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Total Football, Total Attack

Updated on July 14, 2014

In the 1972 European Cup final, a scintillating Ajax Amsterdam team – coached by Rinus Michels and featuring the great Johan Cruyff among their ranks - crushed the Catenaccio of Inter Milan. Their victory signaled the arrival of a new football powerhouse.

It was the second of three consecutive European Cup triumphs for Ajax Amsterdam, playing a style of football that would later light up the international stage as it propelled the Dutch national side to two World Cup finals in a row (1974 and 1978); though they would lose out to the host nation on both occasions.

Dubbed “Totaalvoetbal” by the Dutch media, it was a system in which dynamic players like Johan Cruyff could truly flourish, allowing them the freedom to shine both as individuals and as a collective. The cohesion between the players - and the strong emphasis on attack - allowed for a wealth of entertaining possession play, and no shortage of goals. Ajax Amsterdam's victory over defensive, dour Inter was seen as a victory for attractive, attacking football as a whole.

What is Total Football?

The 4-3-3 formation employed by the Dutch "Total Football" side
The 4-3-3 formation employed by the Dutch "Total Football" side | Source

The two fundamentals of Total Football were control of possession and control of space.

Keeping possession of the ball was seen as the best form of defense. “If you play on possession, you don't have to defend, because there's only one ball” explained Johan Cruyff; and this philosophy was reflected not only in the skill with which the Dutch players passed the ball among themselves, but also in the way they defended when the opposition had possession.

Whereas the likes of Inter Milan would drop back and form an impenetrable wall in front of their own goal, the Ajax Amsterdam players prioritized winning back possession as quickly as possible. They would pressure the opposition players, pursuing the ball like a pack of hungry wolves.

Controlling space on the pitch was key. When the opposition had the ball, the Ajax players looked to close them down and limit the space they had to play in. When Ajax had the ball, their players roamed the pitch looking for pockets of space to exploit, rather than sticking to their assigned positions.

Johan Cruyff: Star of Holland's 1974 World Cup side
Johan Cruyff: Star of Holland's 1974 World Cup side | Source

Cruyff epitomized this free-flowing structure. A centre-forward in theory; in practice he would move around the pitch, adopting whichever positions enabled him to be most effective as the game progressed. This positional interchange was a defining element of Total Football. Every player on the Ajax team, bar the goalkeeper, could both attack and defend. This gave them freedom to move around and swap responsibilities.

If Cruyff left the centre-forward position, a teammate could move up from the midfield to take his place, while a defender then moved into the midfield to fill that vacancy. The opposition, trying desperately to keep track of danger men like Cruyff, would find them attacking from all angles.

Goals Galore: Cruyff scores during Ajax Amsterdam's 7-1 defeat of FC Utrecht in the Dutch League, 1970-71 season
Goals Galore: Cruyff scores during Ajax Amsterdam's 7-1 defeat of FC Utrecht in the Dutch League, 1970-71 season | Source

The Legacy of Total Football

Rinus Michels: The mastermind behind Total Football
Rinus Michels: The mastermind behind Total Football | Source

After guiding Ajax Amsterdam to the pinnacle of European football, Rinus Michels spent a brief spell at Barcelona, bringing Johan Cruyff to the club and winning the Spanish league. In 1974, he was appointed manager of the Dutch national side, and together with Cruyff brought Total Football to the world stage.

The Netherlands scored 14 goals in six matches at the 1974 World Cup, crushing Argentina and Brazil on their way to the final. But though they had won the hearts of football fans with their style of play, host nation West Germany would claim the trophy.

Netherlands National Football Side, 1974
Netherlands National Football Side, 1974 | Source

They would lose out again in the 1978 final to host nation Argentina. But in 1988 they would finally have success on the international stage, as Rinus Michels returned to lead them to glory at the European Championships.

Meanwhile, his protégé Johan Cruyff became manager of Barcelona and implemented a style of football based on philosophies inherited from Michels. They would go on to win 11 trophies, including four consecutive La Liga titles and a European Cup.

Furthermore, Cruyff would lay the foundations for Barcelona's future success. 10 years earlier, while still a player at the club, he had played a role in establishing La Masia – Barcelona's famous youth academy, which was modelled on the academy at Ajax Amsterdam. Its first graduates, including a certain Pep Guardiola, would make their debut during Cruyff's managerial reign. In recent times, it has produced the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Messi.

Both Barcelona and the Spanish national side play a style of football derived from that pioneered by Rinus Michels during his time at Ajax; and influential coaches such as Josep Guardolia and Louis Van Gaal are students of his philosophy. It came as no surprise to the football world when, in 1999, Rinus Michels was named coach of the century by FIFA; a testament to his immense contribution to the sport


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