Total Football and its emergence as a countercultural movement

Total football,as employed by Michles and Lobanovskyi,is about space and how you control it.

Written by Sinhaar Rodrigues | Published on:July 6, 2013 2:06 pm

To ascertain the origins of total football to any one manager would be unjust. An idea,of a game that focused more on technique and ball control,first took shape in 1945 when an Englishman,Jack Reynolds,returned to coach Ajax and called for the immediate overhaul of the youth set-up. However,it wasn’t until the late 60’s and the mid 70’s that the idea,which surfaced as a movement,was later enforced as a philosophy in the socialist economies of the Netherlands and USSR.

Total football,as employed by Runben Michles (Ajax) and Valeriy Lobanovskyi (Dynamo Kiev),is essentially about space and how you control it – spread the game and use the width when in possession and close down the opposition thereby narrowing the field of play when dispossessed. The system (philosophy),which demanded peak levels of fitness and discipline and focused on ‘collective play’,was radical in the sense that it challenged the status quo in world football.

Until the early 60’s the Dutch had still not made the transition from the 2-3-5 formation,developed in the late 19th century,to the W-M phase,which had by then blanketed Europe. The Dutch were oblivious to the notion of rigid one-to-one marking and so when Michles arrived in Amsterdam to take over an Ajax side struggling for survival he decided that he “needed to change the team spirit…. change the team tactically.” The country was in the midst of its own cultural upheaval where the creative ‘white campaigns’ of Provos challenged structures and called for an end to pillarisation. Ajax came to be known for its attacking flair and in Johan Cryuff,Michels had with him the icon of the burgeoning Dutch youth movement and the leader of the team. The construction of the system however began in defence,with the signing of the experienced sweeper Velibor Vasović in 1966 to play alongside Hulshoff. The team started of with a 4-2-4 that later became a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3. The high defensive line not only worked effectively as it caught opponents offside but it would allow Vasović to step up into midfield to give his team the extra man to press and close down.

Figure 1: Total football of the Dutch 1974 World Cup Squad

To press over 90 minutes called for superior levels of fitness and sports nutrition,which sometime meant the use of performance enhancers. In an interview to the magazine Vrij Nederland in 1973,Hulshoff spoke of the match against Real Madrid six years earlier “We took the pills in combination with what we always called chocolate sprinkles,” he said. “What it was I don’t know,but you felt as strong as iron and suffered no breathlessness. One disadvantage was you lost all saliva,so after thirty-five minutes of the game I was retching.” Such was the level of discipline required to maintain this system that when Michles left in 1971 it crumbled three years later; albeit after a trio of European Cups. Kovacs free spirit gave way to ‘total freedom’ as players took to drinking and a culture of unprofessionalism engulfed the club.

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