An often used phrase nowadays is the term total football, usually associated with Barcelona and more recently Bayern Munich but where does its origins lay?

  • By Mark Neale
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cruyffThe pioneers of this footballing vision was the Ajax team of the early 1970’s. Its vision was that every outfield player could play in every position thus leading to a rotating team, but still hold its tactical structure. This system was also used by the Dutch national team in the 1974 world cup finals to great effect only stumbling at the final hurdle. Its creator was Dutch coach Rinus Michels, coach of both Ajax and the Dutch national side. His influence was consider so great he was named as coach of the century by FIFA ┬áin 1999.

A misguided concept of total football is that every outfield player can wander freely round the pitch, with great creative freedom that could take them anywhere at any point. As with every tactical system in football there are 2 phases consisting of offensive play and defensive play.

In the offensive side of total football the rotation of players didn’t mean a lack of structure in the side, it allowed defenders and midfielders to participate in the construction of attacks but not to the detriment of a solid defensive shape. For example if a left-back made a move up the pitch his space and position wasn’t left vacant it just meant the left winger or forward would rotate into that position. This happened on both flanks and through the middle but like i said not to the negative of the team shape. The rotation was only temporary, when able the left-back resumed his position and so followed whoever had filled that vacated spot.

In the defensive side of the game, a feature of the modern Barcelona and Bayern sides under Pep Guardiola was also the view of Michels and his total football vision, lose the ball then press the opposition until you have recovered it. Hunting in pairs or more they pressed the opposition into their own half. The defence also pushed high in order to play offside thus eradicating the threat of a long ball over the top to escape the pressing and create a quick counter attack.

This system made Ajax almost invincible, undefeated at home for 2 seasons in from 1971-73 with all 46 games won. Just a solitary defeat in the 1971-72 season, champions of europe for 3 consecutive years, 1971,72 and 73, intercontinental cup winners in 1972, 3 league titles from 4 seasons from 1969 to 1973 and 3 Dutch cup victories in the same period of time.

The myth associated with total football is the fact that very talented players strolled around the pitch in a care free manner, this could not be further from the truth. Very talented players played in a very precise, well prepared way in order to defeat almost every domestic and continental side who had the unenviable task to try and defeat one of if not the best club side in football history.

Mark Neale (32 Posts)