The Origins of Total Football

Total Football is a style of play where all 10 outfield players are comfortable in any position.

The Dutch used the system to great effect in the 1970s. The only player with a fixed position is the goalkeeper, with defenders, midfielders and strikers all free to interchange, taking advantage of space left by the opposition.

Johan Cruyff was one of its’ great practitioners on the field, with coach Rinus Michels the mastermind from the touchline.

Michels was in charge of Ajax between 1965 and 1971 and then the national team, who reached the World Cup final in 1974.

Jack Reynolds laid the foundations for Total Football when he was the manager of Ajax from 1915–1925, 1928–1940, and 1945–1947.

Michels played under Reynolds and it was he who refined the concept in training with Ajax, as he placed emphasis on clever movement, versatility and fitness.

Cruyff played under Michels for Ajax and the Netherlands, while the pair also worked together at Barcelona.

Ajax dominated the domestic scene in the second half of the 1960s and won their first European Cup in 1971, Michels’ final year at the club. The 2-0 win over Inter Milan was seen as a victory for Total Football over Catenaccio.

The system was all about creating space. Cruyff played in an advanced role, but would roam all over the pitch, meaning his teammates needed to be adept at switching positions.

Under Michels, the Netherlands breezed past the likes of Argentina, East Germany and Brazil at the 1974 World Cup before succumbing to West Germany, 2-1 in the final. They remain one of the greatest sides never to have won a World Cup. Cruyff was integral, with all 15 goals they scored in the finals either starting or ending with the captain.

The likes of Austria in the 1930s and Hungary in the 1950s are also credited with laying the foundations of Total Football. reported that Michels said later in his life: “It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defense, construction and attack – never forgetting the quality of the opposition and the specific pressures of each match.”.

Michels went on to win a Spanish league and cup with Barcelona and claimed the European Championships with the Netherlands in 1978, just reward for such an attacking philosophy.

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