Total Football is a tactical theorem which has laid the foundations of the modern game. The style of play is a result of an amalgamation of different tactical philosophies that first emerged at Ajax in 1915. There have been various iterations of Total Football, all of which have been extremely successful.
In the 1970s Total Football was brought to the attention of the world as both the Dutch national team and Ajax excelled under this style of play. Manager Rinus Michels and player Johan Cruyff enabled these two teams to excel. Arguably, no playing philosophy has had a greater impact upon the modern game than Total Football.
WHAT IS TOTAL FOOTBALL?
Total Football is the philosophy of position-less soccer. Essentially, all outfield players are not fixed within their position. All players can play in all of the positions across the pitch. The only player with a truly fixed position is the goalkeeper. The aim of Total Football is to create a system that is flexible and can adapt to any situation that arises in the game.
At any time, a defender can find himself being an attacker and, inversely, an attacker can find himself in a defensive position. The positional rotations would be vertical down the flanks whilst the spine of the side remained relatively consistent. This created attacking patterns aimed to deceive the opposition. The onus is on the player to have the technical abilities to cope with any situation that they find themselves within.
As a result, Total Football places immense demands upon the players within the system. Total Football began the trend of prioritizing both the athleticism and technical capabilities of the player. One must be athletic enough to fulfil the demands of the system whilst also having exceptional positional sense, mastery over passing techniques and impeccable first touch. Many have said that Total Football is soccer in its’ purest form and without it, the modern game would not be what it is today. From Barcelona’s Tiki-Taka to Gegenpressing ; Total Football has inspired the great soccer philosophies of the modern age.
The common criticisms of soccer philosophies that aim to play the game in a “beautiful way” is that they do not bring extended success. Total Football has been criticized in this manner too. However, such assertions are misguided and show a distinct lack of appreciation for the history of the game.
Ajax was the most famous club side to utilize Total Football and they did so from 1971 to 1973. Within this period, Ajax recorded a perfect home record with 46 wins and no losses. They also won two league titles, the KNVB Cup, the European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup. The Dutch national side reached the 1974 World Cup Final, which they lost to West Germany, by exploiting the advantages of Total Football.
There are other examples where sides have been successful when using Total Football, such as the famous La Máquina side of River Plate that dominated Argentinian soccer, which demonstrates that the philosophy can be successful.
HOW IT WORKED
Total Football can be broken down into two key components which are; the exploitation of space and positional flexibility.
The exploitation of space hinged upon the athleticism of the players within the system. Though Total Football placed an emphasis on the technical superiority of the player, without the players being supreme athletes the system would not work. The exploitation of space is the idea that the players should make the pitch as big as possible. This was achieved by defenders spreading across the pitch and wingers hugging the touchline when attacking. This maximized how much space the team created within the pitch.
Whilst defending, the players press the opposition relentlessly to close the spaces within the pitch; thus, making the pitch smaller. The press was not in anticipation of a pass, i.e. into passing lanes, but the system sought to press the ball directly in a bid to cause an error. When accompanying this with a defensive high line, it gave the team the advantage of being able to start the press quickly within the oppositions half. By pressing closer to the oppositions box, you increase the likelihood of winning the ball back closer to the opposition’s goal. This allows the team to launch devastating counterattacks.
The formation of choice by those who utilized Total Football was 4-3-3, whilst attacking, with one of the attackers moving back into a 4-4-2 when defending. This enabled the team to combat against sides that set up in a 4-4-2 formation which was very much the tactic of choice.
Though positional switching was not something that was entirely new; the way Total Football allowed for positional switching was. For example, horizontal switching was widely practised. Wingers would often cut inside into the midfield to act as a temporary centre-midfielders or a full-back would move inside to fulfil a similar role as a central-defender.
However, Total Football hinges upon the idea of complete positional rotation and flexibility. Though the spine of the side remained relatively rigid, those on the flanks were free to vertically rotate. This created attacking patterns that proved a nightmare to negotiate.
Total Football has helped shape many elite coach’s playing philosophies. Most soccer teams now adopt some sort of defensive press whilst having a degree of flexibility within their attack. Total Football is the river from which the streams of modern football have been created.
Total Football is why soccer is called the beautiful game.
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