How Ajax beat Barca at their own game, and what we can learn from it

There was delicious irony in the defeat of Barcelona by Ajax in the Champions League on Wednesday. This was the season’s first loss for the Spanish champion team loaded with World Cup heroes. That it came in Amsterdam, after being outplayed by the very football club from where Barca borrowed their tiki-taka style of play, was the irony.

Ajax was where Barcelona’s former coach Frank Rijkaard spent his formative years. Rijkaard belonged to a golden era in Dutch football that showcased what became known as Total Football. The basic philosophy behind it was that every player, except the goalkeeper, had to excel in more than one position. A player had to be able to switch from being a midfielder to a defender or a forward, and also to switch from left flank to centre or even right flank. This enabled a fluid positional structure. If one player was pulled out of his position in the course of play, another would fill that slot and so on. A player would return to his preferred position when he could, but he had to be ready to take on alternative roles at any point of time in the game.

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It wasn’t easy to perfect this style of play, and you needed highly talented players with the versatility to pull it off. But if you did, there was a lot to gain. The rival team would struggle to find gaps and the space to attack. More importantly, the team playing Total Football kept possession of the ball for disproportionate lengths of time, and it was that which often determined who won. The best exponents of this were the Dutch teams of the seventies and eighties, and more recently, Barcelona and the Spanish national team, which have both had an enviably long run of success.

Total Football finds a new home

Total Football had its roots in Ajax, where young kids would be drilled endlessly in the discipline to make one-touch, short passes. If you hung on to the ball for too long, you were liable to be tackled and lose possession – hence the need to pass it quickly. To reduce the chances of the pass being intercepted, it had to be short. So there would be these fluid formations of three or four or even five players passing the ball around between themselves, shifting up and down in midfield and from flank to flank, probing the opposition defences until an opening was found for a foray forward. If you observed Spain in the last World Cup, that’s mostly what they were doing to mesmerise their opponents. Eventually, they beat Holland in the final, which was another irony because that’s the country where this beautiful form of football was first perfected. Its best practitioner was the legendary Dutchman Johan Cruyff, who incidentally was the trainer at Ajax when Rijkaard played for the club.

Barcelona has had a string of Dutch coaches, including Cruyff. But it was Rijkaard who really instilled a sense for Total Football there. In fact, he adapted it to suit the relatively shorter statured Spanish players, and its Barca avatar became known as tiki-taka football, referring to the exquisitely soft, well-placed, creative passes that midfielders like Xavi and Iniesta learnt to execute in seemingly endless loops. It was Rijkaard who took young players like Iniesta, taught them to follow the code of the tiki-taka, and turned the fortunes of Barcelona around in the 2004-05 season. Before Rijkaard’s arrival, Barca hadn’t won a major title in years and used to be regularly trounced by their arch rival Real Madrid.

Ajax deconstructs the tiki-taka

Barca today is a formidable team with established stars, and Ajax, which relies more on upcoming players, would normally be no match for them. But Ajax, being the original home of Total Football, is well versed in the ways of tiki-taka, and their coach Frank de Boer decided to exploit that. They surprised Barca by mounting intense pressure in the midfield to break up the tiki-taka rhythm. They fought for possession of the ball so hard that even if they didn’t get it, they still managed to break up the nice formations that Barca’s creative midfielders have become accustomed to enjoying.

“We lacked mobility and precision,” admitted Barca’s new coach Gerardo Martino after the match, but this was forced upon them by the tactics used by Ajax. “We have beaten them with our philosophy,” exulted de Boer at the press conference.

Barca were without some stars, most notably Lionel Messi, and they are unlikely to be caught napping again. But to lose to Ajax was no shame – after all, the real winner was Total Football.

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Total Business for startups

It’s a philosophy that can be transformative in football and business alike. Startups, in particular, with small teams, stand to benefit immensely if every team member can wear more than one hat. That’s not to discount the value of specialisation, but none of us is so uni-dimensional as to be good at only one thing.

Multi-faceted team members not only make for leaner teams, they often make for better quality of work all round. A tech wiz would be better at what he does if he had exposure to the business development side as well, and vice versa. Most of all, it creates a sense of ownership and team spirit whose effects are difficult to quantify. If a content creator steps into the marketing guy’s shoes, the discussions at the next meeting between the departments would be so much more collaborative, and the reverse is equally true.

Total Business, anyone?

Sumit Chakraberty

Sumit Chakraberty

The Hyderbad Public School, BITS Pilani and 30 years of journalism behind him, Sumit Chakraberty has returned to his first love: cricket. He is the author of Master Laster: What They Don't Tell You About Sachin Tendulkar, the first revisionist book on the sporting icon. He is also Consulting Editor with YourStory. You can write to him at schakraberty@yahoo.com