Unbeknown to anyone at the time, it was the appointment that would go on to shape and reinvent the modern game of football. And no one could ever have seen it coming, apart from a few in the know Dutchmen. Michels taking over at Ajax was hardly headline news. The Amsterdam club were not the famous and much loved club the world knows them as today during this era and were, according to some pundits, relegation fodder for the new Eridivsie season. The new coach hadn’t read that particular script however. Michels instead, came to work bringing outlandish plans of innovative and a sexy new brand of football to the club from the capital city, as well as backing it up with silverware and making Ajax champions of Europe.
The concept of total football is not something that began the day Michels took over at Ajax, although he does retain a first hand link to where it all originated from. The philosophy of how a football team in such a way that could be likened to total football traces back to Englishman, Jack Reynolds. The Manc, who coached the club from Amsterdam on 3 separate occasions beginning in 1915 with his last stint coming to an end in 1947, is known to have experimented with a style of play that is primarily based on spatial awareness at all times and ball possesion. While doing so, one of his players was Rinus Michels. Michels would not be alone, and in fact would find himself in the company of some real footballing coaching heavyweights such as Cruyff and Guardiola, in taking to the strategy and using it to base how his team should play when he moved onto coaching after retirement.
It wasn’t just Jack Reynolds of Ajax who had tried such a fresh and daring system against what was, in football, the tried and tested of formations. Real Madrid, Santos, Ferenc Puskas’ “marvelous Magyars.” all dabbled with playing in this way. And Burnley too! It was, when put in the hands of the Dutch in the 60’s however that the concept would ignite and become a permanent strategy and belief rather than just some footballing fad like snoods and nasal strips. This technical advancement in how to train and utilise players coming in the same era where in England it was the polar opposite. While Michels was putting into place his vision to revolutionise modern football. The English Director of coaching, Charles Hughes, was preaching his own particular strategy on how to play the game with his “POMO” system. Through his studies, based on 100 games across all age groups, he concluded that most goals had been scored after 3 passes or fewer. From his analysis, he stressed the importance of particular areas of thee pitch where the majority of goals had been scored from. He coined these areas the POMO - Positions Of Maximum Opportunity and that these were the areas that if the ball was played in enough times the chances of scoring would be higher. Critics have, through the years openly criticised his system, accusing it of producing a generation of players lacking in basic technical skills as well as having no understanding in playing to different strategies. England were preaching what was effectively the long ball system while the Dutch were quietly going about changing the game in ways that would have people questioning their own gods!
What really IS “total football” though?
It’s a term that today we’ll see a Martyn Tyler use to describe what was a great free flowing, fast moving “team” goal while he’s sat up in the gantry. Those two words have become almost a byword for what now, is simply an exceptional passage of play between team mates. The reality is that total football is so much more than scoring spectacular goals. It’s a religious experience for the player involved, it’s a commitment as a footballer where no matter what new tattoo or Bugatti you’re going to buy after the game is on your mind. You think of nothing more than “the system” during those 90 minutes. Harshly? Possibly, but not every football player will have the ability to play in such a disciplined set up that the whole philosophy expects. One that dictates that any outfield player has to be comfortable playing in any position on the pitch apart from goalkeeper. The system’s success lived or died on the ability of the players to switch positions multiple times during a game. The demands placed on the player were high in both a physical as well as on a technical level.
The Dutch players however, took to the philosophy like an Amsterdam tourist to The Bulldog Coffee Shop and it wasn’t long before the tactics started to pay off with Europe beginning to sit up and take notice of the unfashionable Amsterdam side . A year after Michels had taken over they put down a marker as far as the European stage was concerned with a 5-1 defeat of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in a European Cup tie at the De Meer on a fog filled December 7th 1966. It wouldn’t be until 1971 before Ajax would lift their first European Cup but once they did they couldn’t be stopped and the cat was eventually out of the bag. For a club side to lift the worlds most vaulted footballing domestic trophy while deploying this unusual formation and approach, it could no longer be ignored. One thing that can also not be ignored, or understated, by now is the fact that Michels had a player called Johan Cruyff at his disposal from the moment he took over at De Meer right up until he left to take the reins at Barcelona.
With Cruyff playing for Michels for 6 years. This was a repeat of the Rinus Michels playing under Jack Reynolds scenario where the torch on the philosophy of how to play the beautiful game would be passed on as Michels had originally received it from Reynolds, Together, Michels and Cruyff won multiple domestic league and KNVB cup’s and created history by winning the European Cup at Wembley, 2-0 against Greek side, Panathinaikos. That season, the Amsterdam team had taken Europe by storm and admiring glances had been projected Ajax’s way from most of Europe’s big clubs as the tournament progressed, the majority in the direction of Cruyff and his coach.
Michels left soon after the Wembley final for Catalonia to take up residence at the sleeping giant of Spanish football, the Camp Nou. Cruyff stayed in Amsterdam for two more seasons and helped pull of the unthinkable of three consecutive European Cup wins for Ajax. The 1972 win marking what at the time, was the finest hour for the concept of total football, well hour and a half if you’re being pedantic. With Ajax running out 2-0 winners against Inter Milan in Rotterdam. The Dutch side boasting the outrageous talents of Johan Neeskins, Arie Haan and Cruyff himself it was the quintessential performance of football from another mother. The Dutch newspaper, possibly biased, called it “the death of cattenaccio.” It was taken as a statement of good over evil when it came to how to approach what way to win a football match. Do you go negative like Inter did and lose or do you go the Ajax way and …?
While Cruyff stayed that one last season in Amsterdam, Michels was simply doing that whole managing a Spanish club thing where you’re constantly trying to hang onto your job at every turn. The Dutch coach needed those first couple of seasons to fully bed in on how a Barcelona player would think and play out on the pitch, as was the demands of Michels. It was only when Cruyff arrived at the Camp Nou that the coaches plan for Fc Barcelona could fully be realised. And how. With Cruyff slotting into his new club like he’d played for them all his life due to his previous with Michels he, as the worlds most expensive player having been signed for 6 million Guilders (Approx $2 million) , led Barca to their first La Liga title in 14 years. This wasn’t just a case of a team winning a trophy at sport. This was a symbol of regional pride from the Catalan part of Spain, and the ever aware Cruyff knew the importance of this.El Flaco (The skinny one) had already won the hearts of the Catalonians before even kicking a ball through refusing to sign for Real Madrid, who Ajax had sold him to. Cruyff threatened to retire from the game if he was prevented from signing for La Blaugrana. Various ex team mates of Cruyff from that first season he joined, agree on as the moment that their side eventually woke up, when Cruyff rejoined his old Ajax coach. With the coaching of Michels and Cruyff out on the pitch it was the catalyst of an overhaul of attitude within the Catalonian club who, admittedly, had up til then always appeared to prefer to play the victim card against the dominance from Madrid.
Barcelona as a football club, never mind a city, amidst their title winning celebrations, did not know it at the time but during the first half of the decade. The blueprint for the sporting behemoth of the worldwide brand we know them as today, was in the early stages of manufacturing. Courtesy of their dual dutch imports. Soon more would follow. The gifted, Johan Neeskins joined his international team mate, Cruyff, the season after that historic league title. He wouldn’t have the privilege of playing in the Barca team for his Dutch compatriot, Michels. Characteristically, Barca’s Dutch coach. Rather than bask in the adulation from the Barca Socio’s and Cules after snatching La Liga from their hated rivals Real Madrid. Michels instead, left the Spanish champions to take over his country in the imminent 1974 World Cup in West Germany.
Barca were devastated but purely having had him as coach they were evidently in a better position by the time he left compared to when he arrived in the Catalan capital. If you leave a top Spanish team as manager and they’re the ones more upset over the parting of way then regardless of what decade you’re in, you’ve done an answering above the call of duty’esque job! As for the Netherlands and the 74 campaign? In, what was the first time that a global audience could collectively watch total football in live matches. The Oranje eased their way through to the final with a style of football that, at times, appeared to completely bamboozle their opposition. The absolute epitome of the word, “bamboozle” coming through Johan Cruyff gifting the world the “Cruyff Turn” after his iconic trick to beat Swedish defender Jan Olsson in the 0-0 draw. They call football The Beautiful Game. If that is true then the Cruyff turn is Christ the Redeemer in a symbolic sense although given his footballing history, The Sagrada Familia would probably be more appropriate.
In the end though, Michels’ players got as far as the final only to lose 2-1 to hosts West Germany. All appeared to go to plan for the Dutch after they went 1-0 up after 2 minutes without the Germans having even had a touch of the ball. At 1-0 the Netherlands at times, toyed with their opponents and it is due to this that even today, commentators look back on the first appearance a Dutch side would make in a World Cup Final feeling that it was the arrogance of the Dutch that lost them the final rather than the dangerous West German side including Vogts, Beckenbauer and Gert Muller that they were up against.
Ironically, it took for the World Cup to officially cement the name “Total Football” due to Cruyff and all in the summer of 74 and by the time it was cemented the concept of it was being forgotten about. Football is all about cycles at times. Good players and teams will come and go. Someone else takes their place and so it continues. Total Football had given a good account of itself in that respect. 3 European cups for an unfancied Dutch side, a first La Liga to a giant of a club in Barcelona and a World cup final defeat was enough to place the whole Total Football “experiment” into the folklore of football. Ajax won three European Cup finals in a row. Bayern Munich then went on and did the same for the next three seasons. The NEXT again 6 seasons would see England’s clubs winning the trophy. The time of Ajax + Total Football = European Cup wins appeared to be consigned to history. The time of Total Football at an end along with it.
Whether things are pre ordained for us all or not. There was hope bordering on expectation that having first saved FC Barcelona as a player in 1973, Cruyff would return as coach some day. As it turned out, it took a few planets to align for it to happen but things would never be the same again for Barca in the best of ways when them and El Flaco finally reunited once again.
Cruyff, a devoted disciple of Michels and an undoubted model student given his stellar performances on the pitch. One of the worlds greatest players of all time had soaked up all that Michels, his coach over two club sides as well as International sides, had schooled him in. With Cruyff being, well, Cruyff! His headstrong and assured ways saw him making some additional tweaks, implementing his own beliefs and interpretations on how this system could work for his sides with football having moved on a decade.
Hanging up his boots in 1984 while with Ajax’s bitter rivals, Feyenoord, in what was classic Cruyff trolling! He moved into management the next season with, well, of course, Ajax! Going with how he wished to proceed with he set Ajax out in a 3 - 4 - 3 formation encompassing 3 mobile central defenders. The forth defender pushed so far forward that he was in the post code OF a midfielder so was classed as one. 2 controlling midfielders, 1 second striker, 2 wingers and a centre forward. In his short time as manager in Amsterdam he restructured the complete youth system at the club with all year groups playing the same formation, his one. The kids would at times be instructed to train and play on concrete, the reasoning behind this for cruyff was that no one would want to fall so therefore their balance would subconsciously improve. Gifted attackers would occasionally be played in defence to give them a greater appreciation of how defenders think during a game and how to be one step ahead of them.
Success followed with 2 KNVB cup wins and one European Cup Winners Cup through a Marco Van Basten goal in the 1-0 win against Lokomotiv Leipzig in Athens. Other notable players in the Ajax first 11 included, Frank Rijkaard, Jan Wouters, and Denis Bergkamp. Cruyff had followed in his master, Rinus Michels footsteps by delivering a European trophy to Ajax and the city of Amsterdam. Poetically, almost. Cruyff was to keep on with this aping of his tutor by winning Ajax a European trophy before pissing off to Barcelona to manage! That was just the one planet aligning, matters had to be altered on the Barca side. In dramatic circumstances, La Blaugrana were happy to provide.
Following a Spanish authorities investigation into tax evasion at the Nou Camp. Barca president, Luis Nunez was felt to have thrown his players under the bus by leaving the unpaid tax bill to be paid by them, not the club. This brought about the unprecedented move by the Barca first team, in addition to manager, Luis Aragones in what is known as the “Hesperia Mutiny,” named after the hotel that the first team squad had gathered, holding a press conference hitting out at Nunez.
Part Two Here