Total Football (Dutch: totaalvoetbal) is the label given to an influential tactical theory of football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. It was pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax from 1965 to 1973, and further used by the Netherlands National Football Team in the 1974 FIFA World Cup. It was invented by Rinus Michels, who was the coach of both Ajax and the Netherlands national team at the time.
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 nominal role; anyone can successively play an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player fixed in a nominal 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 places high technical and physical demands on them.
During this era Ajax played some of their finest football ever, achieving home wins (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. An early form of Total Football was also developed by the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s, the Magical Magyars, who were managed by Gusztáv Sebes and were especially inspired by the experienced coaching of Jimmy Hogan.
Rinus Michels, who played under Reynolds, became manager of Ajax himself in 1965 and refined the concept into what is known today as “Total Football” (Totaalvoetbal in Dutch), using it in his training for the Ajax squad and the Netherlands national team in the 1970s. It was further refined by new Ajax manager Stefan Kovacs, after Michels left Ajax for Barcelona in 1971. Dutch forward Johan Cruyff was the system’s most famous exponent.
Although Cruyff was fielded as centre forward, he wandered all over the pitch, popping up wherever he could do most damage to the opposing team. This resulted in a need for a dynamic system like Total Football. Cruyff’s teammates adapted themselves flexibly around his movements, regularly switching positions so that the tactical roles in the team were always filled.
Space and the creation of it were central to the concept of Total Football. Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff explained how the team that won the European Cup in 1971, 1972, and 1973 worked it to their advantage: “We discussed space the whole time. Johan Cruyff always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move.”
The constant switching of positions that became known as Total Football only came about because of this spatial awareness. “It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch,” said Hulshoff. The system developed organically and collaboratively: it was not down to coach Rinus Michels, his successor Stefan Kovacs or Cruyff alone. Cruyff summed up his (Total Football) philosophy: “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.”
The 1972 European Cup final proved to be Total Football’s finest hour. After Ajax’s 2–0 victory over Internazionale, newspapers around Europe reported the “death of Catenaccio.” The Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad declared: “The Inter system undermined. Defensive football is destroyed.”
Michels was appointed for the 1974 FIFA World Cup campaign by the KNVB. Most of the 1974 team were made up of players from Ajax and Feyenoord. However, Rob Rensenbrink was an outsider, having played for clubs in neighboring Belgium, and was unfamiliar with Total Football, although he was selected and adapted well. During the tournament, the Netherlands coasted through their first and second round matches, defeating Argentina (4–0), East Germany (2–0) and Brazil (2–0) to set up a meeting with hosts West Germany.
In the 1974 final, Cruyff kicked off and the ball was passed around Oranje thirteen times before returning to Cruyff, who then went on a rush that eluded Berti Vogts and ended when he was fouled by Uli Hoeneß. The referee awarded the penalty and teammate Johan Neeskens scored from the spot kick to give the Netherlands a 1–0 lead with 80 seconds of play elapsed, and the Germans not even touching the ball. Cruyff’s playmaking influence was stifled in the second half of the match by the effective marking of Berti Vogts, while Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, and Wolfgang Overath dominated midfield, enabling West Germany to win 2–1.
The ill-fated Austrian “Wunderteam” of the 1930s is also credited in some circles as being the first national team to play Total Football. It is no coincidence that Ernst Happel, a talented Austrian player in the 1940s and 1950s, was coach in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He introduced a tougher style of play at ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord. Happel managed the Netherlands national team in the 1978 World Cup, where they again finished as runners-up. Hungary also had a big role in laying down the tactical fundaments of Total Football in the 1950s, dominating international football with the remarkable Golden Team which included legends like captain Ferenc Puskás.
The term Total Football is often misused to describe any attacking football. In its purest form, Total Football is proactive, not counter-attacking, based on positional interchange and hard pressing. FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team play a style of football known as “tiki-taka” that has roots in the philosophy of Total Football’s greatest icon Johan Cruyff, who was manager of Barcelona from 1988 to 1996.