Nostalgia is a term that could be defining, especially in football. Despite having the pleasure of experiencing and witness football’s greatest in Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, together with the world-class talents of Kylian Mbappé and Neymar, the feeling that football was better back is the days is persistent. We still haven’t overcome, rightfully, from seeing Pelé, Maradona, Cruyff, Ronaldinho, Zidane and Ronaldo, even though these generations are long gone.
Back in the 1970’s, the Dutch were responsible for the biggest revolution in football’s rich history. Guided by Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Neeskens, Ajax were a dominant side in the domestic and European scenario. The dominance was big, with the club winning three consecutive European Cups from 1971 to 1973, together with three Eredivisie titles in 1970, 1972 and 1973.
The style of play exercised by this Ajax team was passed to the Netherlands national team in the 1974 World Cup, when they were guided by the same Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and Neeskens. Even though the Netherlands failed in the last hurdle in the final, the team that was known for immortalizing Total Football is remembered as one of the best in football’s history and an icon in the football nostalgia.
The influence of Totaalvoetbal kept reaching future generations, with Johan Cruyff improving the concept during his days at Barcelona, effectuating a change in the club’s legendary La Masia academy, where all the youth teams played the same philosophy and style of football to further their development when they reached the first team. Pep Guardiola exploited main concepts of Total Football, having learned so much from Cruyff, and it is fair to say that Pep innovated and made the whole idea of Total Football better through the evolution of the position game.
However, when Ajax’s 1994/95 season approached, this reality was far beyond them. The dominance Ajax had in the mid-70’s would’ve been enough to make them a European super club. We’ve seen so many examples of European and domestic dynasties: Real Madrid in the 50’s, Liverpool all through the late 70’s and 80’s, together with Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan and Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. For Ajax though, apart from 1987 and 1992, when they raised the Cup Winner’s Cup and the UEFA Cup respectively, the club’s performances on continental soil were middling. A semi-final finish in 1980 was as far as Ajax reached and despite still being dominant domestically, what the fans wanted was a reminder of the glory days by lifting the old famous “big ears”.
Fast forward to 1995. The Ernst-Happel Stadium hosted a clash between giants: a star-studded AC Milan commanded by Fabio Capello against a promising and exciting Ajax side managed by Louis Van Gaal. The setting was perfect, combining two sets of passionate and hungry fans, two promising managers achieving big success in their domestic league and star players that would lead the show. What was at stake was even bigger: the Champions League. This would be Ajax’s best chance of taking the trophy back to the beautiful streets of Amsterdam. There were some big events that led to this brilliant, yet decisive match in Ajax’s rich history.
When Louis Van Gaal took over in 1991, things were quiet in the Dutch capital, at least for Ajax. Their biggest domestic challengers at the time, PSV, were in the most glorious period of their history. In 1988, the club had just lifted the European Cup and domestically, won four league titles in a row from 1986 to 1989. Ajax were able to break the dominance in 1990 under Leo Beenhakker and in 1991, Beenhakker left the club, leaving way to his assistant Van Gaal to take over.
Van Gaal started his senior playing career at Ajax, but never really appeared for the club in his rather lacklustre playing career, during a time in which a midfield spot at Ajax was more coveted than a shadow on a hot sunny day, with players such as Johan Neeskens and Cruyff plying their trade. It was during the late 80’s that Van Gaal returned to Ajax, as a youth coordinator after ending his career at AZ. Van Gaal was fortunate enough to see the development of Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf while exercising this role, as both would be immensely important in his managerial tenure at Ajax.
After being called upon by Leo Beenhakker to be a part of his coaching team, Van Gaal worked more closely with the tactical and managerial side of the game, and was finally given an opportunity in the hot-seat when Beenhakker left the Dutch capital to join Real Madrid.
Even though Van Gaal’s impact wasn’t immediate –at least in the trophy cabinet—Ajax progressed during his first three years in charge, a time that was extremely important when looking at Van Gaal’s first managerial experiment. Despite being an admirer and advocate of Total Football, a philosophy that is justifiably ingrained in Ajax’s culture, his style of play and coaching methods weren’t so similar.
During his most recent spell at Manchester United, it became clear that Van Gaal preserved collectiveness and effectiveness more than flair and individual talent. He always believed that every player in a team has a role and teams would prevail if this role is performed in the most perfect way possible. There’s not one star in Van Gaal’s teams, he doesn’t build a team around anybody. The most important thing is teamwork.
Ajax and Van Gaal began to harvest the fruits of their work in 1992, when the club got back in the European scene with a win the UEFA Cup. A win in the final against Torino gave Ajax’s first European triumph since 1987 and certainly put them back in the European spotlight, with a side featuring the emerging talents of Dennis Bergkamp and Frank De Boer. A KNVB Cup win would follow in 1993, but they would have to wait a little longer for the country’s big one.
After their last Eredivisie title in 1990, Ajax had to wait another four years to lift the title. Even though Dennis Bergkamp left at the start of the season, Ajax and Van Gaal ended their drought. This was the first of many glories and turning points that would bring Ajax to pinnacle of European football once again.
With the Ajax’s highly successful academy which made other European clubs envious of the quality of the players produced, and the ability of making young players better, the likes of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Frank De Boer, Michael Reiziger, a young Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Jari Litmanen, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu all settled and a big core of the team, together with experience of Frank Rijkaark and Danny Blind, this team was ready to fight for bigger things.
It was true that the Van Gaal style of play and management was more pragmatic than expansive and free-flowing. In his teams, for instance, a player had a designated role and executing it was key. The passing patterns were not as creative as seen in the original Total Football, but Van Gaal’s side was still capable of playing entertaining attacking football.
After four years of intense work and evolution, both in the development of players and creating a successful winning mentality, the 1994/95 season was arguably one of the most successful in Dutch football history. With the aforementioned talent and star quality of the Ajax squad, they went on to make history domestically.
Ajax simply took the Eredivisie by storm and achieved an incredible feat by winning the title unbeaten, boasting an impressive record of 27 wins and seven draws, finishing seven points clear of second-place Roda JC. If it couldn’t get any better, Ajax scored a magnificent 106 goals in 34 games –a tally of 3.4 goals per match—and only conceded 28, finishing with a goal-difference of 78. This impressive season domestically underlines Van Gaal’s philosophy: when everyone does their job, everything ticks. They were simply faultless.
But the icing on the cake was still to come. Having won the Eredivisie the previous season, Ajax qualified for the Champions League in 1994/95 and headed Group D as league champions. This season’s Champions League was only the second after the remodel made by UEFA trying to attract more viewers to Europe’s big competition. The competition had a first qualifying round, consisting of clubs from smaller nations, with the champions from the bigger leagues already qualified to the group stages.
Ajax’s group consisting of AC Milan, Casino Salzburg and AEK Athens had everything to be thrilling, especially considering another European powerhouse in AC Milan.
The group stage’s first encounter already had a big weight. On a rainy night in Amsterdam, the pitch was so flooded that the ball had difficulty to roll over the grass. Despite dominance from Ajax in the first-half, both sides were still goal less, despite Edgar Davids nearly scoring after sneaking through Milan’s defence and goalkeeper Rossi luckily deflecting the ball away.
In the second-half, things got hotter and Ajax played at full throttle. With 50 minutes gone, Ronald De Boer got the ball on the right-hand side and found Kluivert, who spotted the smart run from his teammate. A perfectly weighted pass from Kluivert followed by a calm and exquisite lobbed finishing from De Boer gave Ajax the lead.
The hosts continued to dominate, creating chances and holding Milan on their shackles. 15 minutes after they opened the scoring, Litmanen worked to find space and his pass leftward reached the path of Marc Overmars, who took on Milan’s defender brilliantly and found a yard of space for a cross. Milan’s defence couldn’t manage to clear before the ball reached Litmanen again, that doubled Ajax’s lead with a volleyed finish.
Ajax continued to create chances but the match eventually ended up with a solid and convincing 2-0 win for Ajax. Milan were outplayed and didn’t have answers for what Ajax imposed. This would end up to be vital in the competition’s ending.
The clubs paths diverged, at least for a short space of times, as each clubs went on to face the remaining teams of the group. Ajax went on to win against AEK Athens at Nea Filadelfeia, a result that was followed by two draws against Casino Salzburg. If the draws against the Austrian team were positive, the highlight was certainly Litmanen, who scored in almost every Ajax game at that point.
Three games had gone by since Ajax played against Milan at the Olympic Stadium and it was time for them to meet again, this time at the Stadio Nereo Rocco, as the San Siro wasn’t available. Following the last encounter between the two team, Milan wanted to show why they were one of the favourites to win the tournament. However, the opposition went on to do exactly that.
Ajax started the game perfectly, after Ronald De Boer did brilliantly to control the ball in midfield and saw Litmanen bursting through the middle. With a brilliant touch, the pass found Litmanen, who was quicker than the defender, chested the ball down and finished past Rossi with an absolute rocket to give Ajax the lead inside two minutes. After the goal, the game was a lot more open than the first encounter, which was amplified by the fact Milan had to chase the game. Both teams created chances and more than a goal could’ve been scored in the first half.
However, Ajax decided the match in the following 45 minutes. Great interplay in midfield opened the space for Litmanen, who had plenty of time to turn and pass into space to exploit the pace of Finidi George. The Nigerian was quicker than Maldini and found the space to play a cross into the area. Fortunately for Ajax, the ball deflected off Franco Baresi, who was running to close the space for George, and the ball ended inside the net. Two wins out of two, Ajax had triumphed over Milan, finishing first in the group with 10 points (wins were equivalent to two points). Awaiting De Godenzonen was Hadjuk Split.
Ajax’s rivals from Croatia finished second in Group C, that had Benfica, Steaua and Anderlecht. It was a promising quarter-final encounter in which Ajax could put themselves in great position to progress. A 0-0 draw in a crowded Poljud Stadium in Split was more beneficial for Ajax, who capitalized on the first-leg for a 3-0 win at Amsterdam, courtesy of header from Kanu and a double from Frank De Boer.
And so was it, Ajax qualified for the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time since 1980, a long 15-year wait was over. Going this far in the Champions League accentuated the transformation process of Ajax under Van Gaal, bringing them from fallen giants to European contenders once again.
The next clash would prove to be more challenging, against Giovanni Trapattoni’s Bayern Munich. The journey for the German champions to the semi-finals wasn’t easy, finishing runners-up to PSG in Group B, before knocking-out Swedish side IFK Göteborg on the away-goals rule. Nevertheless, Van Gaal knew of Bayern’s qualities and the tactical guile of Trapattoni. It would never be easy.
In the first-leg in Munich, Van Gaal was more worried about taking a positive result home than playing beautifully, a task that he did quite successfully, with the game finishing 0-0. Now that the Dutch got the result they wanted, the pressure was on their shoulder to get a result in Amsterdam, and they didn’t disappoint.
What followed was arguably Ajax’s best performance in the 94/95 Champions League, in which they demolished the champions of Germany. Litmanen opened the account inside 12 minutes, after the ball was saved from going out for a goal kick and found the Finnish striker in the box for a headed finish.
Despite Witeczek equalling the scoring after 36 minutes, Ajax got back in front and the second goal was even better. After Litmanen let the ball through his legs in the edge of the box, aware of George’s presence behind him, Ajax’s number 7 ran in the direction of the ball and hit with swift power to direct the ball into the top right corner for a wonderful, well-worked goal from Ajax.
Frank De Boer added a third with a cool finish inside the box after a corner, before Litmanen and Overmars adding two more. It was the perfect performance by Ajax, apart from conceding two goals. Ajax played fluidly, all the players making what was asked, performing to their best. This was the epitome of this Champions League campaign.
After demolishing Bayern, Ajax were back in Europe’s big stage, the Champions League final. Their opponents were well-known but throughout the competition, Ajax consistently found their weaknesses and ways to beat them. Unlike the first match between Ajax and Milan in the group stages, this one was a build-up with a bit of history, one that was very significant.
Milan boasted a side with immense talent and experience with decorated players like Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta, Roberto Donadoni, Marcel Desailly and Zvonimir Boban who were experienced at winning trophies. On the other hand, Ajax counted on their youth, despite also having experience players like Rijkaard, playing his second-spell for Ajax.
The beautifully crowded Ernst-Happel Stadium in Vienna was a perfect setting for a thriller. Milan and Ajax played entertaining matches in the group stages, which would turn out to be very important in this final. At stake was Ajax’s best chance of lifting the European Cup since 1973, and for Milan, an opportunity to follow their win against Cruyff’s dream team in the previous final to cement their dominance in European football.
The referee blew his whistle to a match that would enter history. Typically from Van Gaal, he preferred to nullify the opponent rather than controlling the game and this was the tactic adopted by the Dutchman and Ajax, and it was performed successfully. The game’s best chances came from long-distance shots. The negative outcome was that his team was only contained, playing for a window of opportunity to score a goal.
Milan’s defence was dealing well with the pressure and did not giving the likes of Litmanen and Overmars a yard of space, forcing Van Gaal to make some changes. There are some moments that are instilled in history forever. Those moments will forever be remembered. Louis Van Gaal’s decision of taking Jari Litmanen off for Patrick Kluivert was one of those moments.
The game was a stalemate with both teams not giving an opportunity and playing conservatively. But there are also those moments that are pulled out of nowhere, you simply don’t know from where they came from, like they are meant to happen. When Frank Rijkaard got the ball inside 85th minute mark in Vienna, it was one of those moments. Patrick Kluivert had been on the pitch for only 15 minutes, but he made an immediate impact in annoying Milan’s defence with his pace and trickery. It was only a matter of time until he got an opportunity. And yes, he did.
Frank Rijkaard controlled the ball and his pass reached the feet of Patrick Kluivert. The young attacker made a smart movement with his left foot, a movement that was enough to take the ball forward and out of touch from the players behind him. Next, Kluivert was strong enough to stand on his feet when the moment arrived. After Kluivert touched the ball with the front of his left foot, it wasn’t a powerful shot, but was enough to slowly slide below the arms of Rossi, a moment that is recorded in eternity, the moment when Patrick Kluivert won the Champions League back for Ajax after 22 years.
Flares started to appear inside the stadium and the streets of Amsterdam came to life. It seemed like an eternity, but even an eternity can end, and the wait for another glorious European night finally arrived in the most beautiful way possible. A young team that knew what to play for Ajax meant, and a young manager that was positively stubborn and pragmatic. They were responsible for bringing the famous trophy back to a well-known destination.
The tactics implemented by Van Gaal was key. He had a brilliant goalkeeper in Edwin Van Der Sar, the backline of Danny Blind, Frank De Boer and Reiziger showed that you can play fluid and versatile football from the back, and the way they adapted to any situation, together with their imposing and elegant defenders’ frame was another key factor. The charming versatility of Frank Rijkaard highlights why he’s one of the best defensive midfielders in the history of the game, having the ability of protecting the space and breaking the lines.
The midfield duo of Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf perfectly combined the toughness and aggression needed, but without leaving the class and technique behind. Davids would later show his tenacity and his gifted power for Juventus, while Seedorf would go on to become the only player to win the Champions League with three different clubs.
The pace and trickery of Marc Overmars and Finidi George was another key factor. Having great technical and versatile wingers was a must for Van Gaal given the width he played with, and having two players like Overmars and George was a gift, with both contributing with their smart runs and creativity to score and create opportunities. Litmanen’s killer instinct was equally vital after having scored in every round of the tournament apart from the final. He was a perfect mentor to Patrick Kluivert, whose goal and performances sealed his name with Ajax’s and football’s great.
Louis Van Gaal united a core of players that combined the guile, the skill, the desire and the passion, all things necessary to be a winning team. Bringing the European trophy back to Amsterdam is the biggest feat in Van Gaal’s illustrious career. His team showed the hard-work to adapt to different situations, the collectiveness to understand that every player has their role and they need to support each other, and the talent, which is clear when they beat a star-studded team and achieve eternal glory by putting a giant back to where they belong.