Fallen Giants: Remembering Louis van Gaal’s amazing Ajax team of the 90s
Like most stories about Ajax, this one starts with Johan Cruyff.
It’s hard to write anything about the great man that hasn’t been written before, and even harder still to properly do justice to the effect he had on world football, both as a player and a manager, but you simply can’t write about Ajax without mentioning him in some way.
It was with Ajax that Cruyff began his playing career, making 240 of his 519 career league appearances for the Amsterdammers between 1964 and 1973 before returning for a further 36 between 1981 and 1983.
He spent the final campaign of his playing career with their great rivals Feyenoord, a move he made largely to spite Ajax after they failed to offer him a new contract, and one that resulted in the league title heading to Rotterdam for the first time in 11 seasons.
But the club and the man were so intertwined that even that unpleasantness couldn’t keep them apart for long, and when Cruyff decided to move into management after hanging up his boots, it was Ajax, the Dutch champions, that welcomed him home.
Under Cruyff’s leadership, Ajax claimed two KNVB Cups and the Cup Winners’ Cup. The league title eluded him, but Cruyff’s two and a half years in charge allowed him to develop the ideas that would come to define his sides.
When Cruyff took over as manager at Barcelona in 1988, he took the strategy with him and transformed a club in disarray into one of the finest outfits in European football. It is a strategy, which although honed, is still in use at the Nou Camp to this day.
And for all Cruyff’s incredible success as a player and manager, the legacy he left everywhere he went is arguably his greatest accomplishment of all. But if Holland 1988, Barcelona 2009, and Spain 2012 are Cruyff’s children, then there is also a fourth brother who we often overlook: Ajax 1995.
Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that it came under a man who spent almost his entire career following in Cruyff’s footsteps despite their constantly and publicly fractious relationship with one another: Louis Van Gaal.
As Maarten Meijer notes in his biography of Van Gaal, he was denied his opportunity in the Ajax first team by Cruyff, who was four years older and played a similarly pivotal playmaker role. This, coupled with a lack of pace, forced Van Gaal to go to move elsewhere, eventually settling as a first-team regular at Sparta Rotterdam.
That set the tone for a relationship characterised by every kind of ill-feeling from petty public disagreements to major institutional discord: from a reported incident at a Christmas dinner Cruyff hosted in 1989, the details of which the two parties differ on, through to Cruyff taking his fellow members of the Ajax supervisory board to court to block Van Gaal’s appointment as technical director in 2012.
Despite their personal differences, however – although neither of them would admit it – the pair clearly agreed on huge parts of their tactical principles.
Jonathan Wilson adroitly remarks in Inverting the Pyramid that the pair’s constant squabbles were ‘like two Marxist theorists debating obscure doctrinal dogma’.
Honing Cruyff’s methods
As a result, when Ajax youth coordinator Van Gaal was promoted to Head Coach in September 1991, he didn’t move the club away from Cruyff’s Total Football and 4-3-3/3-4-3 system: instead, he sought to perfect it.
Far from Cruyff’s belief in judging players by eye and giving them freedom to play, Van Gaal was an inveterate note-taker and insisted on players doing things a certain way, introducing team bonding sessions, group meals, and innovating several odd-seeming training exercises to get players used to working as cohesive packs when pressing.
But on the pitch, the basic shape was much the same as it had been, and Van Gaal’s methods were vindicated as he picked up the first trophy of his decorated managerial career with a two-legged away goals victory over Torino in the 1992 UEFA Cup final.
That summer was the first time Van Gaal had a chance to dip into the transfer market, and his policy was unpopular at the time, but it turned out to be wildly successful: having drawn the fans’ ire by selling the popular winger Bryan Roy, he more than made up for it by bringing in 19-year-old sensation Marc Overmars.
Hard-working but sublime playmaker Jari Litmanen was the only other permanent signing of that summer, and in January the Finn found himself playing behind the returning Ronald De Boer, who re-joined the club from FC Twente having been sold 18 months earlier by Van Gaal’s predecessor Leo Beenhakker.
The summer of 1993 saw another familiar face return, with Cruyff’s former preferred No.4 Frank Rijkaard re-joining from AC Milan as a belated replacement for the beloved Jan Wouters, while the attacking options were bolstered by Nigerian pair Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu for a fraction of the whopping £7.1million transfer fee Inter had paid for youth product Dennis Bergkamp.
As with Roy and Wouters, Van Gaal’s decision to sell Bergkamp was deeply unpopular with the Ajax fans.
Bergkamp had won the previous two Dutch Football of the Year awards, with Wouters having won it the year before – having also been controversially sold by Van Gaal.
After two years under his reign but still no Eredivisie title to show for it, Van Gaal was going to stand or fall by the performances of his new-look side in 1993-94.
Litmanen was the man charged with taking over Bergkamp’s No.10 shirt, and he more than lived up to it. The Finn was nothing short of a sensation, scoring an incredible 36 goals in 39 appearances in all competitions – earning the Footballer of the Year award for himself in the process.
Even as Litmanen helped Ajax to score an incredible 36% more goals than their next highest-scoring rivals, Ajax kept the meanest defence in the division. Their back four and a half of Edwin Van Der Sar, Danny Blind, Sonny Silooy, Frank De Boer and Rijkaard conceded just 26 goals in the 34-game season.
The perfect season
But impressive though that title victory was – Ajax’s first since 1990 – it was nothing compared with what would follow in 1994-95.
Despite qualifying for Champions League football, Van Gaal was clearly content with the squad at his disposal. His only signings were Winston Bogarde, who made just 19 appearances, and backup goalkeeper Fred Grim, who played just once. Yet once again, Van Gaal was vindicated – and then some.
Van Gaal’s side lost just one game in all competitions in 1994-95: a 2-1 extra-time reverse to Feyenoord in the KNVB Cup quarter-finals. That saw Ajax finish the season as Dutch football’s first and, to date, only Invincibles, with a ridiculous record of 27 wins, seven draws, and no losses, with 106 goals scored and just 28 conceded.
That undefeated run also extended to the Champions League, resulting in Ajax being crowned champions of Europe for the first time since Cruyff had led them to three successive triumphs in 1971, 1972 and 1973.
Ajax’s victory in the final came courtesy of 18-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s 85th-minute strike and was made all the sweeter for Van Gaal for being against Fabio Capello’s AC Milan, who had humiliated Cruyff’s Barcelona with a 4-0 thumping in the previous year’s final.
Finally, Van Gaal had got one up on his old adversary: he had taken Cruyff’s ideas, Cruyff’s system, and Cruyff’s side, and in that moment of victory in 1995, had done even better with them than the old master himself.
Van Gaal almost went on to match that feat the following season, leading Ajax to a third successive title for the first time since 1968 and taking Marcello Lippi’s Juventus all the way to a penalty shootout in the 1996 Champions League final.
That, sadly, was the beginning of the end for that wonderful Ajax team. Over the next couple of years, the brave new world of the post-Bosman transfer market left Dutch sides, even Ajax, little chance of holding onto their best players in face of temptation from England, Spain and especially Italy.
All of the Ajax side that started in the 1995 Champions League final triumph had left the club by 1999.
But it is striking how enormously and unusually successful those players would continue to be at a diverse range of clubs: Van Der Sar at Manchester United; Reiziger, Kluivert and the De Boer brothers at Barcelona; Clarence Seedorf at Real Madrid, Inter and Milan; Edgar Davids at Juventus; Bergkamp, Overmars and Kanu at Arsenal.
As for Van Gaal…well, given the way he and Cruyff were so intertwined, there was only ever one place he could possibly go once he left Ajax in 1997, wasn’t there?