Total Football

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Total Football (Dutch: totaalvoetbal) is a tactical system in association football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. Although Dutch club Ajax and the Netherlands national football team are generally credited with creating this system during the 1970s, there were other sides who had played a similar style before, such as the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, the Argentine side "La Maquina" of River Plate in the 1940s, the Golden Team of Hungary in the 1950s, English team Burnley in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Brazilian side Santos in the 1960s.

In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team's intended organisational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role; anyone can successively play as an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player who must stay in a specified position is the goalkeeper.

Total Football's tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it requires intelligent and technically diverse players.

During the 1970s, Ajax played some of their finest football ever, achieving a perfect home record (46–0–0) for two full seasons (1971–72 and 1972–73), just one defeat in the whole of the 1971–72 season, and celebrating four titles in 1972 (the Netherlands national league, KNVB Cup, European Cup and Intercontinental Cup).


Early developments and origins[edit]

The Golden Team (Mighty Magyars) in 1953

The first foundations for Total Football were laid by continental pioneer Jimmy Hogan, a Burnley native.[1] Working with Austrian coach and his friend Hugo Meisl in the early 1930s, Meisl's Austrian national team (known as the "Wunderteam") became possibly the first side to play Total Football.[2] Hogan's influence reached beyond the Austrian borders, as two decades later the Hungarian national team (also known as the "Golden Team") played a similar style of football under coach Gusztáv Sebes.[1][3] The then president of the Hungarian Football Association, Sandor Barcs, said: "Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football".[1]

Another team who played a similar style as the Austrians, were Torino ("Grande Torino" as the team was called) in the 1940s.[4] Between 1941 and 1947, Argentinian club River Plate formed a remarkable team, known as "La Máquina" (The Machine),[5] whose famous front formed by Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Ángel Labruna and Félix Loustau perfected the "false nine" style[6][7] and the constant change of attack positions. "La Máquina" won several Argentine and international titles.

Also in the 1940s, English manager Jack Reynolds, implemented a Total Football style while at Dutch club Ajax.[8] In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Burnley were playing a renewed system in English football "where every player could play in every position" under manager Harry Potts.[9] This Total Football system led the club to the 1959–60 First Division title and won many plaudits, including admiration from all-time English First Division top scorer Jimmy Greaves.[10] Another pioneer was Vic Buckingham, manager of West Bromwich Albion, Ajax and Barcelona in the 1950s and 1960s, as his philosophy was later further developed by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, a player who was introduced into the Ajax first team by Buckingham.[11]

Totaalvoetbal schools of Gloria Ajax and The Clockwork Orange (1960s–1970s)[edit]

Johan Cruyff playing with Ajax in 1971
Three of the most notable figures of the Dutch Totaalvoetbal school: Johan Neeskens, Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff

Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don't run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.

— Johan Cruyff[12]

I loved the Dutch in the '70s, they excited me and Cruyff was the best. He was my childhood hero; I had a poster of him on my bedroom wall. He was a creator. He was at the heart of a revolution with his football. Ajax changed football and he was the leader of it all. If he wanted he could be the best player in any position on the pitch.

— Eric Cantona, FourFourTwo, April 2006[13]

An on-field manager: the Dutch team was largely his [Cruyff's] creation. It was Cruyff, the captain, who told midfielder Arie Haan that he would play as libero. (“Are you crazy?” Haan replied. It proved to be a brilliant idea.) It was Cruyff who had groomed striker Johnny Rep as a youngster at Ajax, sometimes screaming at the bench during games, “Rep must warm up!” It wasn't Cruyff's best month in football, but it was the month that most people saw him and the style he had invented. For many, the Cruyff they know is the Cruyff of his only World Cup. He notionally spent the tournament at centre-forward, but he was everywhere. He'd sprint down the left wing and cross with the outside of his right foot. He'd drop into midfield and leave centre-backs marking air. He'd drop back just to scream instructions. Arsene Wenger tells the story of Cruyff telling two midfielders to swap positions, and returning 15 minutes later to tell them to swap again. To Wenger, this showed how hard it was to replicate the fluidity of “total football” if you didn't have Cruyff himself.

— Simon Kuper, FourFourTwo, July 2009[14]

Rinus Michels, who played under Reynolds, later became manager of Ajax in 1965. Michels reworked the theory, with his introduction of forward Johan Cruyff, perhaps the system's most famous exponent.[15] Although Cruyff was fielded as centre forward, Michels encouraged Cruyff to roam freely around the pitch, using technical ability and intelligence to exploit the weaknesses in the opposition and create chances. Cruyff's teammates also worked to adapt themselves accordingly, regularly switching positions to ensure tactical roles in the team were consistently filled.[16] Austrian coach Ernst Happel reworked the theory to introduce strength, encouraging his players to play tougher during his spells at ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord. Happel also managed the Netherlands national team to a runner-up finish in the 1978 FIFA World Cup.

The major component was the use of space, with the need to consistently create space central to the concept of Total Football. Former Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff described it as "[the thing] we discussed the whole time. Cruyff always talked about where to run and where to stand, and when not to move".[17] He further elaborated that position switching was only made possible due to apt spatial awareness.[18] He also described Total Football being proactive, as well as highlighting the use of pressing, which would be used to win back the ball or put the opposition under considerable pressure.[19] Michels and Cruyff saw unprecedented success with the system, winning eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, and one Intercontinental Cup.[20] The stark rise of Total Football and its attacking prowess was also linked with the "death of Catenaccio", an Italian system reliant heavily on defence promoted by Internazionale during the 1960s.[21] The Total Football system was prone to defeat, experienced notably in the final of the 1974 FIFA World Cup contested by the Dutch and West Germany.[22] Michels and Cruyff saw their ability to introduce playmaking stifled in the second half of the match by the effective marking of Berti Vogts. This allowed Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, and Wolfgang Overath to gain a stronghold in midfield, thus, enabling West Germany to win 2–1.[23]

Brazilian football manager and former player Telê Santana mentioned in one interview, "My greatest satisfaction would be to manage a team such as 1974 Holland. It was a team where you could pick [Johan] Cruyff and place him on the right wing. If I had to put him in the left-wing, he would still play [the same]. I could choose Neeskens, who played both to the right and to the left of the midfield. Thus, everyone played in any position."[24]

In an interview published in the 50th anniversary issue of World Soccer magazine, the captain of the Brazilian team that won the 1970 World Cup, Carlos Alberto, went on to say, "The only team I've seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me.... Their 'carousel' style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game."[25]

Modern era[edit]

FC Barcelona (particularly under manager Josep Guardiola) and the Spanish national team of the late 2000s and early 2010s developed a play style called Juego de Posición (also known as Tiki-taka), on the theory of Total Football, and the managerial philosophy of former Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "How total football inventor was lost to Hungary". The Guardian. 22 November 2003. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  2. ^ Gordos, Phil (16 June 2008). "When Austria were good at football". BBC Sport. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  3. ^ Bevan, Chris (24 November 2013). "Jimmy Hogan: The Englishman who inspired the Magical Magyars". BBC Sport. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  4. ^ Whelan, Padraig (4 May 2015). "Great Calcio Sides: Il Grande Torino". Forza Italian Football. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  5. ^ "What if River Plate's La Máquina, Il Grande Torino had played one another?".
  6. ^ Wilson, Jonathan (27 October 2009). "The Question: Why are teams so tentative about false nines? - Jonathan Wilson". The Guardian.
  7. ^ "Pedernera, the twinkle-toed engine driver". 12 May 2015.
  8. ^ Shetty, Sanjeev (2018). Total Football - A graphic history of the world's most iconic soccer tactics. London: Aurum Press. p. 64. ISBN 9781781318225.
  9. ^ Quelch, Tim (2015). Never Had it So Good: Burnley's Incredible 1959/60 League Title Triumph. Durrington: Pitch Publishing. pp. 200–201. ISBN 9781909626546.
  10. ^ Quelch (2015), p. 11
  11. ^ Townsend, Jon (28 January 2016). "Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion". These Football Times. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  12. ^ Winner, David (2001). Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football. (Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-0747553106)
  13. ^ " Eric Cantona: Perfect XI (1 April 2006)"". Retrieved 1 July 2016
  14. ^ Kuper, Simon (24 March 2016). "Johan Cruyff: The player, the coach, the legacy. [Originally appeared in the July 2009 issue]". FourFourTwo. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
  15. ^ "Classic Coach: Rinus Michels". Classic Football. Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  16. ^ 'FIFA Classic Player: The Netherlands' Grand Master. Retrieved 14 July 2014
  17. ^ "Johan Cruyff: The Total Footballer". Sport Academy. British Broadcasting Corporation. 10 December 2003. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  18. ^ "Ground Breaking Team: Ajax 1973". Football Culture. The British Council in Japan. Archived from the original on 17 December 2007. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  19. ^ Wilson, Jonathan (11 July 2010). "World Cup 2010: Dutch were pioneers of Total Football, but after exporting it to Spain must now stop opponents at their own game". The Scotsman. Retrieved 24 July 2010.
  20. ^ "We are the champions". 11 December 2005. Retrieved 24 March 2016.
  21. ^ "Season 1971-72". European Cup History. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  22. ^ "1974 FIFA World Cup Germany: Dutch take plaudits but Germany take the prize". Previous FIFA World Cups. Fédération Internationale de Football Association. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  23. ^ "World Cup Final, 1974: West Germany vs. The Netherlands". The Making of a World Cup Legend. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 13 June 2008.
  24. ^ "Memória Roda Viva (video clip and full written interview to TV Cultura)" (in Portuguese). Fapesp. 22 June 1992. Retrieved 21 June 2010.
  25. ^ "Tactics: Were Holland 1974 the last true innovators?". Football Further. 14 July 2010. Archived from the original on 20 October 2010. Retrieved 18 October 2010.
  26. ^ Martínez, Roberto (11 July 2010). "World Cup final: Johan Cruyff sowed seeds for revolution in Spain's fortunes". Archived from the original on 13 July 2010. Retrieved 13 July 2010.