Is Total Football, the Holy Grail of the modern game, still alive in the sport today?

Is Total Football, the Holy Grail of the modern game, still alive in the sport today?

In King Lear, when the hapless footman Oswald is tripped up by a duke and called a “base football player”, the audience is expected to sneer and snicker. Indeed, in the 16th century, while Italian counts may have pleased themselves in annual games of Calcio Fiorentino, the practice of kicking a ball in anger was considered suggestive of a social pedigree just above a common thief and just below an economist.

What we might consider great about the game did not originate with it; there was a great deal of time back then for violence and little room for nobility. He would not be born for a further three centuries, but it is hard not to think that, had Rinus Michels been present at the time in the Piazza Santa Croce, he would have looked at the scene of beauty squandered and wept.

Famous for his exploits as the Netherlands and Ajax manager in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and for his fearsome partnership with footballing genius Johan Cruyff, Michels’ philosophy of the sport, the focus on intelligence, the meaning invested in movement, the demonstration of fluid identity, all combined such that if football was not considered an art, then it could certainly lay claim to the pretension without anyone listening daring to sneer or snicker.

This was a brand of play at once deliberate, pure, fine and complete; heady words less often associable with sport than with great painting or sculpture. And yes, the Totaalvoetbal of Oranje and Ajax was something tantamount to football’s Sistine Chapel, showing the full beauty latent in movement, the refinement possible in something once seen as base and rough, and suggesting football as an expression of intelligent happiness.

So thus beckons the question: where has all the Total Football gone? Why do we look at football now and still see fixed tactical schema, repression of character and the rule of physical force, instead of a model of the mystifying, exalting, all-things-at-all-times style that, at its peak in 1974, won the hearts of football fans worldwide even in defiance of defeat?

In football as in history, a revolution does not happen overnight, and there were exponents of Total Football principles before Cruyff first put his greyhound legs to the turf at De Meer. The Mancunian Jack Reynolds laid some foundations during his three stints at Ajax itself, from the 1910s to the 1940s, all of which preceded the coming of Dutch professionalism in 1955. The first high stakes Total Football seems to have been played by River Plate’s great La Máquina side of the 1940s, whose constant positional interchange in a WM formation led to the invention of the false nine and a bevvy of trophies.

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Surprising though it may seem now, the first European team to enjoy title-winning success with a system of free positional interchange were Harry Potts’ all-conquering Burnley side of the late 1950s. It was another of Burnley’s sons, Jimmy Hogan, who heavily inspired Hungary’s greatest team, the Ferenc Puskás-led marauders who writ the Netherlands’ blueprint in trenchant quicksilver, both in the breathtaking virtuosity of their movement and tactical grasp, and in their tendency to come up heartbreakingly short in the World Cup final, as the Magyars did in 1954.

Despite these precedents, the recognition of fluid football philosophies before Michels and Ajax came along should not be overestimated. In the words of Alex Stewart, lead tactics writer for Tifo, it was they who “paved the way for other footballers and coaches to see that sustained success could be achieved by those principles of Total Football.” In the early 1960s, such still-ragged ideas as theirs, in a Dutch league that had never been competitive, were considered unproven. They were able to innovate, therefore, without burden.

By encouraging the development of the press – being practised simultaneously by Viktor Maslov at Dinamo Kyiv – by teaching the discrete purposes of fluid positional interchange, Michels became perhaps the first coach to reconcile fully football’s artistry with its physicality, neither disparaging nor sublimating either. In Cruyff he had his David, the hero and willing avatar whose most characteristic pose was not the shot or the run but the moment of decision before the pass.

In the remainder of his Ajax – and then Netherlands – squad, he had the changelings he required – players – any of whom could seemingly be anything on the pitch at a given moment, as well as those, such as Johan Neeskens, who could fulfil seemingly every role at once.

So where else can we begin our search for the modern Total Football but in Cruyff’s own footprints? Barcelona and the 2008 to 2012 Spain were supposed to play a brand of football precisely in the Cruyffian tone. Their Juego de Posición was based primarily on a desire for a similar fundamental product to Total Football – the leverage of space, aggressive pressing, absolute possession – as opposed to the Total Football aesthetic.

Instead of widening players’ positional scope so that each could effectively fill any role on the pitch, this 21st-century Total Football homogenised positional discipline, intent on treating every area of the pitch as the middle third and focusing on the potential of reduced distances as opposed to using the axis of the pitch to control play.

It’s no wonder that the Spanish conquistadors of the 2008 to 2012 period were depicted, sometimes pejoratively, as using a 4-6-0 formation. It’s no wonder that this style, which stretches specialism to its logical extreme, was ultimately found out, and in explosive style at the 2014 World Cup and even at the 2018 World Cup. And it’s no wonder that, in this style, we see little of what a purist might recognise as Total Football.

Order  |  Philosophies

In truth, the Barcelona way – the immensely, ironically, Catalonian Spanish way – was the apotheosis of Cruyff’s real desire, which was perhaps not for the wider ballet of Total Football but for its end: the perfect manipulation of space on the pitch. That desire to see space freely created from nothing is, Ben Lyttleton suggests, deeply hewn into the national psyche of the Dutch, where the landscape is as flat and pitiless as a pitch and territory has always come at a premium.

Just as we shouldn’t discount aspects of culture that are fundamentally Dutch in shaping its distinctive philosophy of play, so neither should we discount that Total Football, perhaps more than any other style, relies not merely on technique or physical condition but the character of those players involved. Such adaptability, to align fruitfully with product, must be propelled by a considerable imagination – a freedom of the mind.

Nowadays we often bewail in footballers the homogeneity of their character, their lack of willingness – understandably, perhaps – to speak freely off the pitch, and, occasionally, when the going gets tough and tactical schema go out the window, to pull up their socks and force a result on it.

Such supplicatory natures could not be identified in the stars of the Oranje; their respective vices attest to this. What’s to say that Neeskens’ irrepressible completeness was not fundamentally aligned to the physical recklessness that could not be coached from him, to his gaudy and ultimately self-defeating pursuit of the off-pitch rock-star lifestyle?

On a similar axis, what’s to say that Ruud Krol’s astonishing defensive versatility didn’t root in the same why-not-try-it-all instinct that led him to the lure of Amsterdam nightlife? More darkly still, what’s to say that Willem van Hanegem’s marriage of refinement and tenacity did not stem at least partially from the bereaved anger he felt, and freely expressed, as a young man towards Germany following the deaths of his father, brother and sister in World War Two?

Going on to consider Cruyff’s own bravely unrepentant idiosyncrasies, it seems that a more equanimous or agreeable man would almost certainly not have mustered the force of personality to not merely excel as a Total Footballer but to promulgate the method itself (and without said broad influence beyond the pitch, it would arguably be Neeskens or Van Hanegem who would be considered the style’s highest avatars, as players at least).

Nevertheless, we cannot make too much of the contemporary breed’s lack of willingness or capability to adapt. Despite the continued basing of tactical shape on discrete roles, even on the part of progressive coaches, and the persistence in applying the myopic utility man handle to players with a breadth of aptitude, we can hold back from declaring ‘positional balkanisation’ outright.

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Talking about Michaels and Cruyff’s “gift” to the game, Alex Stewart calls Bayern acolytes Thomas Müller and Philipp Lahm into example. In his words, “… players like Lahm or Thomas Müller weren’t just good enough to play as a RB, DM or CM, or AMR, AMC or CF, but the idea that they should be able to adapt is much more established in the wake of 30 years of football history showing it can work.”

But they are exceptions. If players of such adaptability can still flourish, there must be other reasons explaining a continued preference for a general tactical rigidity in football. One abiding similarity between the schools of total football thus far cited is that they all reigned when the pace of the sport itself was more languid. Ever since physical quality control was implemented in the sport – a pedigree of fitness enshrined as much by Michels’ Ajax themselves as anyone else before or since – it has come to dominate tactical consideration.

The net increase of speed in football causes the value of angular exploitation to increase in kind; if speed is the name, then the wider player’s stock rises, as it is he whose space to move and deliver is the least likely to be inhibited. Hence the most transformative, most ‘Total’ position on the modern day football pitch is the full-back, the role that can be most decisive in both attacking and defensive phases.

Watching Ajax as they rampage through the lines during their European campaigns of the early 1970s, we can consider that the space they enjoy is partially derived from their explosively superior fitness levels relative to their opponents – while we might get misty-eyed about Ajaxian artistry, this was by no means walking football. Once that speed became standardised, defending against it becomes fundamental. As with pace, attacking with width and depth can be attained with fewer touches and with much greater directness.

It is no good to have a post-interchange central midfielder filling it at centre-back, or an inside-forward behind an advanced full-back, when trying to defend against such speed, particularly in the likely event that all players in your team are not of identical defensive skill or physical prowess. Ajax’s physical tenet of their football is one of the foremost reasons the Total system seems riskier now.

Reckoning with this risk brings us to the aspect of modern Total Football that is the biggest issues. Given that Total Football remains so feted, and given that its fundaments, from touch and positional awareness to soundness of movement, are still taught aggressively at grassroots level by progressive nations, there is some suggestion that the reason for its relative disappearance may have a wider cultural impetus than just a dearth of able players or an excessive onus on physical prowess.

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Just as the vastly increased estate of the football media indubitably shoulders the responsibility for players’ suspicion of the circus that surrounds their sport, and their subsequent reluctance to be caught out, it has made the lives of managers incalculably more difficult. Managerial lifespans are shorter than ever; in 2015 the length of managerial tenure in English football fell to a nadir of just 1.23 seasons.

Consider, then, that the likes of Michels had six seasons to establish his way at Ajax, and that the Dutchman and Ștefan Kovács after him were able to use discrete, institutional foundations to build their own successes, and the mode of continuity comes to seem inseparable from a style of football that requires the training of the mind as keenly as the body, and a tailoring of instinct.

Managers of today simply have too much to lose; it’s too fast to invest in this kind of long-termism. Speaking in 2008, Ruud Kaiser, the former Netherlands junior coach, stated to the effect that while the Total mentality still resided in Dutch players, managers were too afraid of the repercussions of failure to sanction such freedom and experimentation in play.

And Stewart would have us make no mistake; “If coaches are flexible and adaptive and think about what a player can do, rather than where they have played, then such flexibility is fine and often makes sense. If coaches cannot think that expansively, or if they already have a squad that feels balanced, then it doesn’t happen.”

Still, even if the climate is no longer ideally suited to the all-as-one beauty of the Michelsian/Cruyffian system – and presuming, as we have not considered, that the great Ajax and Dutch teams were not just uncanny and unrepeatable convergences of talent and aptitude, the footballing equivalent of the Athenian academy or Florentine artistic tradition – there is plenty to suggest that, while Total Football does not stand untouched, it still lives on in plentiful supply in our sport.

The prevalence of the iridescent Marcelo Bielsa and his acolytes shows that pressing has remained a tactical evergreen, and that positional fluidity is perhaps beholden to it. Bielsa’s mania for control, likes Michels’ and Cryuff’s, runs two ways towards monopoly of space and the ball itself.

In another vein, the tiki-taka most prized by Pep Guardiola obsesses over positional points like its antecedent Total Football, but instead of taking the positions themselves as changeable to a man, Guardiola’s insight was to overload individual positions with multiple players, again either exploiting narrow lanes that could be keyed by elite passers or needle dribblers, or opening the vacated opposite flank via a switch of play from a ball-literate defender.

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In a way, Guardiola’s deeply agnostic grandson of Totaalvoetbal is a merger of the Dutch vertical adaptive style that won the hearts of millions in 1974, and the West German tactic of flooding of discrete zones of the pitch that broke them in that year’s World Cup final.

Like Bielsa, Guardiola is also unafraid of deploying players in seemingly unfamiliar positions. Indeed, he has redesigned the likes of Lahm, Javi Martínez, Fabian Delph and Lionel Messi, seemingly at will, but in fact in accordance with the given players’ degrees of intelligence. It is no wonder that Lahm, the subject of the most complete positional Guardiolisation, was praised by the great Catalan as “the most intelligent player I have ever coached”.

The approaches of these managers – and there are others – bespeak of the autocracy of the teeming tactical mind, and do not in themselves attest to the marvellous autonomy of the original Total Football. Guardiola, for instance, has caught moderate infamy for his distaste for broad, loud dressing room personalities prone to dissent, preferring the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi who, regardless of their supreme talents, are relatively monastic in the temerity of their respective disciplines.

The same, as we have seen, cannot be said of the great Ajax stars, and it is hard to imagine Guardiola living with them (although it’s perhaps fair to say that they would meet barely any modern manager’s typical standards of professional restraint). There is freedom in these Total Football-derived systems, but the freedom of enlightened despots, as opposed to the neurotic, brilliant liberality of their greatest forebears.

Nevertheless, we cannot come away with anything other than a feeling that, though the absence of true Total Football may mystify and inspire as the form itself did, the philosophy, far from being an abandoned pursuit, may be in some senses the most manically sought-after grail in football, certainly among the sport’s most protean tactical minds.

It may well be the case that our indiscriminate desire for football, at the highest emotive and physical intensity, all the time, is the thing really hamstringing us from the height of the game itself through an excess of pace, of desire for control, and even of expectation. But that does not mean that when we watch the greats of our day, we are not necessarily getting a piece of the Totaal.

By Max Gorynski

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