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Total Football - The most successful football philosophy

As a football enthusiast and a die -hard FC Barcelona fan, I just couldn’t help but notice the eye-catching passing football that the men on the pitch display. And though it seems easy on the outside,it is an extremely draining form of football which demands tremendous physical as well as mental capacity. While a layman may only notice a bunch of players knocking the ball around and scoring goals, a keen observer would notice the way the players switch around on the pitch giving no chance for the opposition to man-mark a single player. You will never find Messi hanging about alone near the opposition’s penalty area waiting for someone to feed him a killer ball before he weaves his magic. He is always in the thick of things, picking up play in midfield by dropping deep and combining with midfielders and wingers before getting on with one of his mazy dribbles. Similarly, one may also notice the dynamic positional rotation between Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in the midfield which gives the oppositon absolutely no chance to read the game. It is the main reason why Barcelona scores so many goals and are currently the best lot in the world.

While I sat at home one day watching the Catalan magicians at work in an ordinary La Liga game, I was curious to know more about their history and the way they play. As I searched on the net, I found out that they are heavily influenced by the Dutch football system of the 70s.

Not many may know that Dutch club Ajax FC were so ridiculously dominant in the ealy 1970s that it is hard to imagine that they have already been knocked out in the round of 32 of the Europa League this season. Ajax won 3 consecutive European Cups in 1970,1971 and 1972 and used this unique footballing philosophy as their tool to success.  The Dutch national team employed the same philosophy in the 1974 World Cup and were runners up to fierce rivals Germany. 

Moving along, this style of play is known as Total Football which is a highly attacking form of football in which all players on the pitch are in constant movement on the pitch making it hard for the opposition to keep track of a particular player. Ball possesion is a key factor in such a form of play. However, just keeping the ball is not enough, positional rotation among the players is equally important. All players on the field, including the goalkeeper, participate in the build up of an attacking move and all players change positions in the process thus, confusing the opposition on exactly who is going to initiate the attack. A defender may shift to midfield,a midfielder to defence or forward and so on. The key is to keep the ball for long periods and win it back as quickly as possible in case the ball is lost out by one of the players. It also holds the concept of a ‘False 9′ or a roaming forward who has the freedom to move anywhere on the pitch in order to initiate attacks and break opposition defences. Pep Guardiola allotted Messi in the position of a ‘False 9′ and yielded scintillating results, as Messi has become the top goalscorer in the world for 3 consecutive seasons. Similarly Ajax and the Netherlands national team boasted of possessing a prolific roaming forward in Johann Cruyff who is spoken of in the same breath as Pele and Maradona. An ideal total football setup involves a 4-3-3 formation with two attacking fullbacks to add additional attacking threat on the wings.

The concept of total football was first visualized by Jack Reynolds,former Ajax manager and legend of the 1920s. He built an extremely attacking and dominant team in the 1920s which racked up consecutive Dutch league titles and made its mark in Dutch football history. The attacking football policy initiated by Reynolds was then given a form as his student,Rinus Michels, went on to further develop this type of football and transorm it into a  concrete concept. Meanwhile, the legendary World Cup winning Hungarian national side of 1955 under Real Madrid legend Ferenc Puskas also displayed similar highly attacking performances in the World Cup scoring a record 30 goals in the competition. Also Pele’s Brazilian national side which in considered the greatest in football history also were known for their ruthless yet beautiful attacking flair. However, the progress of the Brazilian juggernaut was brought to a grinding halt quite memorably by the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup losing 2-0 to the Dutch in comprehensive fashion.

The Netherlands football team was heavily studded with European Cup winning Ajax stars back then. Ajax FC began their destructive prowess in 1969 as Rinus Michels took over the managerial reign and brought instant success by winning consecutive Dutch league and European titles quite effortlessly. The greatest exhibition of Ajax’s Total Football was the 2-0 destruction of Inter Milan and the media went berserk pointing out towards the end of ‘Catenaccio’, a highly defensive football philosophy adopted by Inter Milan in stark contrast to the flamboyant Ajax philosophy. Back then Johann Cruyff became a household name in Europe and later moved on to FC Barcelona along with mentor Rinus Michels in the 1980s and completely transformed the footballing system of the Catalans. The rest as they say, is history as FC Barcelona embarked on a 25 year long journey in possesing a firm grip on European football today. The Spanish national side, much like the Dutch national side are inspired by their best domestic team’s philosophy and have gone on to win the Euro 2008 championship as well as the World Cup in 2010. I continue to be smitten by Barca’s total football…. however, one cannot forget the contribution of Cruyff and Michels in this. As I conclude my article I would like to share a clip of Netherlands of 1974 in action as a tribute to their contributon to football.

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