In the illustrious world of football tactics, few teams have left as indelible a mark as Louis van Gaal’s Ajax side of the 1994-1995 season. This remarkable squad achieved unprecedented success, clinching the Eredivisie, the KNVB Cup, and the UEFA Champions League. Van Gaal’s tactical ingenuity and commitment to the principles of Total Football laid the foundation for this memorable triumph.

In this blog, we delve deep into the tactical nuances that defined Ajax’s play during that extraordinary season, along with providing some much important statistical baselines for tracking the improvement of our side as they become more aligned to the Ajax philosophy, the Ajax way.

TOTAL FOOTBALL PHILOSOPHY – THE AJAX WAY

At the core of Ajax’s success in the 1994-1995 season was the application of the Total Football philosophy. Originating from Dutch footballing philosophy, Total Football emphasises fluidity, positional interchangeability, and a collective understanding that allows players to seamlessly adapt to different positions on the field. Van Gaal, a disciple of this philosophy, moulded his Ajax team to embody these principles.

Van Gaal primarily employed a 4-2-3-1 formation, which served as the canvas for his tactical masterpiece. However, what set this team apart was its fluidity. The players effortlessly shifted to a 3-4-3 in certain situations, showcasing a tactical flexibility rarely seen in football at that time. This adaptability allowed Ajax to control the ebb and flow of the game, adjusting to different scenarios with ease.

It is this formation which I have opted to solely for the entirety of the 2024/25 season of the Ajax way, enabling me to not only provide you with a well tested tactic, but one which enables me to look at the statistical outputs of the players to produce some much needed statistical baselines. Given I will be now playing this save using the one system, I want to be able to understand who is performing better on the pitch, we can later delve into what attributes, or traits, impact these outputs.

PHILOSOPHY OF SPACE MANAGEMENT

The universal football pitch, consistent in size and shape, takes on a unique perspective in the Dutch approach to the game. This stems from the Dutch tendency for innovative and abstract spatial thinking, honed over centuries due to their need for inventive spatial solutions in various aspects of life.

The Dutch landscape, marked by its scarcity of space, has played a crucial role in shaping their heightened spatial awareness. Holland’s densely populated and meticulously planned terrain has led to meticulous consideration and debate over every square centimetre of Dutch cities, fields, and polders. The imperative control and utilisation of land are driven by the fact that over fifty percent of the country lies below sea level, necessitating strict regulation of the Dutch water system.

In the western region, the entirely human-engineered landscape showcases an intricate network of canals, dikes, and waterways. Notable structures like the sea defences in Zeeland, the expansive port of Rotterdam, Schiphol airport, and ancient cities bear witness to Dutch mastery over their constructed environment. Considerable portions of the country have been reclaimed from the sea using age-old techniques of dike-building and drainage systems.

Van Gaal’s team aimed to stretch the pitch, utilising every inch to their advantage. This approach extended to defensive play, where Ajax focused on suffocating opponents by disrupting their spatial dynamics.

The four main aspects of the game according to Van Gaal are offensive organisation, offensive transition, defensive organisation, and defensive transitions.

OFFENSIVE TRANSITIONS AND BALL CIRCULATION

  • Van Gaal’s system focuses on ball retention and circulation to exploit spaces.
  • The construction phase involves the goalkeeper as the first playmaker, playing short from the back. This can be seen in the above image. Note how only the wingers pick up a position in the wide channels, with all other players inside the central column. Their positioning is key to our build-up play, forcing the opposition to keep both full-backs deep, creating a central overload.
  • Circulation of the ball is used strategically to draw opponents out of their defensive shape and create spaces for attacks.

TRANSITIONAL PHASE

  • Van Gaal considers the transition phase the most important aspect of the game, emphasising the importance of capitalising on the opponent’s disorganisation after winning possession. The ability to rapidly switch from defence to attack showcased the team’s tactical intelligence and highlighted the seamless connection between different phases of play.

DEFENSIVE COMPACTNESS AND PRESSING

  • Van Gaal’s teams are described as compact, defending and attacking collectively.

The compactness of the team can be seen in the above image, capturing our average position without the ball in the UEFA Champions League matches from season two (Patience, all to be revealed in the next blog). Given the length of a football pitch is on average 100 metres, all of our players find themselves in a zone of roughly 20 metres, making it harder for opponents to play through central areas. This compact defensive shape forces opponents to play wide or resort to less dangerous areas, reducing the likelihood of conceding goals.

This paired with fluid team fluidity, ensures that there are enough supporting roles in the tactic, making the side attack and defend as a cohesive unit.

  • van Gaal’s teams pressed high at Ajax and Barcelona to force mistakes and regain possession in threatening areas.

One of the defining features of Ajax’s out-of-possession play was their collective pressing. The entire team engaged in pressing high up the pitch, disrupting the opponent’s build-up and forcing mistakes. Forwards and midfielders worked in tandem to cut passing lanes, applying pressure on the ball-carrier and instigating turnovers.

STRUCTURED PLAYER ROLES AND TASKS

Van Gaal instilled a disciplined approach by assigning specific tasks to each player based on their position. This structured system, complete with fixed shirt numbers, fostered continuity from the senior squad to the youth teams, ensuring a seamless integration of tactics.

You will note above that our trigger press is only set as ‘More Often’, there are two reasons for this. Firstly, looking at the squad comparison, you will note that our side do not have the greatest of stamina, a key attribute needed for individuals to hunt the ball effectively for long periods of time. Secondly, the more aggressive players are out of possession the more they would move away from their designated role within the system.

The tactic still aligns well to the Ajax way principle due to having a ‘High Press’.


THE AJAX WAY: BASELINES

A baseline can be any number that serves as a reasonable and defined starting point for comparison purposes. It may be used to evaluate the effects of a change, track the progress of an improvement project, or measure the difference between two periods of time.

Given our ‘Game Model’ hinges around set principles of play, it is essential to understand who is better aligned to each principle on the pitch. Whilst we have our DNA model, along with the tools in which to use it, covered in the ‘Player Pathways’ blog, I am yet to delve into the on-field outputs, which lets face it, are key to our success.

GOALKEEPERS

The primary role of the Goalkeeper within the tactic is to keep the ball out of the net, simple enough. Jay Gorter (our number 1) is doing a great job at this, he not only has a save percentage of 81%, but also is preventing an expected goal per 90 figure of 0.31. Knowing that a clear cut chance is worth 0.15 xG, he is stopping on average two clear cut chances per game.

All three options between the sticks are performing well above the Eredivisie average in terms of passes attempted, and completed.

DEFENDERS

Louis van Gaal promoted the classic Ajax model in terms of possession, the Ajax way is to build from back to front.

Looking at the outputs Josip Šutalo has the highest pass completion at 95%, along with the most passes completed per 90. This comes as no surprise given he has played every minute in the centre of the back three, in this role Josip connects play from the GK to Midfield (DLP).

Looking at progressive passes, it is our Wide Centre-Backs which are performing the best against this metric, their ability to bypass the midfield with balls to the wingers is a key element of play, especially when looking to move the ball up field quickly after winning the ball back in the middle of the pitch.

_Ben_ conducted a thorough investigation on headers in his series ‘The Norseman’, I would highly-recommend. Looking at our aerial outputs we are performing above the Eredivisie average, although this doesn’t necessarily reflect our ability to defend from deep, with a large volume of headers being won around the half-way line, as opponents pump the ball long, with the view to relieving pressure.

Jakov Medić, at 6’4” is our most natural defender (highest Heading, Anticipation, and Bravery) is leading the way in terms of his tackle rate (89%) and headers won (81%). In fact the Croatian’s ability to defend has made him the first name on the team-sheet for big matches, and highlights our need to recruit someone else of a similar creed.

Devyne Rensch is the worst player in terms of his aerial ability, at 5’10” he is our shortest defender which is certainly impacting his defensive outputs. I would go as far to say that Rensch is the player that if a club came in for him, he would be the one I would happily move on, given the other six individuals are performing to higher numbers.

MIDFIELDERS

Van Gaal ordered his midfielders to stay behind the wingers; not because he didn’t subscribe to the concept of universality, but because it harmed the side’s structure. I feel this tactic replicates van Gaal’s vision perfectly.

The midfield with two Carillero’s enable these individuals to see lots of the ball, but most importantly provide a strong structure, with both players packing the centre, making the team harder to break down.

Van Gaal was obsessed with structure within possession, almost robbing his attacking weapons of any spontaneity. The crucial difference between Van Gaal’s system and the approach of his predecessors Michels and Cruyff was that Van Gaal effectively prohibited the classic position-switching up and down the flanks, the hallmark of Total Football.

This lack of dynamism is apparent when looking at the open play key passes per 90. Gabriel Moscardo provided the highest per 90 at 1.60, looking at our average figure of 0.98, this is a long way off the open play key passes that Quinten Timber, the Eredivisie leading midfielder is creating.

The above visual again highlights this, with not a single Ajax player in the top-left quadrant, the zone where the most effective creative central midfielders lie in the Eredivisie, ones who also create, but do not lose too much possession.

Our best progressive passer is Benjamin Tahirović, who operates most from the deep-lying playmaker role, the only role in the midfield which comes with the ‘Take More Risks’, encouraging them to take more low percentage passes.

WINGERS

Ajax’s approach depended heavily on width, and Van Gaal needed two outright wingers. Van Gaal placed strict instructions on these players, not to attempt dribbles past multiple opponents: in one-against-one situations they could beat their man, but if faced with two defenders they were told to turn inside and switch the play.

So, even with the above ‘Dribble Less’ team instruction and ‘Pass It Shorter’ player instruction on both wingers, we are still racking up the dribbles, with Carlos Borges in the elite with 8.11 dribbles per 90.

Focusing purely on attacking contribution metrics, our wingers are having a great impact on the game, this you can see from the non-penalty expected goals per 90 and xG per shot in which Carlos Borges again is our best performer.

It isn’t until we get to the expected assist per 90 metric that the value of the winger in this system really is apparent, we are averaging over double the league average with 0.31 expected assists per 90. Steven Bergwijn led the pack with 0.50, meaning he is expected to pick up an assist every other match.

Given that the second placed player Naci Ünüvar also plays from the left, this goes to show the value of the ‘Attack’ role on the statistics over the ‘Support’ role which our right-winger has.

ATTACKERS

The primary goal scorers within the team have in both seasons stemmed from either of these two key roles. This paired with our impressive attacking outputs means that we are performing well against these metrics when compared to the rest of the league.

However, there are a few metrics in which individual performance really stands out, these are xG per shot and conversion rate.

Georges Mikautadze‘s performances in the Shadow Striker role continues to blossom, his non-penalty xG per shot (44 shots taken) of 0.33 is really impressive and a key factor in his impressive conversion rate (39%). I am really happy with how the tactic is working, given the importance of the Shadow Striker under van Gaal.

However, the tactic took a little twist midway through season two, switching the number 9 role from the Trequartista to an Advanced Forward. This move was made to accommodate a certain Ivan Toney, our new record signing (£31.5m) from Brentford.

*click on player image to view attributes

Looking at the below chalkboard stats provide you with an insight as to how the roles differ in our system.

Toney’s outputs as an Advanced forward are also impressive.

  • Non-penalty xG of 0.62 (2nd)
  • Shots per 90, 2.00 (1st)
  • xG per shot, 0.30 (2nd)
  • Conversion rate, 44% (1st)

CONCLUSION

In the tapestry of football tactics, Louis van Gaal’s Ajax of the 1994-1995 season emerges as a masterpiece. Their application of Total Football philosophy, fluid formations, and tactical flexibility showcased a level of sophistication rarely witnessed. Whether in possession or out of it, Ajax’s players executed Van Gaal’s vision with precision and artistry, leaving an indelible mark on football history. This team not only clinched trophies but did so in a manner that transcended mere victories—it became a symbol of tactical brilliance and aesthetic football, the Ajax way.

In the grand scheme of football, where tactics evolve and styles shift, the legacy of Van Gaal’s Ajax endures as a testament to the beauty that can be achieved on the pitch. Their Total Football philosophy continues to inspire coaches and players, reminding us that football is not just a sport—it’s an art form where the canvas is the field, and the brushstrokes are the movements of players working in unison to create moments of brilliance.

SUMMARY

Louis van Gaal’s Ajax of the 1994-1995 season was a team that transcended the boundaries of tactical brilliance. In possession, they showcased fluidity, versatility, and creative ingenuity, seamlessly transitioning between formations and dismantling opponents with precise passing and dynamic movements. Out of possession, their collective pressing, high defensive line, and strategic defending made them a defensive juggernaut.

I hope you have enjoyed today’s blog on ‘The Iron Tulip’, the baselines will provide you with a reference point, given that you will likely use this with another side, one which might not be well aligned to the Ajax way.

Apologies for taking a while to get this piece out, I wanted to ensure I had a season’s worth of raw data to use, a season in which the outputs were not muddied by the use of different formations and roles.

Next up from me in the Ajax way series will be the 2024/25 season review, which could well be in the New Year. I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas, eat, drink, be merry, and play some FM using the links below.

DOWNLOADABLE LINKS

The Iron Tulip – Advanced Forward

The Iron Tulip – Trequartista

Author

  • SteinkelssonFM

    SteinkelssonFM is a distinguished tactician in the Football Manager community, celebrated for bridging the virtual and real football worlds through meticulous analysis. His knack for recreating iconic real-world tactics in-game, like Mário Zagallo’s 1970 Seleção strategy, offers a nostalgic yet innovative gameplay experience. An active blogger on Medium and WordPress, SteinkelssonFM shares his football philosophies and FM adventures, enriching the community with guides on youth development and tactical masterclasses. His contributions extend to the official Football Manager website, affirming his position as a reliable mentor for aspiring virtual football managers. Through his content, SteinkelssonFM continues to blend historical football charm with modern-day FM gameplay.

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3 thoughts on “FM24: The Ajax Way – Masterclass in Total Football

  1. Do you think it can work if I change the SS or 1 of the CAR into Playmaker? I have a great playmaker regen with great dribling/passing/shooting/creativity so I wonder if I can fit him in this tactics.

    1. Why don’t you just simply play the playmaker as a CAR? He will still bring his playmaking qualities into the team.

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