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.
In this edition: Ajax of 1994-1996, Louis Van Gaal’s ‘football with the handbrake on.”
Two wingers, three central midfielders, a playmaker and a center forward interchanging — I knew very little about Louis van Gaal’s Champions League-winning Ajax squad before starting to research this edition of our monthly tactics column. As you no doubt read here, I was watching a lot more of the Atlanta Braves that year than I was of the Dutch champions.
A shame, really. This Ajax squad is fascinating, and a blast to watch. Their ball circulation and movement appears almost proto-Barcelona.
The better comparison, however, would be to say that they’re a middle ground between the Total Football Ajax and the current Barcelona squad — not hell-bent on moving forward, as the older Ajax was, but more willing to play long passes up the wings or across the field than Barcelona is now. With that style, they were champions of Europe in 1995 and runners-up in ’96, losing to Juventus in a penalty shoot-out before most of their players left for clubs in Spain, England and Italy where many of them made their names.
We’ll start with the formation. Watch Danny Blind with the ball in this clip.
You can literally see the layers in the formation all advancing as a unit, the three defenders spread throughout the pitch, three central midfielders in front of them, then Litmanen, with George and Overmars wide on either side, and finally Kanu, who runs back to find space (notice Litmanen starting to run past him before Kanu turns the other way. We’ll come back to that later.) and ends up very nearly scoring.
The defining trait of van Gaal’s Ajax — like the position-switching of Total Football and the aggressive man-marking with a sweeper of catenaccio — is an obsession with ball circulation, moving the ball around, and not losing it, until it found the person who could do the most with it. Van Gaal’s wingers, typically Finidi George and Marc Overmars, were not allowed under his system to take on more than one defender. If a second slid over to help their direct opponent, they were required to pass the ball, typically backwards, to a supporting central midfielder, who would then recirculate the ball, looking for where the defense’s shift had left an open man.
Because of this, Ajax got very good at hitting long crossfield balls to the opposite flank, where their wingers tended to stay until the ball was already in front of the goal, at which point they’d come inside and see if they could slip in unnoticed by the defense. They also, David Winner tells us, were criticized by some in Holland for playing “football with the handbrake on,” a critique of the way the system limited the players’ natural instincts.
The wingers’ backpasses most often found themselves at the feet of the two midfielders on the sides of the diamond, usually a combination of a 21-year-old Edgar Davids, a 24-year-old Ronald de Boer, or an 18-year-old Clarence Seedorf. It was these players who did much of the ball circulation, so we’ll be looking for good passers for these spots.
If they had a weakpoint, it was in defense, where their three-man backline was capable of leaving an awful lot of space for opposing players, particularly on fast counterattacks, as seen here.
Our team has taken some precautions with the selection to attempt to prevent that from happening.
Here’s our model:
And once again, 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 back is a “dangerous crosser,” it’s either because I’ve seen it myself, or got it in one of those three sources.
GK — Martin Stekelenburg
Picking a keeper for this squad is tough, because to my mind the attribute that would be the most important is also the hardest to judge: aerial ability. With only three defenders and no designated wingbacks, odds are this squad’s keeper will face more than his fair share of high crosses and low driven balls.
It’s difficult to tell which keepers are good at handling this type of stuff simply because we seem to have long memories about mistakes of this kind. Keepers can fail to save 100 penalties in a row, or blow their next 50 one-on-one opportunities, and we’ll forgive him, because we tend to think of the taker/attacker as the actor in those situations, the one with the advantage. But bungle one (or maybe two) cross(es) onto the foot of a striker and you’ll be forever branded ‘bad in the air.’ Once the ball is in the air and in reach of the goalie, it’s his responsibility. He’s the actor, and if he screws it up it somehow seems a much larger mistake than nearly anything else he can do. (The exception being pulling a Green. Or a Gomes. Whichever you want to call it.)
Stekelenburg has the height, length, and speed to come out of his six-yard box and claim crosses.
SW —Walter Samuel
I’ve talked in this column before about the troubles with finding players who can be sweepers in our pre-modern formations. Samuel’s led some pretty stingy backlines through his time at Inter, largely because of his ability to read the game and anticipate where attacks are coming from.
LCB — Holger Badstuber
Badstuber provides some youth to our defense, young legs and speed to make up for the other two players. He’s also played on the left side before, and has the ability to slide out and track wingers on that side.
RCB— Carlos Puyol
In my opinion, there’s no one better at breaking up breakaways with timely tackles or interceptions, something he’s going to have to do often as our midfield presses up and we lose possession. Plus, like Badstuber, he has played all across the backline, and has some degree of comfort on the right or left.
DM — Yaya Toure
With only three defenders, our defensive midfielder is going to need to be someone as comfortable working in the backline as he is just in front of it. Toure takes up a more advanced role these days with Manchester City, but here we’ll push him back to the part he played at Barcelona. Rijkaard was an occasional defender, just as Toure was in Spain.
LCM — Daniele De Rossi
Ajax used several different midfield pairings on the sides of its diamond throughout, but one constant seems the presence of one additional midfield enforcer, and one more offensively-capable player who doesn’t mind tracking back on defense. De Rossi is the former, a replacement in our scheme for Edgar Davids. De Rossi’s used to operating as a ball-winner in front of a deeper midfielder, usually Pizarro, at Roma. Plus, he’s not a terrible passer, a bonus for this system, as he’ll be the first check-back option for our left winger.
RCM — Arturo Vidal
The Chilean makes up the second half of our energetic midfield pairing. Vidal has played as a wingback, defensive midfielder and defender for Chile, but has been used as an attacking midfielder and central midfielder for Bayer Leverkusen. We want that versatility here, where we’ll be expecting Vidal to pop up all over the pitch, the very definition of a box-to-box midfielder. More importantly, both he and De Rossi, defensive-minded midfielders with the passing ability to keep the ball moving.
AM — Tim Cahill
Remember that clip from earlier, with Kanu dropping deep while Litmanen runs beyond him? Take my word for it when I say that happens a lot in videos of this Ajax team. At times, their formation is more 3-3-4 than anything.
Litmanen scored six of Ajax’s 18 goals in the 1994-1995 Champions League and 91 in 159 Ajax appearances, through all manners of late runs, timely headers and general scrapping about in the box, the kind of work Cahill specializes in. (I had a video of Litmanen’s 10 best Ajax goals here, but realized while watching it again that the reason I was so impressed with him were the crappy goals he scored, the ones that don’t make highlight reels.)
Cahill may not have quite the same level of creativity as does Litmanen, but he’s got bundles of the Finn’s most important attribute, his finishing. With our wingers’ first duty being the delivery of crosses from the endline, Cahill will provide another target in the box.
LW — David Silva
For our first winger, we want someone playing on their natural side (i.e. who is left-footed) who can both dribble and cross. Silva’s not as fast as he would ideally be, but he does make up for the dip in creativity the side suffers by replacing Litmanen with Cahill.
CF — Hulk
Finding someone who could replace both Kanu and Kluivert, who split the time at center forward (with Ronald de Boer filling in occasionally). Kanu was 6’5” but Wikipedia lists his position as second striker, and the film evidence seems to back up that he wasn’t a typical line-leading number 9. Kluivert was 18, fast and instinctive, his goal against Milan in the final more about burst and strength than skill. (Notice the ball circulation and the crossfield pass leading up to the goal.) What they seem to have in common is the way they combined their skill with their physical advantages.
Hulk’s not raw skill wise, but he’s still best known for his prodigious physical gifts — the speed to burst through defenders, the strength to hold the ball up for midfield runners, the raw power of his shots. This year he’s shown an ability to operate away from goal, something useful as he’s exchanging places with Cahill. Defenses will have to find ways to track both Cahill as he charges into the box to make himself available for crosses and Hulk as he drops deep into the range where his railgun-caliber strikes are most effective.
Plus, he’s got some pretty cool highlight videos.
RW — Ashley Young
Because we need someone fast who can cross accurately and perhaps come inside to score goals. You’re welcome Wes.