When asked what total football is about, Johann Cruyff, one of the strategy’s most famous proponents, simply said: “attackers could play as defenders and defenders as attackers. Everyone could play everywhere.”
Total football is an attack-oriented strategy where players have no definite position. With the exception of the goalkeeper, everybody is allowed to play anywhere on the field. Coordination, spacing, and player movement are the key elements of total soccer.
Total soccer strategy is most closely associated with Netherlands, where it has been first played. In the 1974 World Cup, the Dutch national team brought it to world prominence under coach Rinus Michels.
How total football works
In total football, players switch to different positions to confuse the opponent’s defense. For this strategy to work, there must be a midfielder who can coordinate both offense and defense.
In the case of the Dutch soccer team of the 1970s, that man was Johan Cruyff. He played as forward but he often moved to different roles as his team needed it. But more importantly, he could tell his teammates where to go and what position they should occupy.
Total football’s main strategy is to possess the ball as much as possible. Players position themselves far from each other and pass the ball around. While the ball is being distributed, some players move around to get into good scoring position.
There are three main objectives in a total football defense: keep the ball away from the goal, intercept passes, and mark deadly strikers. Total footballers work as a unit in defense. They narrow down passing lanes and work together aggressively retrieve the ball as soon as possible.
Why do players have to switch position in total football?
When seeing total football for the first time, people may ask why players have to switch positions. To understand this, let us have a little historical background on football in the 1960s.
During that decade, Europe was dominated by Italy with its hyper-defensive football strategy called “catenaccio.” In catenaccio calcio, players man-mark their opponents closely to deny them the chance to score.
Such tight man-marking became a problem for many clubs. Coach Rinus Michels of Ajax defeated it by making his players move to different positions. This soccer strategy created a dilemma for the man-markers.
If they chased their man, they would find themselves in the wrong position when it is their team’s turn to attack. If they let their man go, they are risking the chance of leaving an attacker open.
Rinus trained his players so they can easily adapt to any position. Opponents who were not as well-adapted as the Dutch total football players found it difficult to keep up.
Total football history
Total football is most closely linked to Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff but its invention precedes the Dutch. It was English coach Jimmy Hogan who laid the foundations in 1910 of what would later be called as total soccer.
Hogan introduced the two basic concepts of total soccer as coach of Dutch football club Dordecht: player stamina and ball passing. 15 years later, the strategy that Jimmy Hogan brought to Netherlands was refined by fellow English coach Jack Reynolds.
Reynolds managed Ajax Amsterdam intermittently from 1915 to 1947. He is the one who brought the aspect of spacing into Hogan’s strategy. He did this by introducing the winger, a soccer position where a player widens the offense by running the ball on the flanks.
One of the most brilliant players in Reynold’s Ajax squad was Dutchman Rinus Michels. He had the mindset of a strategy maker which qualified him to become Ajax’s manager in 1965 and Netherlands’ coach in 1974.
Michels trained his Ajax players to be versatile anywhere on the field. He also taught his team to work well with each other. It is in Michels’ time that “totaalvoetbal” (total football) acquired its name.
The total soccer of Ajax in the 1960s and 1970s became so popular mainly because of the great players who executed it. Soccer legends Johan Cruyff and Johan Neskeens are two of the players who worked this strategy to success on the pitch.
Using the total football system, Ajax won three consecutive European Football Cups (1971, 1972, & 1973), the most prestigious club competition in Europe. These impressive victories proved to the world the effectiveness of the concept of total football.
In the 1974 World Cup, Cruyff and the Dutch football team executed total football to perfection that they became known as “Clockwork Orange.” This nickname denotes the team’s execution of total soccer, which is unfailing as the working of a clock.
The Dutch team’s execution of total football brought them to the final of the 1974 World Cup. Using the same strategy, they reached the 1978 World Cup final only to see the championship elude them once more.
Total football today
After retiring from playing, Johan Cruyff pursued the career of a football manager. It is during his tenure in Barcelona when he utilized the principles of total football to create a style called “tiki-taka.”
Tiki-taka is characterized by consistent ball passing and player movement. It centers on a midfielder who controls the team’s offense. Today, tiki-taka has also become a significant strategy of the Spanish football team. Spaniards used it to win the European Football Championships in 2008 and the FIFA World Cup in 2010.
Total football no longer exists in its purest form because of its huge demand on player versatility and stamina. Yet its principles of passing, wide spacing, and player movement are evident in the attack-oriented football strategies of the present.