“The Dutch are at their best when they combine the system with individual creativity.” – Hubert Smeets
Rinus Michels’ association with Ajax was a truly lifelong one. Born in February 1928 just a stone’s throw from the Olympisch Stadion, Michels began playing in the club’s junior ranks in 1940 aged 12 and quickly marked himself out as an industrious young forward. Having had his career put on hold by the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War Two, Michels eventually broke into the Ajax first team in 1946.
The man who would one day come to be recognised as the mastermind behind “Total Football” certainly didn’t waste time making an impression in the senior side, scoring five on his league debut against ADO Den Haag. With Michels becoming an increasingly important player for the Amsterdam side, Ajax won consecutive league titles in his first two seasons in the first team (1946/47 and 47/48) and further strengthened their reputation as the most attractive, most successful team in the Netherlands.
Indeed, Michels’ first campaign in the side saw him play under the stewardship of the legendary English coach Jack Reynolds, the man credited with laying the foundations for Total Football almost certainly having a significant influence of the thinking of the young Rinus Michels.
After his retirement from the playing side of the game in 1958, Michels immediately embarked on a coaching career, managing amateur side JOS in two spells between 1960 and 1965 before returning to Ajax ahead of the 1965/66 domestic season as the replacement for the forward-thinking Vic Buckingham. The six years that followed dragged Dutch football out of its surprisingly conservative shell and transformed it into a hotbed of tactical innovation, the very forefront of footballing development. It was Michels’ vision of how the game should be played that put the wheels of Total Football in motion.
Like the great Valeriy Lobanovskyi, Michels believed that football was primarily about the usage and control of space. Their shared theory was that making the pitch ‘big’ when you have the ball makes it easy to retain possession, while making it ‘small’ when without the ball makes life much more difficult for the opposition. At the root of this approach was an obsession with both pressing and the need for versatility amongst the players – Michels wanted his players to be capable of playing in any given outfield position with equal proficiency at any given time.
However, in his early years as manager of Ajax the concept of “Total Football” simply didn’t exist. Michels was known as a tough disciplinarian and a manager who promoted the constant refinement of technique, and, when Ajax won the Dutch title in his second season in charge, their aesthetic football was noted but not believed to be anything out of the ordinary. In fact, Michels freely admitted that he didn’t have a fixed footballing philosophy when he became manager at Ajax, instead allowing his ideas to develop over time and, combining logic and creativity, arrived at the conclusion which came to be recognised as Total Football.
Two of the major changes Michels made at Ajax were to revolutionise training methods and then to ensure that all players were signed to professional contracts by the end of his second season in charge. The changes he made to the training regime were centred on drastically increasing the amount of work the players did with the ball, the coaching staff continually emphasising the important of technique above all else. Michels, it seems, believed that once the players had reached a sufficiently high level of technical prowess, more complex tactical systems could follow, a theory that started to prove itself towards the end of the 1960s.
Acting quickly to introduce a new strategic blueprint, Michels ditched Ajax’s traditional W-M formation in favour of a 4-2-4 which featured Piet Keizer, Johan Cruyff, Sjaak Swart and Henk Groot as its stellar forward quartet. It was this system that brought Ajax the result which first gained Michels and his new crop of players continental recognition, a 5-1 thrashing of Bill Shankly’s Liverpool in the second round of the 1966 European Cup. The victory shocked Europe and awakened observers to the new power rising in the Netherlands, a team that were starting to play some of the most mesmerising football that has ever been seen.
Ajax didn’t go on to win the 1966 European Cup, but they did win the league title on four occasions between ’66 and ’70 as well as finishing runners-up to Milan in the 1969 European Cup. As Jonathan Wilson points out in Inverting the Pyramid, Ajax came to be known for their attacking brilliance but Michels focussed on building from the back in his early years with the club. Velibor Vasović was brought in from Partizan Belgrade as sweeper and formed a strong defensive partnership with the excellent Barry Hulshoff, providing the extra security the numerous creative attacking players needed as a counterbalance.
Despite Ajax’s great success during the second half of the 1960s, Michels relentlessly pursued perfection and, after a particularly disappointing draw with Ernst Happel’s Feyenoord in 1970, modified the 4-2-4 (which he came to believe made it difficult to regain possession) into a more balanced 4-3-3 with Vasović becoming a libero and acting as the third man in the midfield. The change in shape, combined with an increasingly intense form of pressing and an aggressive offside trap meant that, by 1970, Ajax were playing Total Football in all but name. The system was in place, but it would become most famous and get its name at the World Cup in West Germany four years later.
Having left Ajax in 1971 for a four year stint with Barcelona which had seen Michels re-implement Total Football, sign Cruyff for a world record fee and win the 1974 league title, the Dutchman agreed to take the reins of the national team ahead of the World Cup of the same year. The squad he took to West Germany was filled with some of the most tactically intelligent players there have ever been, players well versed in the intricacies of Total Football who came extremely close to winning football’s biggest prize.
After a glittering run through the competition which included sublime victories over Bulgaria, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and East Germany, it seemed inevitable that the Dutch mastery of Total Football would see them overcome the hosts in the final. However, in what has come to be, somewhat over-romantically, painted as one of football’s greatest tragedies, Michels’ team fell to the West Germans in the final. Despite having taken the lead, the likes of Cruyff, Haan, Neeskens and Rep unable to prevent Paul Breitner and Gerd Müller snatching victory for the hosts and bringing a cruel end to what was, historically, undoubtedly the Netherlands’ best chance to win a World Cup.
The Clockwork Oranje returned home empty handed, but had entertained a global audience with their supreme mastery of Michels’ complex but beautifully balanced system. The legend of Total Football had been written into footballing folklore.
In 1975 Michels returned to Ajax for a single season, guiding a team that was entering decline after the incredible highs of the late sixties and early seventies to third place in the league before leaving the Amsterdam club for the last time in 1976 and spending two more seasons at Barcelona, winning the 1978 Spanish Cup in the process.
Time with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League and FC Köln was to follow, Michels eventually returning home for two more spells in charge of the Dutch national side between 1984 and 1988. It was to be the second of those periods which emphatically sealed Michels’ place in history, the great manager shaping a new generation of Dutch talent into one of the strongest forces in world football.
With a team including the likes of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koemen and Frank Rijkaard, Michels re-invented Total Football for a new generation as his team used space with a characteristic expertise and played with a flowing confidence that saw them become European Champions in 1988. It may have come 14 years later than many had imagined, but Rinus Michels was the man who brought the Netherlands their first major international title – something for which he will never be forgotten.
1988 was to be the final major achievement of Michels’ incredible career, a career which had seen him revolutionise football with his own unique interpretation of how the game should be played. One of football’s greatest visionaries and the man who brought the complex elegance of Total Football into the mainstream, Rinus Michels’ legacy is one of imagination, one of aesthetics and one of success. The breathtaking footage of the 1974 Dutch team in action stands as a permanent monument to his greatness.