The greatest teams of all time: Ajax 1971–73

The Greatest: The all-action brand of 'Total Football' that Rinus Michels instituted at Ajax was perfect for Johan Cruyff as his side dominated football in the early 1970s.

Johan Cruyff and team-mates bring the trophy back to Amsterdam in 1972
Johan Cruyff and team-mates bring the trophy back to Amsterdam in 1972 ©AFP

Rinus Michels rewrote the rule book on tactics at Ajax, laying the ground for his side to be European champions for three successive seasons in the early 1970s. UEFA.com focuses on a team that changed football.

The golden age
Appointed in 1965, coach Rinus Michels transformed Ajax from relegation candidates in the Netherlands to the best side in Europe, his 'Total Football' system making household names of the likes of Johan Neeskens, Piet Keizer, Sjaak Swart, Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Gerrie Mühren, Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol, Velibor Vasović and, of course, Dutch football's favourite son Johan Cruyff.

Losers in the 1969 European Champion Clubs' Cup final, Ajax were left reeling in 1970 when Feyenoord became the first Dutch club to win club football's biggest prize. However, they drew level with their arch-rivals, beating Panathinaikos FC 2-0 in the 1971 decider in London, prompting Michels to leave for FC Barcelona, saying: "I have achieved everything that I could – it is impossible to do better."

His successor Stefán Kovács arguably proved him wrong. Cruyff scored twice as Ajax overcame FC Internazionale Milano 2-0 in the 1972 final in Rotterdam, and they made it three in a row by edging Juventus 1-0 in the 1973 showpiece in Belgrade.

The baton handover
That final success arguably remained the pinnacle of Ajax's achievement; they had ousted FC Bayern München in the quarter-finals and Real Madrid CF in the semis before Johnny Rep's early header proved enough to get the better of Juve at the FK Crvena Zvezda Stadium.

Glory proved to be fleeting. Cruyff left to link up with Michels at Barcelona, and the two paired up again as the Netherlands reached the 1974 FIFA World Cup final. However, it took Ajax another 22 years to become European champions for a fourth time, Louis van Gaal overseeing their 1995 UEFA Champions League triumph.

Ajax's first final win
Ajax's first final win

The game-changing philosophy
'Total Football' hinged on a 4-3-3 formation, with attackers on the wings. Attacks started from the goalkeeper, the ball being played around very quickly, with midfielders and defenders urged to push forward, making Ajax's players devilishly difficult to man-mark. Heavy pressing and an expertly marshalled offside trap ensured Ajax did not lose possession for long.

"We played a kind of football that was not normal at that time in Europe," Cruyff recalled. "We played our own style – something you did not see in other countries, and that drew attention in Europe."

Rinus Michels
Rinus Michels©Getty Images

The tactical genius
A hard-working striker whose playing career was cut short by a back injury, 'The General' became an even greater club servant as a coach. "There is an art to putting together a starting lineup, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match," Michels said.

His player choices at Ajax were perfect, and he proved almost as effective at Barcelona, where he landed the 1973/74 Spanish title before taking charge of the Netherlands. If getting to the 1974 World Cup final represented a great achievement, winning the 1988 UEFA European Championship in his third spell as Oranje coach was a greater coup still.

"I am especially happy that I have been able to help make the Dutch way of playing famous all over the world," said Michels later. "If I had a tail, I would wag it."

Cruyff's class of '72
Cruyff's class of '72

The star players
Johan Cruyff:
A forward blessed with amazing technical skills as well as leadership, Cruyff was the poster boy of 'Total Football'. "Of course, I had my own special qualities, but a team is formed by every player's different qualities – no player can do it on their own," Cruyff said. "Then, when every player is ready to give their all and use their special quality, then you get the maximum output and results."

Johan Neeskens: 'Johan the Second', the steel-hard midfielder was a tireless runner yet also had nice technique and scored goals, helping to set the stage for Cruyff to shine. One of the first box-to-box midfielders, he was great at pressuring opponents to regain possession too. "He was worth two men in midfield," said team-mate Sjaak Swart.

Piet Keizer: A genius on the left wing, the skilful flanker was another superb foil for Cruyff. He spent his entire career at Ajax from 1961–74, scoring 146 goals in 365 league matches. "If I wasn't playing, I would go and watch Ajax just to see Keizer," recalled his contemporary, Feyenoord midfielder Wim van Hanegem.

What they say …
Sjaak Swart, Ajax forward: "At the start, Michels said: 'We are going to make Ajax more professional. If anyone is not with me in wanting more discipline and training, say so now, then you can leave.' His training sessions were always perfectly prepared. And he put the right players in the right positions. That seems simple, but it isn't. If I had become a coach, I would have done it just like him. I never had a better coach then Rinus Michels."

Ruud Krol, Ajax defender: "Michels made us run less and take over each other's positions, which was revolutionary. It was the first time there was a totally different vision of football. 'Total Football' spread all over the world. It was the only real change in football for almost 40 years. He stunned the world."

Ajax with the trophy in 1973
Ajax with the trophy in 1973©Getty Images