Formation Renovation: Ajax 1971-1973

Welcome to Formation Renovation, where we figure out which modern players would best fit into some time-honored styles.  The idea behind Formation Renovation is simple: It’s an attempt to figure out who today could do what they did back then. It’s not a suggestion that these formations and tactics, some of them 30, 50, or 70 years old, could thrive or even work in the modern era, but a thought experiment meant to help us look at differences between teams and players then and now.

Ajax v. Arsenal, 1972

Up first: Ajax of 1971-1973; the progenitors of Total Football

Obviously, if you’re going to remake Total Football, you need versatile players. The position switching — along with the pressing from the front and the high offsides line — is one of the vital characteristics of the system, and we can’t just ignore that and plug players into any old 4-3-3.

What’s interesting is how that position switching worked: Not so much the fact that it asked the forward, midfielder, and defender on each wing and through the middle to interchange but that they were able to do so and maintain any semblance of shape — especially midfield solidarity. A big part of this is the way Ajax manipulated space with their shape: They expanded when they had the ball and contracted when they didn’t. The midfielders played as wide men as they moved the ball down the field and would come inside toward goal as they moved to the attacking end. When the other team had possession, they’d tuck in more narrowly, so it wasn’t a lone central midfielder getting passed around in the center of the field. Wingers would chase the ball from their zone into the center of the field and back, and once they regained possession, the whole squad would nova outward to create the maximum amount of space on the field.

All that is pretty nifty, which is why even 40 years later people talk about that Ajax and the later Dutch national teams with a kind of hushed reverence. Even so, the most striking thing about watching the Golden Ajax team in the present, considering all the talk about Cruyff’s influence and spiritual successor-dom, is how little they resemble modern Barcelona’s Incredible Machine attack.

These Ajax squads did not tiki-taka up and down the field. They moved the ball forward with a vengeance, constantly pushing their opponents. Players who had won the ball would pass to the man moving into space whether he was five or ten or forty yards ahead, and he seemed to be forty yards ahead a lot, especially on the moves that resulted in shots on goal. As David Winner quotes winger Sjark Swaart, “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.”

Because they weren’t afraid to play it long, their wingers — and this is important for our project — in many ways had to be both classic speed merchants, running down balls hit in front of them, and target forwards, winning high balls and waiting for support to arrive, which it often did quickly. Indeed, some of their sequences almost seem like designed hook and ladder plays straight out of playground (American) football: Piet Keizer knocking a long pass down for an onrushing Gerrie Mühren or Arie Haan to pick up in stride. [1]

In addition to winning long balls, Ajax’s wingers also needed some degree of ability heading the ball towards goal, as they were often the ones being picked out by crosses from the opposite side of the pitch. As Swaart tells Winner, “When Johan [Cruyff] went to the left, I knew I had to move to the far post.” This is an even bigger stylistic difference between Barcelona and Ajax — Ajax gladly pumped the ball into the box in a way you’d never, ever catch Barcelona doing. Indeed, of the five goals they scored in their three European Cup Final wins, three of them came from headers.

Johan Cruyff scores Ajax's second goal against Inter in the 1972 European Cup Final.

They could get away with this in large part because of the way they packed the box on the attacking end. Watch twenty seconds of this clip of Ajax’s first goal against Bayern Munich in the 1973 European Cup.

That’s center back Heinz Schilcher taking the shot that leads to Arie Haan’s putback. As Schilcher runs forward to take his shot [comma] he becomes the eighth Ajax player in the attacking third of the pitch.

Their wingers were real wingers, hanging on the touchline with the ball to draw defenders wide before crossing, which allowed them to fill the gaps that were created in the center with midfielders and the occasional defender. If the defense failed to clear a cross, there were Ajax men everywhere waiting to pounce on the ball and take it home.

The reason Ajax could do all these things, and be so good at them, was because the vast majority of the players in that squad had grown up and learned to play at Ajax, and had been playing with one another for years. Jonathan Wilson calls it “habit football.” Swaart, who’s apparently really quotable, once again: “When I saw Suurbier going forward, I knew I had to go back. I didn’t have to be told. And after two years, everybody knew what to do.”

A word on the methodology:
1. There will be no Messi and no Cristiano Ronaldo on any of the teams in this series. We can all agree that the former would make any team you placed him on better, and since I’m not factoring in personal characteristics, like level of arrogance or how far a player’s head is up his ass, so probably would the latter. Using them would be cheating — they’d go on every team somewhere.
2. Given the choice between one or another player, odds are I picked the less obvious one, for reasons similar to those stated in #1. Every team that calls for an attacking right back can’t have Dani Alves or Maicon.
3. Any gaps in my knowledge of particular characteristics of current players were filled via printed reports, scrounged YouTube clips, and, for comparison purposes, Football Manager stats. When I say, for instance, that my selection at right defender is a “dangerous crosser,” it’s either because I’ve seen it myself, or got it in one of those three sources.

Here’s our model:

And here’s our list:

Goalkeeper [2]Tim Howard

For two reasons. One, if we play a high offensive line and commit six or seven men to our attacks, then there’s a good chance our keeper will see more one-on-one situations than normal. Howard’s as good as anyone at those. Two, in the spirit of Stuy, we want a keeper who can throw quickly and accurately downfield, something Howard can certainly do.

Sweeper – Sergio Busquets
The sweeper in Ajax’s system was more than a mop-up man. He was a ball-playing central defender, someone who could carry the ball forward to midfield and find a useful pass once he was there. I wanted someone comfortable at the back[3] and at the base of the midfield, who could move forward and not have to scamper back as soon as he’d passed the ball. There’s precedent for this: Holland played Arie Haan as a central defender in the 1974 World Cup.

Right Defender – Darijo Srna
A solid defender who’s comfortable advancing and a dangerous crosser, which is important because that’s a weak area for our right winger.

Center Defender – Thiago Silva
There seems to be an agreement that he’s one of the fastest top-level central defenders, a skill he’s going to need for when that offside trap gets busted and Busquets is twenty yards in front of him.

Left Defender – Michel Bastos
For his versatility and ability to play any position all the way down the left side.

RM/RCM – Ibrahim Afellay
I read once that three-man Dutch midfields traditionally consisted of a playmaker, a runner, and a destroyer. Playmaker’s the tricky role in here, as you need someone who’s both creative and has the discipline to drop back into defense, and who ideally can be one of those additional bodies in the box when we’re moving forward. Afellay’s played predominantly on the wing for Barcelona, but he was an attacking and sometimes defensive midfielder for PSV. That’s the kind of versatility we’re looking for here.

CM – Michael Essien
Our destroyer. Essien’s the ideal choice because he’s a player who can perform well as a defensive midfielder but also step out of that role and be comfortable away from the line just in front of his defense, whether that’s hounding the ball upfield or hammering shots from distance.

LM/LCM – Bastian Schweinsteiger
The runner, so we’re looking for a modern Johan Neeskens. Schweinsteiger — who’s not still 22, as I initially thought — gets the nod because he’s young enough to hound the ball all over the pitch, mean enough to get it back once he catches up to it, and big enough to be a force in the box on the attacking end. Plus, he can shoot from distance, as his YouTube compilations will attest, and he played at left back for Bayern for part of at least one year early in his career.

RW – Thomas Müller
We need someone tall, fast, able to cross the ball, win headers, and score goals. I can think of one person better for this spot that Müller, but I already agreed I wouldn’t put him on any of these teams. The young German it is.

CF – Antonio Cassano
There’s no winning this one. No matter who I selected, he wouldn’t be Johan Cruyff, and wouldn’t be as good as Johan Cruyff by a long shot. Messi would probably be the first choice, but he’s not Johan Cruyff either. Four or even two years ago I might have selected Totti, but I’m not keen on putting a 34-year-old in a system that requires non-stop running. (Those of you pointing out that the often out-of-shape Cassano may have problems with that have a fair point as well.) Cassano fills the role as a great passing, deep-striker-type who’s used to creating space with his movement and on the dribble. He’s not Cruyff, but who is?

LW – Angel Di Maria
By all rights I should find another Dutchman to go here. God knows there are options. But I’m morally opposed to sticking Dirk Kuyt in there, I’m not sure if Arjen Robben has attempted a cross from the left side — or even played on the left — in the last three years, and while I’m a huge fan of Eljero Elia, di Maria is bigger, a better header of the ball and has a better cross than the young Dutchman. He may have been playing largely on the right in the last year for Real Madrid, but he was a true left-sided midfielder/winger for Benfica before that.

And so:

[1] If you’ll allow me to continue and ultimately abuse the comparison between the two sports, tiki-taka is to Total Football as the West Coast offense is to Air Coryell. That made sense to approximately one of our readers, so I do hope you enjoyed it, whoever you are.

The better American sports analogy, for those who are interested in that sort of thing, is the 1976-1977 Portland Trail Blazers. That team loved to run off Bill Walton’s outlet passes when they got the chance, and would often pass backwards to late-arriving men crashing through the lane for easy lay-ups. Also, the Ajax footage I watched showed keeper Heinz Stuy throwing downfield to runners in stride numerous times, which makes Walton in this comparison some combination of Stuy and Cruyff.
[2] Admittedly, goalkeeper is the one position in this thought experiment that’s the least flexible.  I could always pick Iker Casillas and call it a day, but that’d be pretty boring. Instead I’ll choose a different keeper each time, and highlight the traits that make him the ideal man for this particular team.
[3] Own goal against Arsenal notwithstanding.

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4 Responses to Formation Renovation: Ajax 1971-1973

  1. Ogo Sylla says:

    Excellent Piece! I’ve grown to be a HUGE fan of Busquets and Schweinsteiger (since his transformation as CM) and I love that you put them in there. Mostly I’m delighted that you put in Srna :D By far the most UNDERRATED right-back in Europe!

  2. Pingback: The Tuesday XI | The Other 87

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  4. Pingback: Cheating the System: A Short-Term Solution for Improving the USMNT’s Next Generation | The Other 87

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