Just who is the best Champions League team to win Europe’s top prize? Real Madrid’s Glacticos or La Decima side? Barcelona and Pep Guardiola’s tiki-taka tactics? Manchester United’s treble-winning side in 1999, perhaps? All valid contenders who will live the test of time but one front-runner is rarely discussed to the same extent and arguably better than the aforementioned winners.
Ernst Happel Stadium, Vienna set the scene for Ajax to etch their name in history once again as Champions of Europe in 1995 but just how good was this squad?
Just ask Thierry Henry: “That Ajax team in 1995, for me, is the best team I have seen winning the Champions League for the reasons I’ve mentioned.
“The amount of players that they had coming from the academy, how they won it, the style that they had with that 3-4-3 with Blind coming into the midfield and [Ronald] De Boer coming in as a false-nine with Finidi George making the runs with Overmars. I mean the way they were playing was second-to-none.”
It is a claim that puts this side ahead of teams which have featured some of football’s biggest superstars. No mention of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi or Robert Lewandowski but Edgar Davids, Ronald De Boer and Frank Rijkaard.
When you look at the story to formulate a team with a combination of total football as well as wunderkids that has resulted in the highest praise from 2009 champion Henry the answer is simple: Louis van Gaal.
The Dutch coach was instrumental in everything from completely changing Ajax’s training approach, enforcing his own Total Football tactics to encompassing the club’s academy.
His focus on youth was influenced by what he saw as coach while working at the club’s academy years before and in Ajax’s 18-player squad in Vienna, 13 of them came through the youth ranks.. Van Gaal recognised the work Rijkaard, Davids and the De Boers – who he carpooled with the twins to training – years before they broke onto the first-team scene.
Looking back at the start of the season, it did not start off in the best of ways when – or so they thought – when a young and emerging Ronaldo decided to join arch-rivals PSV Eindhoven instead of Ajax in the 1994 summer transfer window – a lack of transfer activity made some circles of the fanbase concerned of them building on from their Eredivisie-winning campaign the season before – especially when their arch-rivals dominated domestic football in the late 1980s with four successive league titles as well as picking up the European Cup in 1988.
Instead, Van Gaal placed his trust in teenager Patrick Kluivert.
The match winner scored 22 goals in all competitions that season, playing a crucial role in the side’s Eredivisie triumph as well as the European campaign too.
Reflecting on the final, Kluivert went on to credit Van Gaal’s man management to his maiden season as a professional footballer.
“It was an unbelievable thing for me, quite huge,” Kluivert said. “I’d been hoping for it. First of all the message was: ‘Go and enjoy yourself.’ But Van Gaal gave me the courage and confidence to become a first-team striker for Ajax.”
Van Gaal had a dynamic and unique approach to training sessions largely so his players would understand their individual responsibilities in order to win the following game. It led to them winning the Eredivisie undefeated in the same season as well as conquering Europe too.
Striker Ronald De Boer recalls the training session fondly: “We worked a lot on basic exercises, which focused on passing balls to everyone’s right foot at speed. We repeated those drills endlessly. It became a kind of challenge to move the ball from foot to foot as quickly as possible.
“We also did a lot of work on long distance passes over distances of 30 metres or more so we could switch play quickly. I remember after three months we mastered those exercises really well. I recall other sessions as well where we played six against three and then the team with six would only be allowed one or two touches.
“After a while those position games were executed at such a high level. When new players arrived, they would watch with open mouths.
“I also remember another training session which I really liked. It involved a game between the regular starters, where six midfielders/forwards played against five defenders plus a goalkeeper. It would start with the midfielders/forwards trying to score.
“But if the defenders conquered the ball, they could score from any distance into an empty goal. The thing you learned was that you had to switch immediately if you had lost the ball, so you couldn’t linger on disappointment, because they could score with a long range shot.
“The best players would compete against each other. With those kind of training games, all the players were really tested.”
Finally, Van Gaal’s tactical identity played a large part in how his sides played with individual roles and rehearsed plays based on the upcoming opponent. It stems from Total Football which was the identity of Dutch football for at least 20 years by this point.
And Van Gaal put his own twist to it.
Total Football’s approach was to control space, attacking with width and positional fluidity while going narrow in defense with a high line and vertical compactness in the midfield.
Previously, it focussed on individualism but for Van Gaal his priority was around team cohesion above anything else – regardless of your stature as a footballer, you were either part of a team or not.
He used the 3-4-3 formation – something Cruyff established when he started his coaching career in the previous decade – with a wide back three, a diamond midfield and a three-man attack.
The back three usually featured Frank De Boer on the left, veteran Danny Blind Senior in the middle and Michael Reiziger on the right. De Boer would typically tuck in from the left while Reiziger would utilise his pace down the right-flank.
In the midfield, the diamond formation allowed for numerical superiority with Davids and Seedorf acting as pressers off-the-ball and passing options when Rijkaard was in possession while Jari Litmanen, in the number 10 role, worked as the creative playmaker or as a shadow-striker depending on how the lone-striker played.
In attack, the wingers played the key part from George and Marc Overmars while either Kluivert or Ronald De Boer looked to drag defenders out of position to create space for others.
As a result, they made an instant mark in the group stages doing the double over then-reigning champions AC Milan before sealing the trophy again when they faced the Italian giants.
Van Gaal’s approach impressed Milan’s Danielle Massara: “We were simply surprised. They had great creativity; they were so fast and didn’t give us any points of reference. We were disorientated and couldn’t play our game.”
Despite two defeats in the group stages, it is clear lessons were not learnt and Massara’s comments many years later demonstrated the complacency Fabio Capello’s side had despite just four months after toppling Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona – when they were the underdogs.
“If I have to be honest, we didn’t think they could win the cup. They impressed us, but not to that level.”
The awe and admiration for this team echoed across all four corners – if it were not for the Bosman ruling coming into force at the end of the year, we would be talking about more than one Champions League triumph from the Dutch club. As then-Real Madrid manager Jorge Valdano summed it up: “Ajax are not just the team of the 1990s, they are approaching football utopia.”