Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion

Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion

This feature is part of The Masterminds

FOOTBALL CAN BE APTLY be described as a simple game made complex. It is about the goals and entertainment and the social function it affords its patrons. For some, football forms a cultural connection – one born of political and sporting loyalty and geographic allegiance. For others, football is sport’s blend of puzzle and science – a contest pitting time against space against movement. The style accompanied by flair and excitement calls on players to interchange positions so that rival systems may exploit one another.

Every week this is the stuff that feeds our football addiction through a slow-drip IV into our collective bloodstream. Where one team plays kick-and-run chaos and another unleashes death by a passing style of eviscerating football. The conservative, methodical play of one team clashes with the counter-pressing ‘heavy metal’ football of another … all of this has a lineage in the game. All of this was brought to the forefront of the sport’s consciousness and unlocked through one defining man’s teams and players.

The year was 2005 and football had just lost the man FIFA named Coach of the Century in 1999. A stream of cyclists sashayed along the estuaries of paths near the Vrijmarkt in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark as children ripped their shoes off to establish two sets of goals set opposite of the other in the mid-March sunshine. Nearby, the park’s Openluchttheater attracted a playful audience as a troupe of actors performed set against a canvas of a brilliant blue sky flecked with cotton ball-white clouds. The newspapers celebrated the man who forever changed not only Dutch football, but who changed football as we know it: Rinus Michels.

In the Netherlands, young players learn to value the ethos early on that “space is important in football, but Dutch space is different.” You see, Rinus Michels viewed football in the same vein as the Dutch concept of maakbaarheid – the ability and willingness to shape, mould, and control an entire physical environment and all that occurs within that environment. Such a belief is rooted deep in ‘determinism’ and unleashed through intelligent application. In football, full-backs overlapping wingers, strikers dropping to collect the ball – this footballing flair existed before Michels was a force.

Michels laid the foundation of a style of football we won’t soon escape – the people, the tacticians, the magicians, and even the politicians will not let it. Before delving into what Total Football is and how Michels instituted and perfected it, let us understand it by a different term: Proactive Football. Football has enjoyed episodes of gilded play. From Hugo Meisl’s famous Austrian Wunderteam of the early 1930s to Hungary’s Magical Magyars ­coached by Gusztáv Sebes – effective football needed to be innovative, unpredictable, versatile and seemingly impossible to defend.

However, the combination of the aforementioned adjectives saw formations like a conventional W-M formation in a 3-2-5 or a 3-4-3 morph into playmaker-accommodating W-W formation of a 2-3-1-4, which converted to a flexible 2-3-2-3 when possession was lost. The system perfected by the Hungarians introduced a new tactic, one that necessitated withdrawing the conventional centre forward back into the midfield while dropping the wingers back to the midfield when necessary. Michels adopted the 4-2-4 formation made famous by Brazil, but with the flexibility of the formations made famous by the powerful sides of the past. For Total Football to work, Michels knew a formation needed total oscillation.

Total Football, a gilded term that will forever be part of football’s lexicon, was effectively born decades before Michels unleashed a footballing revolution at Ajax Amsterdam in the 1960s and 1970s, and yet it wasn’t quite perfected yet. Michels, however, was a product of a society that had mastered space economy. In his excellent book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, David Winner touches on this very notion in relation to Michels’ influence:

“Total Football was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it. In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When they lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of their opponents.”

Michels has been called many things – coach, teacher, genius – however the most fitting term might be architect. During his upbringing and well after the Second World War, Dutch football held amateur status. As a player, Michels was known for his industrious work rate and his technical ability. A natural centre forward, he became a core player for Ajax from 1946-1958 and found the net 122 times in 264 appearances for the club, winning two league titles. The footballing education Michels received at Ajax under the management of British coaches Jack Reynolds and then Vic Buckingham helped instil the progressive nature of the football Ajax played that would pave the way for a style that would redefine the world’s game.

By January 1965, Michels was appointed manager of Ajax and began reshaping the club’s philosophy. In control of Ajax was a man who valued the process of educating others like he valued winning. The true art of coaching requires one to be an astute teacher and Michels approached his appointments with amateur football sides JOS and AFC with the same pedagogical standards he used as an educator – most notably principles centred on discipline and attention to detail.

In a Sky Sports interview on Football’s Greatest, Michels spoke to this immediate change in a 2001 interview. “I needed to change my approach and needed to make it clear to everyone that even though they [the players] were semi-professionals, money and spectator numbers were at stake. And for that they needed to do certain things, and stop others.”

The culture of the football club was dictated by two main dynamics: Michels, and players who embodied his footballing values, which manifested through their play and on-field influence. The Dutchman deployed Johan Neeskens and a gangly 17-year old talent named Johan Cruyff to play the kind of football that focused on attacking movement that saw Ajax thrash Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 5-1 in the European Cup. The lesson Michels would soon learn about unbalanced tactics, however, came in 1969 European Cup defeat to Milan.


“He changed football. We were the Naranja Mechanica, Clockwork Orange. He changed the mentality. We were not just guys moving forward and backward. We played with a lot of pressure on the other team, with a lot of risk in the back. The defenders went forward, the forwards came back. We played football. He even used the goalkeeper … as a libero, playing outside the area.” Wim Rijsbergen, Member of the Netherlands 1974 World Cup squad


Intensity and preparation became cornerstones of Ajax. Piet Kiezer, one of the best left-wingers in Dutch football history and a man whom Dutch writer Nico Scheepmaker wrote “Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one”, described the approach Michels took regarding training:

“His was the hardest physical preparation I ever had. We sometimes had four sessions a day. He also introduced the Italian system of taking players away for a period of concentrated training before a big match. We would start work in the morning and carry on until the evening … he as very strict with the players and there were lots of arguments about discipline. The message was pretty clear; those who did not like would have to leave.”

Michels saw the need for a team capable of switching between attack and defence on-the-fly, while attempting to reclaim possession as fast as possible through space reduction and direct pressure on the opponent with the ball and secondary pressure on any nearby passing options while cutting off passing lanes. The result was more than just a display of defensive dictation; it saw the emergence of fluid triangular passing patterns moving forward after possession was regained – often in the opponent’s defensive third. Such a pressing display demands players who are technically proficient and versatile while being tactically brilliant. In short, to play for Rinus Michels one had to be a total footballer: fit, smart, tough and versatile.

Michels is famous for proclaiming: “Football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly is lost.” Such a statement sheds light on the fitness required to play a style of football he believed would be most successful. Former player Sjaak Swart recalled how Michels trained his teams, “We did everything with the ball. At the beginning of the season we had one week of very hard training: five training sessions a day. It was like military camp.”

The football Michels required from his players was of the intelligent, positive, attacking variety. His teams at Ajax then at FC Barcelona and perhaps most notably for the Oranje showed a machine-like efficiency as a collective while allowing the individual genius of the players to shine through. Michels framed football as an art form and players like Johan Neeskens, Johan Cryuff, Piet Keizer and later, Ronald Koeman, Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Jan Wouters were handed the paintbrushes.

As manager at Ajax, Michels used Total Football to capture four Eredivisie titles (1966, 1967, 1968, 1970), three KNVB Cups (1967, 1970, 1971), the Intertoto Cup (1968) and the European Cup (1971). By 1971, however, he moved to Barcelona – an act that changed the course of football history and that continues to evolve today. The challenge at Barcelona for Michels was indicative of the challenge at Ajax regarding a need to change the culture and underlying philosophy of the club. Michels found that the major issue with players from Spain was not their talent, but their sensitivity to the type of criticism, direct instruction, and working expectations he demanded.

What Michels needed at Barcelona was the establishment of his system and the recruitment of two of his Dutch stars in Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff to join him in Spain. At Ajax, Michel’s tactical influence demanded a player with superior vision, technical ability and the fitness to interchange and carry out his strategies – the same would hold true at Barcelona. As Michels honed the Total Football strategy, Cruyff was nearing his peak as a player. Implementing players that knew the expectations and could carry them out on the field proved to be a catalyst for change during his tenure in Spanish football. At Barcelona he won the league title in 1974 and the Copa del Rey in 1978.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Michels and his philosophy is how it helped reinvent the way players and teams trained while removing the stranglehold of conservative and negative tactics that gripped football at the time. As Dutch national team coach, Michels’ Total Football oversaw the demolition of Argentina and Brazil in the 1974 World Cup only to lose to a supremely-talented West Germany 2-1 in the final. The lesson culled from that final was pragmatism is a double-edged sword – too much diminishes the effect of Total Football, not enough allows teams to use the very system against the other.

At the European Championships in 1988, Michels assembled an incredibly technical and fit Dutch team that used Total Football throughout the tournament to produce high energy, high pressing and fluid football. In many regards, Michels ultimately vanquished the demons of the 1974 World Cup by defeating West Germany in the semi-final en route to winning the final against the Soviet Union in breathtaking fashion.

What today’s football celebrates in teams and players is what Rinus Michels simply demanded: forward-thinking players that fit into systems employed by teams to become a living, breathing machine. Every player capable of carrying the piano whilst being able to play the riveting solo at any time.

History remembers Rinus Michels as a great player, manager, motivator, teacher, and figurehead in Dutch football. Today, he is celebrated for his impact on the game. The groundwork he established at clubs like Ajax and Barcelona inspired a system that continues to flourish today. Much of what occurs at De Toekomst and La Masia is an exercise in the philosophical football cultivation of seeds long since planted by Michels and his protégés, understudies and methods.

By doing away with ‘fixed’ positions and making the team the star, football found a new identity. The inert, gelatinous pace of football gave way to something entirely different – a game of positions, of movements and constant circulation. The game of Total Football.

By Jon Townsend  @jon_townsend3

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