Football Tactics: Total Football

Over the course of the next few months, I will look at numerous footballing formations utilised by various teams. In my latest blog, I’ll briefly look at Total Football, the style that still inspires modern football.

In 1960s Netherlands, a revolution had already begun taking place. Stagnant, rigid, defensive tactics that had been utilised by numerous teams thought the previous decades were beginning to give way to more attacking, fluid and without doubt, more aesthetically pleasing systems of play. The Hungarian teams of the 1950s had inspired the world under Gustav Sebes whose innovations and tactical nous had demolished England at home 7-1 in 1954 and also previously a year earlier in what many billed the game of the century at Wembley stadium – running out 6-3 winners in a head turning display.

Many believe these Hungarians, laid the foundations for what would become Total Football so famously used by Ajax in the 1970s. Indeed Jack Reynolds the Englishman who witnessed the Hungarian style, managed Ajax on three separate occasions and got to work.

As a player under Jack Reynolds was a name more synonymous with total football – Rinus Michels. Reynolds’ methods immediately appealed to Michels, both the men agreed on strict discipline and the majority of training taking place with a ball at the players’ feet.

Following a spell in charge in which Ajax were successful in the early 1960s from Vic Buckingham, Rinus Michels was given the role of manager in 1965 with the priority of maintaining the team’s top flight status, before he could get to work with his own philosophy and beliefs.

Michels was a big disciplinarian, who immediately set about improving the team spirit and behaviour of his players. His main early tactical change came about bringing in a 4-2-4 shape, before eventually moving onto a 4-3-3 and encouraging one defender to push forward into a 3-4-3 whenever possible. The team was encouraged to press high up the pitch, hound the opposition and attempt to win the ball back as early as possible. As far as team shape goes, the players were constantly in the agreed team shape, if one player drifted into another position his space was immediately filled by the respective player allowing the team to maintain its organisational and tactical shape. Players were required to be highly adaptable, technical with very high fitness levels.

Seemingly all of a sudden, football had changed. No longer were centre halves required to be just tough tackling and ball winning, but they had to be able to control and distribute the ball also. Centre midfield players, were required to contribute to all phases of play, and rotate accordingly. Full backs were given licence to receive the ball and attack, maintaining possession when opportunities were limited was sought over attempting hopeful long balls, indeed often the striker was Johan Cruyff himself and he’d be found dropping into midfield to receive the ball and attack.

The main principles of pressing, organisational shape, managing space and attacking fluidity saw Ajax win three consecutive European Cups in the early 1970s as well as the Dutch first division four times in five years. A key player was Johan Cruyff, whose role was often free within the team, who would then maintain their shape around Cruyff to allow him to pop up in areas where he would cause the most problems for the opposition.

Following the departure of firstly Michels then eventually Cruyff, the Ajax team gradually disintegrated but the legacy lives on in Dutch football still to this day. The influence the managers and coaches of that era had on the youth setup still reaps benefits for Holland today, constantly producing world-class youth talent.

Michels would go on to coach Barcelona, laying the seeds of the modern Barcelona we know today along with Johan Cruyff. Cruyff would go on to manage the Barcelona ‘dream team’ of 1992, who won the European Cup at Wembley meanwhile Michels would be named FIFA Coach Of The Century. That Barcelona team contained one Pep Guardiola who has repeatedly mentioned the influence the Dutch system had on the Catalans.

Further Reading:

Inverting the Pyramid by Jonathan Wilson

Teambuilding by Rinus Michels

Brilliant Orange by David Winner

Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff by Frits Barend, Henk Van Dorp

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About markfc713

Enthusiastic, aspiring football coach.
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