Total football (Dutch: totaalvoetbal) is a tactical theory in football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. It was made famous by the Netherlands national football team when reaching the final of the 1974 FIFA World Cup. Early exponents of Total Football were European sides Ajax and Barcelona, although the system saw trial in other parts of the world, notably with the Austrian Wunderteam in the 1930s, the Argentine side "La Maquina" of River Plate in the 1940s, the Golden Team of Hungary, and English side Burnley in the 1950s, or 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 very 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).
The foundations for Total Football were laid by Jack Reynolds, who was the manager of Ajax from 1915–1925, 1928–1940, and 1945–1947. Total Football also saw further development by Gusztáv Sebes, the coach of the Hungarian national football team during the 1950s, who drew heavy inspiration from Burnley native and continental pioneer Jimmy Hogan. In the same decade, Burnley F.C. were playing a renewed system in English football "where every player could play in every position" under manager Harry Potts. This system led Burnley to the 1959–60 English League title and won many plaudits, including admiration from all-time English First Division top scorer Jimmy Greaves. Another pioneer of Total Football was Vic Buckingham, manager of West Bromwich Albion, Ajax and Barcelona, his philosophy was a precursor to Total Football and was developed by Johan Cruyff, a player who was introduced into the Ajax first team by Buckingham.
Between 1941 and 1947 the Argentinian club River Plate formed a remarkable team, known as "La Máquina" (The Machine), whose famous front formed by Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Angel Labruna and Felix Loustau perfected the "false nine" style and the constant change of attack positions. "La Máquina" won several Argentine and international championships and can be catalogued as an immediate prototype of Hungary's Golden Team, who, guided by the "Mighty Magyars" Ferenc Puskas, Nandor Hidegkuti, Zoltan Czibor and Sandor Kocsis, won the gold medal at the 1952 Summer Olympics and lost the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final to West Germany by a score of 3-2.
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. 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. 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 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". He further elaborated that position switching was only made possible due to apt spatial awareness. 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.
Michels and Cruyff saw unprecedented success with the system, winning eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, and one Intercontinental Cup. The stark rise of Total Football and its attacking prowess was also linked with the "death of Catenaccio", an Italian system reliant heavily on defense promoted by Internazionale during the 1960s. The system was prone to defeat, experienced notably in the final of the 1974 FIFA World Cup contested by the Dutch and West Germany. 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.
FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team of the early 2010s devolved a play style called Juego de Posicion, based on the theory of Total Football, and the managerial philosophy of former Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff.
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- La Máquina
- Golden Team
- 2008–09 FC Barcelona season
- Football tactics and skills
- Formation (association football)
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