alas, their ideas were not enough and a struggling Ajax was still in need of remoulding. The club had had a close shave with being relegated and were looking forward to a tough time if things did not change quickly.

Elsewhere, Rinus Michels, the Ajax centre forward who had debuted in 1946 and made a little over 250 appearances before retiring in 1958, had been working on his sports education. He taught gymnastics at schools and had coached an amateur club before being hired as Ajax’ new manager in 1965. What had stood out as a marked difference in his personality since his days as a player was the increased regard for discipline.

Michels’ appointment as the manager was the true catalyst in the idealism of the team. He broke away from the training regimen that Reynolds and Buckingham had put together – to him they were outdated. As Sjaak Swart recalled, his methods were imaginative and the players took well to it. Michels ditched the focus on running long distances regularly and shifted to cutting it down to short distance running and combined them with conditional training for his players. Conditional training meant that aside from preparing for specific conditions, every player practiced the traits required in his position on the pitch. Swart, being a right side attacker, practiced his crossing and passing along with the required runs along the line.

But it was a major shift in the ways which Ajax was administrated that is often accredited to Michels. After taking over as manager, he approached the board of the club to propose a planned wages system for the players. Prior to wages becoming a norm among footballers, stars such as Cruijff, Piet Keizer and Swart were working small time jobs such as selling newspapers and tobacco. Now the players knew very well that they could simply focus on their football. The effect of this change was so strong that Cruijff went onto ask similar questions to KNVB, the Dutch football association. He asked for wages and insurance of the travelling players at a time when playing for the national team was simply a matter of honour. This was essentially a day-time show of Cruijff’s revolutionary attitude off the pitch but the credit was partly due to the professionalism that Michels was instilling in the players.

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Image: Rinus Michels.

Back on the pitch, despite having been able to surprise the world by beating Shankly’s Liverpool 7–3 in the European games, Ajax were not able to make it any further in the 1966 tournament due to a loss to Czech team Dukla Prague. Although a disappointing loss for Michels – who reacted by selling the weakest links – the quarter-final run marked the emergence of Ajax on the international stage.

It also resulted in the signing of Velibor ‘Vaske’ Vasović. Vaske was an experienced professional at FK Partizan and a defender who showcased the attitude of a cut-throat winner. At 27, he was almost a veteran in the Ajax team – all but Swart were younger to him. Michels entrusted Vaske to bring the winning mentality to the team and handed him the captaincy, making him the first such foreign player at Ajax. Vaske in turn understood this role and his self-assured attitude led to Cruijff considering him as an elder brother. Vaske was deployed as the last man in defence, playing alongside a 19 year old Barry Hulshoff, and would eventually be the centrepiece in building an attacking Ajax machine.

To wit, Vaske’s decisions on field were not only improving the game itself but also laying the foundation for what was to become the idea behind Total Football. After Vaske enacted Michels’ vision on the field, it was simply not enough for Ajax to concede the pressure of the oppositions’ attacks and try to outscore them. The aggressive style allowed Ajax’ defence to move forward and close down the space between the opposition’s attack and themselves. Although risky, this naturally led Vaske playing an offside line against oppositions. In all of this, what could have been outlined as a budding thesis was that on-field space was soon to become the central tenet of Total Football.

After several discussions, Michels eventually took the decision to cut ties with dead wood and make some more shifts in the administration of the club. Salo Muller, the club’s physiotherapist, was given his own office which ensured that he could converse with players face to face. Michels and Muller were always exchanging analysis and points about their player’s mentality and psychology – a move that was largely unprecedented in football – which had helped them assess players individually. The players no longer had to do their own laundry or worry about supplies. This increased professionalization meant that the players focused more on their football than on the sundry affairs of being a footballer.

Michels own personality had started having its impact on them. To recall one such uncanny measures, Michels began guarding the players’ hotel gates at European away games to keep them away from drinking. His ability to be friendly away from the pitch and a disciplinarian on it had first surprised the players but they eventually took to it. Piet Keizer called it a learning process. Michel’s no-holds- barred way of criticism had taught the players to be critical of each other in an open manner. Such was the impact of all this that, more than the football, it was the team’s mentality that was changing.

Ajax eventually won the Dutch championship in 1966, 1967 and in 1968. In 1969, they were to play the mighty AC Milan in the final. They had made the grade by beating Fenerbahçe, Eusebio’s Benefica and Spartak Trnava. The final was anything but spectacular for Ajax. Ajax were beaten 4-1 with the consolations of a captain’s goal for Vaske and the title of being the first Dutch team to reach the European finals. Hulshoff would recall that the Milan side was too experienced to be beaten.

Elsewhere and some 15 years before the final, Willy Meisl, a football writer, had written a book called the Soccer Revolution. Quite the football futurist’s letter to the world, he had argued through the book that the modern game would be a spectacle where the defenders would know how to attack and the attackers would know how to defend. This, to him, was the revolution to come in the world of football. Like all Futurists, he wrote for a future well beyond his decade.

Well before the final, Vaske had claimed and convinced Michels that the Ajax team was still two steps behind the real Ajax team. This led to Michels restructuring the team and altering his tactics to a 4-2- 4 on the field. Dutch teams were quickly learning how to cope with and concede Ajax’s attacking pressure. The 1969 final had again asked similar questions to Michels. As he wondered about his team’s formations, Total Football was just around the corner.


References

Brilliant Orange (2000) by David Winner.


Shantanu Singh is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University. He can be reached at shantanu3singh@gmail.com.

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