Total Football

Here is an article I submitted to In Bed With Maradona in September 2012. In hindsight, I was naive in submitting this piece of work to this particular website. ‘Total Football’ is quite a well covered topic across the game and IBWM seek to educate the reader about less followed topics around the footballing world. Whilst I thought it was a decent article, the value of market research was crucial, of which I had done little. Fortunately, I learnt from my mistake and came back to IBWM a week later with a piece about Metin Otkay (which you can find below) which was published. Moreover, from a personal point of view I gained a greater understanding of the term ‘Total Football’ and the main exponents of this, in the Netherlands.

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The World Cup of 1974 will best be recalled for the triumph of West Germany on their own patch, becoming the fourth country to achieve home glory. The trophy was sealed by Gerd Muller, on his final appearance for his country, who slotted home the winner in the final at Olympiastadion, Munich. However, 1974 will equally be held dear for the introduction of totaalvoetbal on the world’s biggest stage. Whilst the Netherland’s failed to bring home the big prize in only their third World Cup appearance, they captivated the imagination of millions with their eye-catching and dazzling style of play masterminded by Rinus Michels and operated by the genius, known as ‘Pythagoras in boots’ – Johan Cruyff.

Amassing 122 goals for Ajax and picking up a handful of caps for the international team, Michels hard grafting and excellent team ethic made up for the minor flaws in his technical ability. For a player who lacked a particularly high level of skill and flair, it seems ironic that he would be the man to pioneer one of the greatest tactical innovations ever seen in the sport.

‘Total Football’ relied upon the adaptability of highly skilled players to interchange positions on the football pitch. In this fluid system, no man occupied a fixed position. Each player could find themselves as an attacker, midfielder and a defender in the space of seconds. On paper this system sounds like suicide. Surely this type of football was only subject to Sunday mornings at the park where the energetic 6 year old boys were let loose. Or perhaps the local pub side, who still feeling the effects from the night before, stuck the two oldest and ugliest in defence and let the others aimlessly roam around.

To be delivered successfully, this arrangement requires only the most elite of players. Not only that, but these players must have the ability to excel in a number of different positions and the immense stamina and work rate required to not only break forward quickly, but to track back and defend. Yet, the key ingredient, the ingredient which provides the glue in this flowing system, is the deep understanding and trust that players must with one another. As a player moves out of one position, it is vital that one of his team mates bridge the gap which has been created. Inability to fill these voids would result in massive holes being left, leaving the opposition to pick you off at ease. Simply put, the system relied upon immense spatial awareness.

This sort of tactic could not be installed by a manager using a chalkboard, a handful of cones or monotonous training drills. The gaffer would lay down some tactical restraints, yet the players would be given the creative freedom and license to move freely as long as the team’s intended organisation structure was not neglected.  As former Netherlands international and one of the best defenders of his generation, Ruud Krol commented “He (Rinus Michels) didn’t give you a plan that had to be slavishly followed. He said we were good enough players to understand what was required”. The key point here is that there was a mutual trust between the manager and his team. The manager trusted his players to carry out their roles, giving them few restrictions. Moreover, the players were comfortable because they knew that the manager had belief in their ability and decision making, and they enjoyed the extra responsibility without feeling too under pressure.

You would not be silly for thinking that a system which is both very simple but at the same time very complex, takes years to be truly mastered by a team. After taking over the national team post-qualification, Rinus Michels had just three friendly games to mould these individual stars into a whole unit, who could implement his unique style of play. The Netherlands route to the final in which they scored 14, conceding only one goal and knocking out Brazil and Argentina along the way, is proof that he managed this and he did so with flying colours. The ability of such a young side to take to the sword teams, who had been playing together for years, should not be disregarded. It was an extraordinary feat.

In hindsight, Michels decision to install his brand of football upon a side so soon before a World Cup, was extremely bold, daring on reckless. It emphasised his belief in his own ability, his belief in the system and the belief in the players he had at his disposal.

However, as big of a role the former Ajax and Barcelona manager played in Netherlands wonderful cup run, he does not singly gain all the plaudits. In 1974, Michels had an extraordinary selection of talent to put his system into play. This included the likes of Cruyff, Johnny Rep and Johan Neeskens.  In fact, many have argued that without the genius Cruyff, the system could never have succeeded. The system was designed to almost accommodate Cruyff. As www.fifa.com suggests “Cruyff was the on-field organiser who brought Michel’s ideas to life”. The playmaker was given a license to wander all over the pitch so he could be effective both deep in the midfield and also prolific in the attacking third. His comrades would comply with Cruyff’s incredible movement and accommodate accordingly. Whilst Cruyff was the magician, it was by no means a one man team. He was surrounded by other stars that carried out their own underestimated roles to allow their main man to be untouchable and for the team to prosper.

Managers’ usage of such icons as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, bares resemblance to the ‘total football of 1974’. Players of such extraordinary and valuable ability are given the license to glide around the football pitch, popping up wherever they can do most damage. Their teammates, also international superstars, are seen almost as mere mortals, present only to accommodate for their magicians uncontrollable and unpredictable nature.

As is the case with Messi and Ronaldo, Cruyff’s canny and crafty movement led many players to be drawn to him, attempting to man mark him out of the game. Whilst this was to Cruyff’s personal disadvantage, his knack of bringing a number of opposition players out of the game, gave opportunities to his fellow starlets to run wild with all the space which had been left behind. Whilst Cruyff did not always grab the headlines, his nous and clever movement meant that his team mates could also be successful.

It is clear that Michel’s legacy does live on in modern day football. Whilst no team has ever truly managed to completely mirror the engine of 1974, as Barcelona and Spain have shown in recent years, the allowance of manager’s to give power to their players and encourage flair and freedom to express oneself, has led to remarkable success. Their unique style of play has coined the term ‘tiki-taka’, with the emphasis on short, sharp intricate patterns of passing. Whilst not as fluid as ‘total football’, tiki-taka has reaped great reward for the Spanish as the long periods of ball retention, run their opposition into the ground as they seek to chase the game.

On Michels’ death in March 2005, tributes poured in. As seems appropriate, perhaps the most telling praise of all came from Johan Cruyff himself:

“There is no one I learnt more from than Rinus Michels. I often tried to imitate him, and that’s the greatest compliment one could give”.

Michels was the well-respected orchestrator who gave his musicians creative freedom to mutually achieve their goals, whilst producing a beautiful symphony.

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