It’s probably fair to say that no style
of football has had as much influence on the modern game as Total Football. The style is most associated with the Ajax and Dutch national teams of the 1970s, and in fact got its name from
the 1974 Netherlands World Cup side. But it had its antecedents in the Austrian
national side of Matthias Sindelar in the 1930s and Puskas and co.’s Hungarians in the 1950s, and the lineage of Ajax’s way originated with two English coaches, Jack Reynolds , who managed
the club in three spells between 1915 and 1947, and Vic Buckingham, who managed them
twice between 1959 and 1965. Then came the pairing who really created the
style, Rinus Michels , who had played under Reynolds and replaced Buckingham in the dugout,
and Johan Cryuf , perhaps the most significant figure in European football ever
– it was then continued by Stefan Kovacs, under whom Ajax became the greatest club side in the world for a time.
Total Football has perhaps two key concepts: the utilisation of space, and the fluidity of positions. Both were aided by Michaels’s
fanatical work rate and discipline, with fitness a significant focus alongside skill work with the ball. Space is key – make the pitch
big when you are attacking and small when you are defending.
In order to make this work, Ajax also pressed. At times, they pressed almost manically –
there was less an emphasis on pressing into passing lanes than an efort, often led by
the wonderfully tenacious Johan Neeskens, to swamp
the opposition player in possession. In order to facilitate this, Ajax also played a very high defensive line, compressing space yet further. The formation most associated with Total Football
is the 4-3-3, becoming a 3-4-3 as the libero steps up into midfield, a feature that
persisted in Dutch football with players like Barry Hulshof , Horst Blankenburg and Danny Blind , and started largely at Ajax by the Serbian
Velibor Vasovic . This allowed the defence to begin attacking moves, but also ensured that there were spare markers for the opposition
centre-forwards and that Ajax could match a four-man midfield. As Jonathan Wilson notes, while other sides
had engaged in horizontal positional switches, such as wingers dropping inside, or mild vertical
ones, like Nandor Hidegkuti dropping of from the number 9 position and swapping with
an attacking midfielder, Ajax and the Dutch national side were the first to engage in
wholesale positional switches up and down each flank. In this way, the 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 saw players on either flank push up and drop of, fluidly interchanging to create baffling attacking
patterns. The team’s spine in the most successful
period of the early 1970s was Blankenburg, Neeskens, and Cryuf, with Heinz Stuy in goal.
The wide players, Wim Suurbier, Arie Haan who later became an accomplished sweeper, and Johnny Rep on the right, and Ruud Krol,
Gerrie Muhren, and Piet Keizer on the left, all swapped with each other knowing that this
spine would hold and cover, but Cruyf also dropped of and moved wide at will.
Pressing meant that, as long as players were pushed up and everyone could defend as well
as attack, the fluidity of the team did not compromise its defensive shape. Of course, the attacking system could be negated, as Berti
Vogts and West Germany showed in 1974, by aggressive man-marking and flooding the midfield,
but when Ajax were on song, it was nigh- on impossible to stop them.
The influences of Total Football show up in the coaching of Marcelo Bielsa and, via Michaels
and Cruyf’s spells at Barcelona, in the positional play of Pep Guardiola . Guardiola’s
positional play, which relies on vertical overloads, is only possible if players can change positions. And both Bielsa and Guardiola encourage their teams to control space, interchange, press,
and have encouraged players to play in roles they’re not used to, where their skills
as midfielders allow them to be attack-minded
defenders, for example. The legacy of Total Football is not just in the beauty of Ajax
and the Netherlands in the 1970s – it lives on in
some of the best football of today.