The Ajax utopia under Louis van Gaal

The Ajax utopia under Louis van Gaal

It was hopeless – Patrick Kluivert was too quick, too aggressive and too alert for AC Milan to nullify his threat. Fifteen minutes after emerging from the bench to replace Jari Litmanen, the young Dutch striker had burst free from the shackles of the Italian defenders to poke the ball under Sebastiano Rossi and win Ajax’s fourth European Cup.

It was far from an exhilarating final, but Louis van Gaal’s home-grown talent had successfully toppled the Italian giants and claimed the European throne from Fabio Capello’s star-studded Serie A outfit. However, it didn’t matter that the match itself was not exhilarating as the final represented the pinnacle of Ajax’s fascinating progression in one of the club’s greatest ever periods.

One of the most fascinating facets of modern football is a manager’s innate ability to form a truly great team and that is exactly what van Gaal managed at Ajax in the 1990s. The potent mixture of experience and enthusiastic youth came full circle when they overcame a Milan team boasting Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Marcel Desailly, a defensive trident strong enough to quell the most deadly attackers. That Milan side were the architects of Barcelona’s darkest European day as Capello’s men trounced Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team in Athens, but they failed to contend with van Gaal’s exceptional team from Amsterdam.

Whereas Milan’s team was backed by significant investment and stellar recruits, including the world’s most expensive player, Gianluigi Lentini, and foreign stars such as French powerhouse Desailly and Croatian midfielder Zvonimir Boban, Ajax were built on more egalitarian grounds. Rather than recruiting a who’s who of world stars, they sought to focus on a youth scheme that became the envy of clubs around Europe. Such was the admiration for the work of the Dutch side, Football Association technical director Don Howe even circulated a memo to English managers recommending that they follow the model established in the Dutch capital. Their team, born and bred in the philosophy of Ajax were a shimmering example of technical tuning, tactical refinement and a winning mentality.

Their European triumph in at the Ernst Happel Stadion in Vienna was the apex of a renaissance within the club, a time when van Gaal successfully channelled the spirits of Rinus Michels’ Totaalvoetbal machine that swept all before them in the 1970s and returned the Netherlands’ most decorated club to a Golden Age. With a squad brimming full of talent, van Gaal managed to engineer a way to the summit of European football and established himself as one of the impressive managerial minds working in football. However, it was not a case of hauling Ajax back from the depths of despair after a period in the wilderness, it more closely resembled a dramatic rebuilding programme which culminated in the greatest prize in European football.

Ajax had also been a force in the 1980s, winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987 as well as back-to-back KNVB Cups in ’86 and ’87 under the legendary Johan Cruyff. However, the ‘saviour’ endured a chaotic and messy finish to his time at the helm in Amsterdam, sparring with the club’s board over a transfer strategy that oversaw Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard moving to AC Milan and Real Zaragoza, respectively.

The club went through a period of managerial and coaching upheaval when Antoine Kohn and Kurt Linder ill-fatedly attempted to maintain the legacy of Cruyff in 1988. Following them, a coaching triumvirate of Kohn (again), Bobby Haarms and Barry Hulshoff failed to impress enough to secure their long-term futures. It was during the period under the aforementioned doomed trio when van Gaal arrived at the club as youth co-ordinator.

During his time in said capacity, van Gaal became closely acquainted with a budding generation of players who, it was clear to the coach, were the future of Ajax. Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Michael Reiziger were all monitored closely by van Gaal during his formative years at Ajax and for good reason; it was screamingly obvious that these players possessed a prodigious amount of talent, even from such a young age.


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Van Gaal underlined the enjoyment he gets thanks to working with young, talented footballers in this interview with Ajax Magazine: “It is very satisfying [to train the youth team] because you receive so much appreciation and respect from those boys. It really would have been nice to continue, but I think that in that case you don’t get any further than being a youth coach. Ajax is the highest level you can reach. It is the best group you can train with in the Netherlands.”

His sentiments clearly demonstrated his managerial vision and philosophy showing that, even from the early stages of his coaching career, van Gaal recognised the importance of fostering home-grown talent and integrating them into a team after a sophisticated and extended training education. Van Gaal’s school of thought differed from his superior at Ajax, Leo Beenhakker, with the latter being less of a disciplinarian than his assistant.

However, van Gaal always publicly aligned with his superior’s tactics and methods, whilst privately he knew that someday he may be given the chance to occupy the Ajax hot seat himself. The time came in September 1991 when Beenhakker departed Ajax in favour of a financially lucrative offer from Real Madrid and van Gaal was subsequently thrust into the limelight as his successor.

To understand the sleek winning machine that came to astound Dutch football, it is imperative to understand van Gaal’s coaching philosophy. It stood at the heart of the team. It was the driving force behind training, matches and their footballing lives.

More than anything – it has been well documented – van Gaal emphasised the importance of the collective: “Football is a team sport and members of the team are therefore dependent on each other,” he explained in The Coaching Philosophies of Louis van Gaal and the Ajax Coaches by Henny Kormelink and Tjeu Seeverens. “If certain players do not carry out their tasks properly on the pitch, then their colleagues will suffer. This means that every player has to carry out his basic tasks to the best of his ability and this requires a disciplined approach on the pitch.”

Van Gaal set about building a team born out of ‘multi-functional’ players that the coach regarded highly such as Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer and Michael Reiziger. The Ajax manager wanted to structure his team around players who could fulfil defensive and attacking capacities, were physically strong and possessed the tactical acumen to operate smoothly in a variety of different systems and formations.

It clearly illustrates the over-arching image van Gaal had for his team and the scale of ambition inherent in his coaching objectives. No player embodied the van Gaal vision at Ajax quite like Davids. The unmistakable midfielder had the voracious appetite, irrepressible work ethic and refined technique van Gaal desired. He quickly became an Ajax legend in the making.

Davids, nicknamed “The Pitbull” by van Gaal, was a crucial member of their Champions League-winning side. His list of responsibilities was extensive but the exhaustive workload he shouldered throughout 90 minutes was a product of van Gaal’s confidence in him. Davids had defensive and attacking duties, being expected to link with the more advanced players in the team whilst tracking the opposition wide men when Ajax were defending. Important too, to the Ajax philosophy, were Davids’ runs from deep in midfield that were penetrative and effective. Davids, at his peak, was a model of physical fitness, and he personified the spirit and desire that flowed from that great Ajax side.

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In the Dutch league, Ajax were simply unstoppable at times. After claiming their first Eredivisie title in four years in 1994, they went on to complete the following season unbeaten. In that campaign, the Amsterdam club were simply extraordinary. They scored 106 goals over 34 matches; with an average of over three goals per game, they were one of the most irresistible attacking forces in European football. They tore teams apart mercilessly. Van Gaal cared not for pity, he knew his Ajax side were superior and he was willing to flaunt flamboyantly. The Dutch coach created a system which emphasised attacking football and became wonderfully adept at exploiting the weaknesses of the opposition.

They were direct disciples of the Total Football machine created by Dutch football’s godfather, Rinus Michels. The coaching legend – known as ‘The General’ – who was named FIFA’s Coach of the Century in 1999, revolutionised tactical football with his brainchild. In Total Football, Michels devised a tactical system which liberated the roles of the players and transformed how a football team could be set up. The system was dependent on the tactical adaptability of each player, and Michels was blessed with an outstanding group of players.

The principles of Total Football became deeply engrained in the culture and identity at Ajax and, by the time van Gaal took charge of the club, the players were acutely aware of the school of thought. However, this Ajax team would be a system of his creation and would not resemble Total Football as closely as some would have predicted. Van Gaal devised a strategy whereby the emphasis was on ball rotation and team unity. There was absolute trust that each player could carry out their duties with maximum effectiveness and it instilled a supreme confidence at the club. They carried an aura of invincibility, much like Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal of 2003-04, and there was always total assurance within the squad that they would overcome their opponent, whoever the opponent happened to be.

This is perfectly illustrated in what van Gaal calls his “only perfect match”. During his time in charge of Manchester United, he stressed the importance, for the furtherance of his philosophy, of the perfect game. However, achieving that may be close to impossible as he has only ever had one perfect game in his 29 years of coaching. That came with his Ajax side, not in the Champions League final, but the following November against European giants Real Madrid at the Bernabéu.

The second Group D meeting between the two sides that year finished with Ajax claiming a famous 2-0 victory. The match was the perfect example of just how right it was for teams to fear van Gaal’s Ajax around this time. The tactical mastery of captain Danny Blind, the restless energy of Edgar Davids, and the blistering outlets on the flanks of Finidi George and Marc Overmars were an extremely well-drilled, penetrative unit that wreaked havoc on the Madrid back line.

The team of the 90s turned up that night at the peak of their powers, something that was apparent to the then Madrid coach Jorge Valdano who, after the game, said: “Ajax aren’t just the team of the 90s, they’re approaching football utopia.”

Supplementing a superlative midfield were the chief attacking forces of Jari Litmanen and Patrick Kluivert. What still resonates to this day was the response of the Real Madrid fans. Upon the final whistle, thousands inside the Bernabéu stood up and applauded the Ajax team for the flawless performance. Inside Madrid that night there was a deep appreciation of quality football, regardless of who was supplying it. It was remarkable to think that the Madrid following would praise an Ajax team that had just inflicted European misery on their beloved team; it goes to show just how impressive this Ajax team was. On video they look excellent, but to have seen them in the flesh would have been something else.

The Ajax team that conquered Europe in the 1994/95 season is considered one of the finest club sides in the history of the modern game and, as the architect of that sleek and intelligent winning machine, van Gaal fully deserves to join the ranks of the managerial immortals.

There was so much to admire in a team that had an average age of 23 – the speed and precision of their passing; the way they dominated possession; their almost telepathic understanding; their intelligence and technical qualities; the way they maintained numerical superiority in all areas of the pitch; the players’ near-perfect drilling. Like Barcelona under Pep Guardiola, they were a team that truly captured the imagination of European football and wrote their own chapter into the history books.

By Matt Gault @MattGault11