What is Total Football? Famous tactics explained: the clubs, countries & players to use it
Posted On March 22, 2019
Iconic footballer Johan Cruyff made the philosophy famous during his playing career, and propelled Dutch football from obscurity to global stardom
Ahead of England’s UEFA Nations League semi-final clash with the Netherlands next summer, Goal takes a look at Total Football, the tactical philosophy made famous by the Dutch team in the early 1970s, as well as other clubs, teams, players and managers who were the main proponents of the ideology.
Total Football is a tactical playing theory in football where any outfield player adopts the role of any other player in the team.
It creates for a fluid tactical system in which no outfield player is fixed in their set role – as any player can switch to playing as an attacker, midfielder or defender, with the only player retaining their position for the entirety of the match being the goalkeeper.
In Total Football, a player is switched out of their position and instantly replaced by another from their team, which solidifies the team’s organisational structure.
It promotes the ideology that “no one part is bigger than the sum of the team” – and is typically played in a fast-paced fashion so as to outsmart the opposition team.
Total Football was made famous by the Netherlands national team in the run-up of reaching the final of the 1974 World Cup, which they eventually lost to West Germany.
The success of Total Football philosophy is, however, almost completely dependent on the fluidity and ability of each footballer within the team, as well as their ability to switch positions quickly and accordingly based on the on-pitch events.
The philosophy requires players to be comfortable with playing in more than one position (and not just their traditional set-in-stone position as is usually so common), therefore needing players involved to be highly skilled, versatile and adaptable.
The initial foundations for the footballing philosophy of Total Football were cemented by Jack Reynolds, who managed Eredivisie side Ajax during multiple spells in the early 1900s.
The Netherlands team that reached the final of the 1974 World Cup made Total Football known on a wider global scale, but it was implemented famously by Ajax during the early 1970s and led the side to experience their most successful periods in their club history.
Ajax played the most fluid football after deploying Total Football, and completed a perfect home record (46 wins, 0 losses and draws) for two consecutive seasons (1971-72 and 1972-73).
They suffered just one defeat in the whole of the 1971-72 Eredivisie season, and celebrated four titles in 1972 – winning two league titles, the KNVB Cup, the European Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.
Ajax, alongside Real Madrid, were clubs who adopted Total Football in Europe early on, though the philosophy was also used in other countries and leagues – such as the Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s, Argentina side ‘La Maquina’ of River Plate in the 1940s, and English side Burnley in the 1950s as well as Brazilian side Santos in the 1960s.
Under manager Harry Potts, Burnley had adopted the Total Football system in English football where “every player could play in every position” which led them to win the 1959-60 Englsh league title.
In Argentina, River Plate forged an excellent team that were dubbed ‘La Maquina’ (The Machine) who were led by Carlos Munoz, Jose Manuel Moreno, Adolofo pedernera and Angel Labruno – who had perfected the idea of the ‘false nine’ playing style and a frequent change of attacking positions and formations.
For their efforts, La Maquina won several Argentine and international accolades and inspired Hungary’s Golden Team of the 1952 Summer Olympics (pictured) – who then went on to lose the 1954 World Cup final to West Germany in a narrow 3-2 scoreline.
Johan Cruyff is the player who is the most synonymous with the philosophy of Total Football, having excelled in his role as a forward for Ajax under manager Rinus Michels in the mid-1960s.
Cruyff was one of the most lauded players in his time and is still revered today – known for his iconic ‘Cruyff Turn’, a trademark feint of his that has been widely replicated in the modern game.
As a player for Ajax, Cruyff’s exponent of Total Football led Dutch football to rise from relative obscurity into a European and international powerhouse, and became a highly successful manager of both Ajax and Barcelona following the end of his playing career.
Though Cruyff was initially fileded as a centre-forward, his manager allowed him to be deployed freely around the pitch and was not set in one permanent position – and he used his technical skill and intelligence in reading the state of play to take advantage of the other team’s opposition and use space to create chances.
Cruyff’s teammates then adapted their own play to suit him accordingly, and switched positions between themselves to make sure that tactical roles were always filled. Cruyff was viewed as the on-pitch ‘conductor’ of Total Football, with space and creation create plays integral to the philosophy.
Using Total Football, Cruyff and Michels enjoyed substantial success, winning eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups and one Intercontinental Cup.
The prominence of Total Football in Dutch football was also thought to be related to the “death of Catenaccio”, an old system used by Italian teams that were heavily reliant on defense (and used frequently by Inter in the early 1960s).
Total Football was prone to errors and wasn’t always successful, however, as seen by their defeat in the 1974 World Cup final. West Germany succeeded in their vigilant man-marking through Berti Vogts that stifled the Netherlands’ intents on playmaking, which allowed the eventual winners to establish their dominance in the midfield.
In later years, Cruyff implemented the philosophy of Total Football during his time as Barcelona manager in 1988 to 1996, though it evolved into a new playing style titled ‘Juego de Posicion’ which was also based off of the same theory.
In their song ‘Total Football’ from their album released this year, New York-based post-punk band Parquet Courts delivers a socialist message that combines themes from actual football as well as reactions stemmed from the current political climate in the United states.
In ‘Total Football’, Parquet Courts call for all members of society to fight against oppressive figures and threatening cults of personality through promoting team-oriented football strategies that emphasise teamwork over individual play: “Swapping parts and roles is not acting but rather emancipation from expectation”.
In the song, lyricist A. Savage encourages the likes of artists, poets, rebels, teachers, blue-collar workers and more to work together – finding fault with the seemingly cultural aversion to collective action, and the complacency of society members borne out of ‘rugged individualism’.
He asks: “Are you put off by our footlose fluidity?” which is a direct reference to Total Football used within sport, but also as a challenge directed those in higher divisions of power.
Savage mentions ‘strikers’ and ‘sweepers’ in his lyrics, referring to workers on strikers as well as street sweepers – which recall imagery from the labour movement.
In short, the idea of ‘Total Football’ is the ability for teams to have all players be fluid in their roles – is more than just a tactic in sport, but, when considered from a societal context, allows individuals to work outside of what others expect them to do in their given role in society, which grants them more versatility and liberation.