Dissecting the Ajax team of 1973: Ajax 4 – Bayern München 0
Of course, that Ajax team of ’95 was not ‘the’ Ajax team. For all its famous names and youthful exuberance it did not encapsulate and entertain as an Ajax team should. In some ways, that team suffered because of Ajax’s past teams – one particular team that played with a philosophy so enamoured and eulogised today.
This Ajax team contained personalities that under the most hostile and nerve-shattering positions found themselves juggling the ball in front of 110,000 people in the Santiago Bernabéu (Gerrie Mühren). The audacity of such behaviour may have been seen as arrogance if it wasn’t so startling and impressive , the Bernabéu crowd got to their feet to clap such impressive individualism. It was this type of behaviour on the field that led to such adulation and enchantment around a group of eleven men.
Ajax in the early 70’s continually dominated their opposition, leading to their fans becoming irritated if they had not won with more style or panache. When Ajax became the first team after Real Madrid to win the European Cup three times on the trot against Juventus in 1973, their fans went home disgruntled and miserable as they did not show the audacity shown in previous games.
This team partially resulted in the disappointment the Dutch felt after losing the 1974 World Cup final – for the Dutch team that lost the Final, six of them were playing or recently left the newly powerful Ajax side.
This Ajax team had previously beaten German powerhouses Bayern Munich, who, when they weren’t fighting with ‘every Germans’ second team’ Borussia Monchengladbach for titles were producing the core of the West German National side. When the Netherlands lost that final in ‘74, after toying around with the West Germany side after an early goal from Ajax midfielder Johan Neeskeens, the country entered a period of unimaginable confusion and bewilderment as they could not believe that their team did not pick up the trophy.
In 1973, Ajax faced Bayern Munich in the 1st leg of the Quarter Finals of the European Cup. The impact of this result would not only multiply the expectation on the Dutch National Team for the forthcoming World Cup, but in five years time, at Johann Cruyff’s ‘farewell’ game, Bayern Munich would play in a not-so-friendly friendly, destroying Ajax 8-0, in an act of unmitigated revenge.
It’s true. This ‘total football’ lark people extol over is attractive and yes, they did actually swap positions. What can we make of this then? Firstly, it’s extremely difficult to formulate patterns and trends during a game, reducing the possibility for attacking plan diagrams and screenshots lauding their attacking aptitude.
However, for all one has read about it, it is strange when you see the Ajax centre-back, Horst Blankenburg, taking the ball past the half-way line and proceeding to float around behind the Munich midfield like he was a #10 playmaker. At one point during the first-half, Heinz Schilcher, the other centre-back, takes the ball short from the goalkeeper Heinz Stuy, moves beyond the half-way line where suddenly an on-rushing Johan Cruyff steals the ball off him, taking it back forty yards back to start the move again. Schilcher is then seen hanging around on the right-wing. If it wasn’t so astoundingly brilliant, I’d be the first one to call them bonkers.
Remarkably, the team kept their shape, even with centre-backs ending up on the wings. It’s this discipline and willingness to work for the team that makes this philosophy impossible to replicate for 99.9% of teams. Not only this, it also requires defenders to be as technically competent as midfielders and attackers.
The switching of positions happened down each wings and through the middle, and the forward players dropped back to cover the forward movements of the defenders. When Blankenburg came forward, either Haan or Mühren looked to cover his position. This probably helped Haan, who in the 1974 World Cup Finals, after never playing centre-back, was moved by Rinus Michels to play there after Barry Hulshoff was injured.
The pressing game deployed by Ajax is extreme to the largest degree. In the first fifteen minutes, Bayern Munich were camped in their defensive third, struggling to keep hold of the ball. There were times where Sepp Maier and Paul Breitner are just passing amongst themselves, unable to get rid of the ball – resulting in ‘composure personified’ Franz Beckenbauer having to drop back to take the ball off their nervous and sweaty-toed feet.
Throughout the game Ajax seem to play with three ‘proper’ defenders and then seven pressers (the full-back who plays on the side where the ball is at usually presses), who all look to chase and harass in a pack, looking to win the ball as high up the pitch as possible. In Johan Neeskens they had a midfielder who was as ferocious as they came, always hard in the tackle and physically fit enough to chase and then get back into position.
Accompanying this pressing was a breakneck offside trap, inherited from the 1970 season, where centre-back Vasko Vasovic started to step-up from his deeper position and starting catching stray forwards offside.
This pressing is some of the most predatory and unrestrained ever witnessed in football, with the determination and willingness that could only be described as ‘kamikaze-like’. With the wolfish Neeskeens chomping at the ball when it entered his territory, Bayern struggled to keep any tempo to their game.
The Bavarians also struggled to deal with the manic yet composed, spontaneous yet planned movement of de Amsterdammers. Unable to deal with the forward runs from deep, the German side were lucky to go into half-time without conceding. It was also marked that ‘Die Katze von Anzing’ Sepp Maier, looked thoroughly shaken throughout the first forty-five minutes, making a string of mistakes and looking thoroughly geriatric in goal (apart from making an impressive save from Gerrie Mühren near the end of the first-half).
It was in the second-half though that Johan Cruyff and his men turned it up a few notches though.
Their movement was quicker and measured, penetrating the Bayern midfield and defence easier than they did in the previous forty-five. However, it was Sepp Maier who gifted Ajax the first goal, spilling Heinz Schilcher’s shot into the path of the on-rushing Arie Haan who slotted it home.
Permanently penned in, Ajax were toying with the ‘Die Roten’. Centre-backs Blankenburg and Schilcher were carrying the ball forward to the Bavarian’s penalty box, always looking for that final, decisive pass. Cruyff had then realised their dominance, looking to dribble and thoroughly tease defenders in the venerated fashion that he only can fathom without being roundly disliked by opposition and fans.
The second goal came was unexpected. From an innocuous throw-in perpendicular to Bayern’s 18-yard line, the ball is volleyed into the penalty box, a whimsical header from a Munich defender ends up on the wrong foot of Gerrie Mühren, who volleys with such technical audacity and aplomb from fifteen yards out. This goal was so unexpected the camera crew misses the ball hitting the net, instead filming an Ajax defender running back from the throw-in.
From there on, Bayern resulted to a ‘kick and run approach’, gifting the ball back to Ajax time and time again. Haan added a third from a corner, after some worrying flapping from Sepp Maier once again, who had a disgustingly pitiable game.
For the remaining minutes of the second half, Ajax had their proverbial tails up (unlike Die Katze von Anzing) – their movement and poise was breathtaking. Constant movement from seven players, always moving into space, then moving again, letting someone else take your previous position was uncatchable. It was a conveyer belt of movement, every five seconds there was a different player in that space. Ajax’s offside trap, which was now on the half-way line, constantly caught Hoffman offside and each time he walked back with his tail between his legs, like a puppy who never learns from ill-judged behaviour.
The ever-delightful Johann Cruyff sealed the 4-0 victory with a minute to go. One Herculean jump from Cruyff and he was above Beckenbauer and Hoeneß, reaching a curving cross from the gangly, long-haired Krol, and with his one muscular nod placing the ball to the left of the hapless Maier.
The post-match response from Meier was one that would make the new German ‘madman’ Jens Lehmann look sane. In Meier’s hotel that night, he could not sleep after such a dismal display. How do you cure the understandable insomnia you’re suffering? For Sepp, it was to throw all of his clothes in the nearby Amsterdam canal.
Not too dissimilar from the Ajax team of ’95, this team soon fell apart hereafter. Cruyff, after not being voted in by his teammates was not given captaincy, left for FC Barcelona. Johan Neeskeens followed him the next season. Cruyff’s authoritative equal, Piet Keizer fell out with the manager the season after and refused to play football ever again. Double-scorer Arie Haan left in 1975, as did centre-back Blankenburg. The scorer of the ‘goal that was never truly seen’, Gerrie Mühren, left in 1976. He later went on to state that “We [Ajax team of 1973] would have been champions of Europe for eight years if we stayed together.”
Unlike van Gaal’s wonder-team of the mid 90’s, the exodus from Ajax wasn’t for money or due to new-founded player power, the moves were all motivated by the need to try something else. David Winner talked to right-winger Johnny Rep in his book ‘Brilliant Orange’, and the way Rep talked about that Ajax team was startling. For that team, Rep says, ‘The biggest problem was that everything was so easy. They players needed another challenge, another team, another club. Because it gets stale, a little boring.”
To them, winning was effortless. To write about it, let alone describing and analysing their style, as proven by myself, is impossible. I guess that is what made them so hard to play against; you could not plan or fathom instructions that could purposely stop this Ajax team. The combination of eleven superbly cultivated footballers on one field, capable of being comfortable in every position throws opposition managers a complete curve-ball. The significance and purpose of planning for the match is now dead.
Such natural synergy between players and system is unlikely to be matched in our lifetime.
Look, if this hasn’t made you want to read David Winner’s book, then you’re a right tart. You can get it for 49 pence!