The originators of Total Football had just won the European Cup for the first time in the clubs history under the legendary Manager Rinus Michels who had just left to Manage Barcelona. But Ajax were second best in the league to Feyenoord who had won the European Cup the previous year to Ajax’s success. Dutch football had never been better.
The start of the 1971/72 season saw Romanian Stefan Kovacs take charge and with it a slow start for the Amsterdam side speared by Johan Cruyff. Ajax drew three and won four of their first seven games. It was not the total football they had hoped for as they drew 1-1 against PSV Eindhoven to end September.
But still unbeaten, Ajax with their pressing game were solid defensively although they surprisingly at times lacked the goals they needed. A 19 match winning run started with a 1-0 win against NEC Nijmigen in October and the flow soon followed with a 5-0 win against Den Bosch, a 4-0 win against Ecxelsior and a 7-0 win against Groningen amongst others. Ajax also beat rivals Feyenoord at their home Stadium De Kuip and were well clear of their nearest competitors by the time they slipped up to a first and only defeat of the season against Go Ahead Eagles in April.
Ajax bounced back from defeat with an 8-0 win against MVV before trouncing Feyenoord 5-1 away. In a dominant season Johan Cruyff would top score in the league with 25 goals and Ajax finished the season off with a 12-1 win over Vitesse winning thirty of their 34 games drawing three and scoring 104 goals in the process.
Success in the KNVB Beker gave Ajax a domestic double after beating Den Haag 3-2 in a terrific final with goals from Cruyff, Murhen and Kaiser. But defending the European Cup was something no other Dutch side had previously done. Stefan Kovacs side would make history as they saw off Dynamo Dresden, Marseille, Arsenal & Benfica before the final against Inter Milan which ironically was played at the De Kuip Stadium
The final against Inter Milan is one that is stated as Total Football’s greatest moment, as the victory the year before against Panathinaikos left many underwhelmed by the way the side played. But against Inter, Ajax played the Ajax way and dominated against a defensive orientated Italian side.
Three minutes after half time Johan Cruyff broke the deadlock tapping in at the back post after goalkeeper Ivano Bordon totally missed a right wing cross. It got even better for Ajax on 78 when Cruyff headed home a corner. Two direct goals from a team who based their play on possession and slow build counter-attack.
The team iconic for their interchanging style and workmanlike philosophy in pressing in numbers to win the ball back and play to the nearest man was a different take on football at the time. In defence solid with the likes of Wim Suurbier and German sweeper Horst Blankenburg next to Barry Hulshoff. The guile and engine of Neeskens in midfield with Arie Haan never afraid to stick his foot in, and whilst Cruyff was the chief, the playmaker and the goalscorer, the impressive left side with full back Ruud Krol and the legendary Piet Keizer was as good as there was. Midfielders Gerry Murhen and younger brother Arnold, strikers Dick van Dijk, Johnny Rep and Sjaak Swart all international caliber footballers that gave the side a balance in a formation and strategy that no opposition could deal with.
Perhaps the greatest team of innovators the game has ever seen. Ajax will be fondly remembered by any football philosophers who as well as the aesthetics also enjoy the style of how to win matches. A style Ajax perfected.