Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So much is written about legendary Ajax, that to add more may be superfluous. Yet, I will give my own impressions, trying to avoid repeating the well known. Total football is Ajax, meaning the team played the whole field, moved constantly, and players had no clear positions, acting in different roles everywhere and all the time. One clear thing about this kind of play was establishing numerical superiority everywhere on the pitch – static opposition, keeping particular positions, was outnumbered by groups of Ajax players, who attacked those possessing the ball without returning to their nominal posts first. Thus, defense started exactly where the ball was, pressuring the opposition and making it almost impossible for the other team to develop attack. The lack of fixed positions also made Ajax’s attacks very quick and dangerous – there was no waiting, no passing the ball to ‘proper’ attackers – a defenseman would act as a midfielder or winger, or even centre forward without any hesitation, and without any clumsiness. Elements of almost any style of playing were incorporated into Ajax’s style, and their tactics changed easily depending on the opposition and also on particular needs during concrete match. Technically the Dutch were superb, tactical knowledge and intelligence excellent, physical condition – hardly matched even by German players. The team’s chemistry was also great and there was something very rare: no selfishness. Superstar like Cruiff did not mind at all playing defense or passing the ball to somebody else to score. They had the spark, the enthusiasm, and also displayed obvious joy of playing. The team was also gentlemanly – although tough and sometimes rough in no-nonsense defense, they never played deliberately dirty, did not waste the time, did not simulate, and almost never argued with the referee. They also had nerves of iron and often waited patiently for scoring opportunity, never panicking or shaken. Finally, Ajax gave very wrong idea about themselves before beginning of a match – casual, relaxed and hippie-like, they did not look determined and concentrated when coming out on the pitch. They almost never made a sharp line of players as other teams did – they were bending, looking around, hardly in line, keeping big distance between players, as if not really caring about the match and each other. It was all illusion, though – with the first whistle seemingly undisciplined and not knowing why they were on the field players suddenly transformed. What impressed me most was the way they cleared the ball when defending – it never looked like clearance. Normally, it is just kicking the ball far away from one’s own half. With Ajax, it looked like a careful passing to a teammate, for the ball always went where Ajax player was – so finely tuned to each other and so mobile the Dutch were, that clearance did not appear desperate measure. Cruiff, of course, was the greatest among them, but he was not alone in versatility: almost all Ajax players were not only comfortable in other positions, but with the years they changed their original positions. Cruiff himself, an unorthodox centre forward from the start, rarely found in the penalty area, but operating rather deep and coming from left, right, or centre, eventually became largely a midfield playmaker by mid-70s. Controlling the tempo and the speed of the game, organizing attacks, and feeding teammates with fantastically sharp passes was his later role, but it was obvious even in his earlier years. Krol started as left back, moving to libero position with the years; Neeskens was fielded as right back at first, but moved to loosely right-side based attacking midfielder. Horst Blankenburg on the other hand moved back – at first he midfield substitute in Ajax, but when Vasovic retired the German took his place in the centre of defense, becoming more of an attacking sweeper rather than genuine libero. Perhaps the most ‘limited’ was Rep – tall, strong, deadly in the air, he played right wing at first, quickly moving to centre forward of English type. The most flexible would be not Cruiff, but Haan – he changed drastically positions during his long career with apparent ease: a defensive midfielder in Ajax, he played stopper in the national team, playmaker in Anderlecht, and centre forward in Standard (Liege). He defied common wisdom too – usually players move from attack to midfield or defense, when aging, but Haan seemingly moved forward with time. At the end, so great and flexible Ajax were, they were not bothered by tremendous weakness – their goalkeeper was nothing.

Heinz Stuy. This promotional photo is very curious today – the early 70s were promoting sponsors, yet not dominated by the rules of the firms. It would be unthinkable today to advertise casually two rivals, as Stuy does here promoting both Puma and Le Coq Sportiff.
Holland did not have good goalkeepers at that time at all – by far, the best was Jan Van Beveren from PSV Eindhoven, but for various reasons, including Cruiff’s dislike for him, he rarely played for the national team and is hardly remembered today. Behind him was mediocrity and Stuy did not rank well even among them – he played only one game for the national team, as far as I know. Even Ajax fans joked about him and gave him not exactly flattering nickname. As late as 1973, Stuy already having two European Cups on his belt, journalists made fun of him – I vividly remember a picture of him clearing the ball with the comment ‘vast improvement of Stuy – he now reaches the ball. May be after a year or two he will actually catch it.’ To my mind, Stuy was not that bad compared to other Dutch flunkies like Treytel, Schrijvers, or Youngbloed, who usually filled the goalkeepers spot at the national team, but nevertheless he was weak. Rare heroics like the fantastic beating of Mazzola at the 1972 final were… very rare. He did improve, though, but I think it was the boost of confidence coming from playing with very talented and enthusiastic mates. But Ajax were so superior at their time, they actually did not need a goalie – the ball so rarely appeared in their penalty area, the shots were even less. As a rule of thumb, Ajax’s defense annihilated any danger early and because of that it did not really matter who keeps the gate – actually, the impression was that they did not need anyone: it was superfluous post and no wonder Rinus Michels changed the whole role of the goalkeeper – something becoming visible in the World Cup 1974. Michels wanted his goalie to act as a sweeper, not a keeper. Stuy was found wanting in this role too… Michels invited Youngbloed in 1974. Amazingly enough, the great Ajax severely lacked goalkeeper. It was striking contradiction – 10 superstars and a zero.
But it was not only the players: Ajax, the club, was extraordinary and extremely unusual. It was not realized so quickly, but was noticed in 1972.