Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Frank de Boer sat there, in his own word "helpless", as Ajax crashed out of this season’s Champions League with defeat to Real Madrid. A year to the day since his appointment, it was the coach's 50th match and his 10th defeat, his second at home.
The defeat – to De Boer's former Barcelona coach Jose Mourinho – was all the more painful given the circumstances: the Amsterdam side had two perfectly legitimate goals disallowed at critical stages of the game.
However, at least De Boer could afford to look back and say the seeds for a brighter future had already been sown. Ajax, at least on the pitch, look to be on good footing, with their coach constantly evolving his tactics and taking inspiration from former coaches as well as an ex-teammate.
As he entered his first press conference as coach, De Boer had outlined his objectives in the most clear and concise way possible. To him, the brand of football Ajax had been playing under Martin Jol was partly responsible for the stagnation of the current crop of players.
"We had to ensure that the players bought into this idea again, and rid themselves of a certain apathy that was evident on the field," he explained. "That was the feeling I had when I watched games from the stands. The full-backs rarely moved up the pitch and the centre-backs kept pumping long balls forward, when they should in fact be free to dribble if the situation calls for it, and re-launch an attack properly."
Almost immediately, with just a few hours of training and a slight tactical tweak, the first signs of a change presented themselves in his first game in charge: the 2-0 win over AC Milan at the San Siro. "We played following the Ajax philosophy," De Boer said afterwards, "with wingers and a real No.10 – and everyone did well at the job they were assigned beforehand. The wingers kept the field broad, and came in at the right times."
In the months that followed that result, there was a gradual move from a 4-2-3-1 to an orthodox 4-3-3. "When it comes to playing football, movement on the field and attacking, I am close to Johan Cruyff’s philosophy," De Boer explained, with a slight difference: "I like the 4-3-3 formation. I know you need the right players for that, but if you want to find them, then you will."
In truth, his philosophy is a mash-up of Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal (who in turn both adapted theirs from Rinus Michels). The way he wants his side to play is reflected in both. His coaching methods are akin to former coach Van Gaal – for example, meticulously analysing his opponents and then relaying that information in a classroom to his players, although he has so far left the notebook in the dressing room rather than taking it with him to the dugout.
"What's up with using a notebook?"
One of the major criticisms of Jol was his inability to play with wingers. In fairness to him, it’s been a while since Ajax did: some say since Marc Overmars and Finidi George rampaged down the flanks.
The imperative of playing with out-and-out wide men has seen the likes of Miralem Sulejmani not just improve but became crucial components. As well as the system changing, so has the build-up: no longer is the team heavily dependent on the counter-attack and long balls.
Instead the aim is to constantly develop short passing into circulation football. The attack starts from the back, with the goalkeeper. Kenneth Vermeer has inspired much debate this season, but despite some notable errors – FC Utrecht away springs to mind – he has remained De Boer's No.1 choice. Like his compatriot Michel Vorm at Swansea, Vermeer seldom kicks the ball long: even under pressure, it’s always a pass to either centre-back or full-back.
This way of playing is nothing new at Ajax. When Cruyff took over in 1985, his first act was to find a goalkeeper capable of playing football: he found one in Stanley Menzo one of the first sweeper-keepers. He would continue under Van Gaal, but lose his spot after a 1993 UEFA Cup nightmare in Auxerre, where he conceded a goal direct from a corner kick; from then on the ‘ice rabbit’ Edwin van der Sar would take the gloves.
CRUYFF v VAN GAAL, INDIVIDUAL v TEAMCruyff’s vision is the backbone of the club, and some of his tactical innovations returned this season. The 3-3-1-3 formation, used throughout his tenure at the club and adopted by Van Gaal, became the staple of Ajax: renowned worldwide, it even reached South America and inspired Marcelo Bielsa who fell in love with the team of the mid-90s.
And in a cup game this year against lowly VV Noordwijk, the system made its comeback. A back three of Toby Alderweireld, Andre Ooijer and Jan Vertonghen – all Ajax graduates and therefore familiar with the formation at youth level – has even got De Boer hinting he might continue playing this way on a regular basis in the near future, mainly due to how it allows his midfield to control possession as well as the ebb and flow of the game.
De Boer's explanation for using it then, and subsequently against Roda JC twice in the cup and league, was that it's the best way to combat sides playing with two forwards – a similar reasoning forwarded by Michels. Indeed, the legendary Dutch coach's belief in individual training has been a prominent feature under the current coach.
“The individual cleverness of the players was missing when I first got here," says De Boer, who returned in 2006 as a youth team coach. “The individual action at the highest level is essential. We are now in training much more individualised. That is so important.”
This is where Van Gaal and Cruyff start to differ. Though the two have similar domineering personalities, they are very different under the surface. At the heart of the recent power struggle is a clash of ideologies, with either side claiming their brand of football to be superior – and suitable for Ajax. "Of course, Louis van Gaal has an understanding of football," Cruyff said. "But we have a clear difference in approach."
Cruyff, De Boer & Van Gaal: Ajax's internal triangle
A good example is the development of players and running the youth programme. Van Gaal is accused of allowing the deterioration of Ajax's academy from the mid-1990s onwards. As a coach, his way of thinking is on the side of the collective; this also applies to the development of players and what is often seen as a militaristic approach to team building.
By contrast, Cruyff believes in the individual. He is an ardent proponent of what's known as the 'Michels model' – including individual training, in which character building is as much as important as skill development. The idea is that at critical stages of a match, instead of relying on others, the player solves the predicament himself. Talent is one thing, but it's better employed with a football brain.
Under Van Gaal, Ajax moved away from this approach. No wonder Cruyff has said of Van Gaal: "I do not think he can make Ajax a top club again. He will get results short-term, but things have to change in order to improve Ajax."
In recent years Cruyff has lambasted previous regimes for putting profit ahead of the quality of football. It was as if Ajax had become a football training centre designed to develop players and sell them off to the highest bidder. Any ambition of reaching the heights of yesteryear was gone.
Cruyff's problem is that he can be too much of an idealist. The club found themselves in that position because of the changing economic climate of an increasingly globalised game, especially after the Bosman ruling meant clubs could lose players they'd spent years developing without receiving any recompense.
Of the side which won the 1995 Champions League, Patrick Kluivert, Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger were all lured on free transfers to defeated finalists AC Milan alone; after a single poor year in Italy, Kluivert moved to Barcelona for nearly £9m. Ajax were clearly being short-changed, and to avoid that, they had to sell players before contracts ran down.
However, Cruyff's critique hints at a deep problem in trying to marry this new economic reality with the Ajax traditions. If a player of quality was to depart, he would need to be replaced by one of similar ilk, so the club is left with two options: to develop academy players, or to scout and sign them. Priding themselves on their brand of football, Ajax had always preferred the former option, but not enough genuine talents were coming through – not enough for any long-term planning.
Cruyff brings in his wingmen
Asked about the recent boardroom tussle between the two opposing views, De Boer couldn’t bring himself to side with one over the other – perhaps understandably, considering the situation shows no sign of clear resolution as Cruyff and his lawyers hit the courts to block Van Gaal's appointment.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, Thu 17 Nov: Civil war looms as Ajax appoint Van Gaal behind Cruyff's back
However, in a recent interview with Voetbal International it seems he’s chosen Cruyff. “My biggest concern is the performance of the first team. That should not be compromised by the troubles at the club,” De Boer said. “I think it’s clear to everyone what Cruyff’s vision is and we should follow that direction. It would be very strange after a few months to take another path.”
AMSTERDAM TO BARCELONA AND BACKAnother source of inspiration for De Boer is Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who keeps in regular contact with his former Camp Nou team-mate. One of the many positives of the Catalan club's recent superiority is how much their brand of football owes to the Dutch school. As pass-master Xavi admits, "Our model was imposed by Cruyff: it's an Ajax model."
The one aspect of the current Barcelona team that has greatly impressed De Boer is their ‘pressure play’ – also a feature of Van Gaal’s Ajax – when not on the ball: from losing possession to regaining it in mere seconds. It's something he’s starting to introduce, but the whole way the team plays has captivated him.
“In the modern game, you tend to dominate if you have eight or nine players behind the ball, just like Barça,” notes the coach. “Leaving two wingers up front glued to the touchline doesn’t help an awful lot. You have to be dynamic, full of movement. Keeping possession of the ball seems like a silly thing to say on paper, but on grass it’s actually even more important than it sounds.”
Twin brother Ronald, now also coaching at Ajax, notes that during their spell at Barcelona Guardiola made clear his love of Dutch football. "He always talked about total football, forward pressing, about what Johan [Cruyff] taught him and about Dutch players. Pep has that urge to attack and to dominate, a bit like the Dutch play.”
Before he took the Ajax job, Frank de Boer paid a visit to Guardiola, where he studied his training sessions as well as having an in-depth conversation about the Barcelona blueprint. It’s not often the Dutch side looks elsewhere for a reference, but with Cruyff’s vision clearly thriving at the Catalan club, it’s a stellar example that Ajax can go back to their basics.
And so far that is exactly what is happening, on and off the pitch. The old saying that Rome wasn't built in a day is appropriate in Amsterdam today. As he enters his second year, with his team as defending league champions, De Boer can be content; asked if he dreams of taking the Oranje or Barcelona job, he smiles and politely replies that his only dream is to remain at Ajax for 10 years.
Fascinating article Mo, and very well-written!
Being a Juve fan, I'm a bit nostalgic myself. I still remember our legendary UEFA Champions League clashes in the mid 90s, including our 95-96 triumph in the final match! Ajax is an institution of football, and I really hope they come back to greatness again. De Boer seems like the right man for the job.
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