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Updated on July 6th 2021, 2:36:37 pm

Ajax 1970-73: The Pinnacle of ‘Total Football’

With this Ajax team, Rinus Michels devised the famed Total Football system with the support of the excellent on-field orchestrator Johann Cruyff. Here is a look at the dream team of Ajax from 1970-73.

Rinus Michels' all-action brand of 'Total Football' at Ajax was ideal for Johan Cruyff as his side dominated football in the early 1970s. At Ajax, Rinus Michels rewrote the rule book on tactics, paving the way for his team to win the European Cup three times in a row in the early 1970s. With this Ajax team, Rinus Michels devised the famed Total Football system with the support of the excellent on-field orchestrator Johann Cruyff. In an exhilarating fluid football style, players switched positions, pressed the enemy, and supported one another.


Coach: Rinus Michels

Trophies: 3 European Cups (1971,1972,1973), 2 Eredivisie titles (1971-72, 1972-73), 2 KNVB Cups (1970–71 & 1971–72), UEFA Super Cup (1973), Intercontinental Cup (1972)

Star Players: Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Dick van Dijk, Sjaak Swart, Ruud Krol, Arie Haan


Rinus Michels took over in 1965 and transformed Ajax from relegation candidates in the Netherlands to Europe's best team, with players like Johan Neeskens, Piet Keizer, Sjaak Swart, Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Gerrie Mühren, Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol, Velibor Vasovi, and, of course, Dutch football's favourite son Johan Cruyff becoming household names thanks to his 'Total Football' It helped the team win three European Cups in a row. Ajax were left reeling in 1970 when Feyenoord became the first Dutch team to win club football's ultimate prize, the European Champion Clubs' Cup.


Vic Buckingham, who had been taught in the best passing traditions by Peter McWilliam at Tottenham, was appointed manager in 1959, and the seeds began to sprout. He was succeeded by Michels six years later, who guided Ajax to the title in his debut season. The aesthetic was still evolving. Michels had switched to a 4-2-4 formation and favoured a possession-based style, but there was no systematic pressure at the time. The 4-3-3 system, with attackers on the wings, was central to 'Total Football.' Attacks began with the goalkeeper passing the ball around rapidly and encouraging midfielders and defenders to press forward, making Ajax's players devilishly tough to man-mark. Ajax did not surrender possession for long thanks to heavy pressing and a well-managed offside trap. Ajax's victory over Panathinaikos in the European Cup final in 1971 provided clear proof that they had reached "the pinnacle of progress."


Following Michels' departure for Barcelona, Ajax turned to the affable Romanian Stefan Kovacs. Kovacs let go of the restraints, and Ajax played their best football under him, attacking with more freedom than Michels had ever let them. Stefán Kovács, his successor, arguably proven him wrong. Cruyff scored twice in Ajax's 2-0 victory over FC Internazionale Milano in 1972 final in Rotterdam, and they made it three in a row in the 1973 final in Belgrade, edging Juventus 1-0. Ajax became the first team since Real Madrid to capture a hat-trick of European Cups by winning it again. Ajax defeated Real Madrid in the semi-final, after thrashing Bayern Munich 4-0 in the first leg of the quarter-final.


But that was the last straw. Cruyff lost the captaincy vote at the end of the season for reasons that have never been completely addressed. Despite the fact that no team interchanges in the same way as Ajax, it impacted the way all teams approach the game to this day. Cruyff and Michels teamed up once more as the Netherlands advanced to the FIFA World Cup final in 1974. If reaching the 1974 World Cup final was a major accomplishment, winning the 1988 UEFA European Championship in his third stint as Oranje coach was much more significant. However, it took Ajax another 22 years to win the UEFA Champions League for the fourth time, with Louis van Gaal guiding them to victory in 1995.