Congratulations if you made it this far. We’ve looked at two men from a ‘smaller’ country (Austria) so far, who had big but a relatively underrated impact on the development of football, but there’s no secret about what influence our final man had. This Dutchman was a prolific striker in his own right before turning to coaching, in a managerial career that set a precedent for all that followed. Figured it out yet?
Rinus Michels scored 122 goals in 12 years at Ajax in a career that was
stunted by World War II and ended prematurely by injury. I wouldn’t have mentioned Michels’ playing career had it not been for the ideologically influencing management of Jack Reynolds. Reynolds, like many Englishmen towards the start of the development of football in other countries, moved abroad and helped spread popularity of the game while bringing the trends from his then-leading homeland. Unlike most Englishmen (then and now), Reynolds was about 10 years in the future in his line of thinking when it came to the beautiful game and this interpretation of how football should be played certainly impacted on Michels.
If Reynolds laid the foundations of Total Football, Michels added the bricks, mortar, concrete and fruit bowl. After arriving at a failing Ajax, he put into place his tactical system, reliant on space and movement. This, philosophically and culturally, was an extremely Dutch system. A country based around using space to its fullest, and, in the 70s, in a post-revolutionary state revolving around libertarian ideals, the Ajax of the 70s represented the Dutch people. This relationship is further explored in David Winner’s Brilliant Orange.
In footballing terms, the Total Football Ajax was based upon complete trust and teamwork to rotate between positions, an extremely simple and logical concept that was mastered by Michels and his players. A combination of technique and tactical awareness – the two central focuses of Dutch youth development – was incomparable and this showed, domestically and continentally. Ajax won the Eredivisie in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970 under Michels’ guidance and won three consecutive European Cups from 1971 to 1973 with the system, although he was only at the helm for the first.
The structure of the side was undefinable as every player would almost always be moving elsewhere. The idea was that this fluid movement would create acres of space and baffle defenders- it did. The continuous switching required significant stamina and fitness as well as extraordinary versatility, and this Ajax side had both, pulling off the system like no-one else did after. They were also the first large scale employers of the combination of an offside trap with pressing, ensuring the ball was won back quickly and efficiently, a strategy later used by a certain Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.
Johan Cruyff was the fulcrum of both Ajax and the Dutch national team at the 1974 World Cup. His devastating movement, delicate passing and lightning mind made him the perfect captain to lead the Total Football team, even though it has been suggested he was at odds with the system and its philosophy. David Winner indicates that Cruyff undermined Michels’ tactic with his individualism but it is doubtful that anyone complained as ‘Pythagoras in boots’ banged in 190 goals in his first spell at Ajax. Cruyff’s role was similar to a False Nine on anabolic steroids, pulling together movement, creativity and accuracy into one superb, archetypally Dutch package.
But how did Michels manage to squeeze so many technically brilliant players – some with rather large egos (cough, Cruyff, cough) – into a team that was built on teamwork and collective work ethic? Even the great man himself acknowledged this, ‘It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers’ and quite simply it is tough to know exactly how. From what we do know about the Ajax dressing room, we can pick apart his motivational strategy. Michels was a phenomenally intelligent manager who despite being known as strong and authoritarian, consciously assembled an unmatched team spirit through practical jokes, trust and uniting similarly minded individuals.
In his book, Team Building: The Road to Success, Michels suggests that the success of a team is reliant on ‘how far they will, and can go to try to win’, emphasising the power of personality. Uniting the right blend of personality, of youth and of experience was evident in his transfer policy at the start of his reign. Velibor Vasovic, a strong-minded Serbian sweeper signed from Partizan in 1966, can be viewed as a microcosm of the Michels Ajax, symbolising the never-say-die determination of the whole side. It is hard to believe that any player not possessing such a personality would’ve survived in the tightly-knit dressing room.
How Michels managed to organise a squad, however tightly-knit and well assembled, into what really were worldbeaters playing in a revolutionary style is a mystery. Whoever does figure it out and can pull together players with such tremendous technical individuality into a fluid, cohesive team will be a very, very rich man indeed.