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A game changer - Total football

“Football is simple. But nothing is more difficult than playing simple football.” – Johan Cruyff.

Football. 1974 World Cup Finals. Holland team group: l-r, Cruyff, Jongbloed, Haan, Keizer, Rijsbergen, Rep, Suurbier, Jansen, Hanegem, Krol, Neeskens.

The Holland side before the 1974 World Cup Final

It has always been known that football is a game played as much on the field as in the mind. You can only play football when you think about it, some of it may come naturally but then again you need to understand and learn the game. As more and more people thought about it, many philosophies developed. Be it possession football, counter attacking football, tiki-taka or the Catenaccio, each of these ideas we take for granted today developed over a long period of time. The most famous and successful philosophies of all times though is ‘Total Football’.

Propounded by Jack Reynolds when manager of Ajax, and developed by Rinus Michels who played under him, this was the most revolutionary idea to hit football at the time. It was further developed by Stefan Kovacs who coached Ajax after Michels had left. In this style of football no single position other than the keeper’s is fixed. All positions are nominal, an attacker may defend while a defender can control the midfield; there are no boundaries as to the role of a player, the only thing to be kept in mind is that the team retains its shape. Shape in this philosophy is the main objective.

Its most famous exponent was the legendary Johan Cruyff. He was fielded as a centre forward but one often found him launching attacks from the base of midfield or even hanging back as a centre back if the team was on a quick counter attack. This willingness and tactical flexibility necessitated similar commitment from his team and it reaped dividends. He not only perfected the system into his game as a player, he probably embellished it into European football forever during his time as the coach of Barcelona.

“It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch” – Barry Hulshoff, Ajax defender.

The moment when people began to take the system seriously was when the Ajax team in 1972 defeated Inter and its Catenaccio. Beautiful football had won. Its iconic moment though came when in the 1974 final against West Germany. The Dutch passed the ball around 13 times after Cryuff had kicked off and then his brilliant run was picked up by a delicious through ball. Brought down by Uli Hoeneb, Cryuff converted his penalty and the Dutch were up within 80 seconds after an elaborate passing move during which the Germans could not even touch the ball. What ensued was the most one sided half in a World Cup final. Cruyff and the Oranje ran rings around the Germans. Though Germany came back in the second half and won 2-1, the match remains one of the best finals of all time. If only for the sheer quality of the football on display.

Total football though requires highly fit players, both physically and mentally. But then every system of football has its own requirements. But it is a widely accepted fact that once a person becomes an expert at total football, he becomes a total footballer.

Space and insight of the game are two key components of total football. Without insight, space cannot be created or used and without creation of space, insight is useless. Indeed the whole rotational tactic of total football is based on the creation of space. Insight comes in after the space is created. It is pretty obvious that a player with better insight makes better use of space available. Indeed, today we see Messi doing it.

Cruyff has had a pivotal role in the shaping of Catalan philosophy. The base to today’s tiki-taka had been laid down at his time. Guardiola, who played under Cruyff mixed the philosophy of total football with a high pressing possession game. The result can be seen in the form of the footballing juggernaut in Catalunya. Other teams who derive from this philosophy are Athletic Bilbao is Spain, Fiorentina in Italy and Swansea showed us that you need not have players with sky-high rates to play football the right way. All it requires is a coach who understands the system (Rodgers and Laudrup), and players who are intelligent and fit.

No single philosophy is good or bad, all have pros and cons. It comes down to those who understand it and implement it. Be it the counter attack under Mourinho, total football with Cruyff and Michels or Tiki Taka with Guardiola. Together they make football the game it is. But total football would always retain its place in a true fan’s heart.

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