The exploitation (and limitation) of space is a very Dutch inclination. In a country where habitable land is at a premium, half is below sea level, the literal creation of space for its people’s benefit preceded its conception in football theory. In fact the Dutch were mediocre on the pitch, bad even, before the 1960’s. The peak of the Ajax team of the 70’s however yielded unprecedented success by winning the Dutch Championship, the Dutch Cup, the Super Cup and, even more prestigiously, the European Cup for three consecutive seasons between 1971 and 1973. How? Totaalvoetbal.

The principle of Total Football is strictly to do with space: make the pitch seem as big as possible when in possession and as small as possible without. This involves the continuous spreading and recycling of play out wide, left to right, forward and backwards when attacking the opposition and an aggressive pressing game, resulting in the execution of the offside trap, when defending. Ajax were beguiling with their geometric patterns of play going forward yet highly aggressive and mobile when hunting the ball to regain possession.

Simple enough? Yet its inception and implementation cannot solely be attributed to Rinus Michels, Ajax coach 1965-1971, Johan Cruyff, or Stefan Kovacs, who was Ajax coach when they arguably played their best in 72’ and 73’. Undoubtedly Michels and Cruyff together created the tactical basis of Ajax’s style, from an overtly attacking 4-2-4 to an interchanging 4-3-3. The aim of their model was to ensure individual players firstly had the technical mastery to defend and attack and secondly the positional awareness and decision making to know when to do each. Johan Cruyff, architect of the team’s play, would drop into central midfield if Neeskens had pushed up, left back Ruud Krol would attack his flank leaving either Muhren or Keizer responsible for defensive duties. Even Hulshoff’s prerogative (their sweeper) was to join the midfield and create a 3-4-3 during attacking phases of play. It remains revolutionary. Krol elaborates:

“When we defended we looked to keep the opponent on the halfway line. Our standpoint was that we were not protecting our own goal, we were attacking the half way line.”

The fundamental ethos of the team was attack. Every aspect of the team’s movement was geared toward maximising an attack and, crucially, being efficient. There was no need for Krol or Hulshoff to sprint 60 yards toward goal to defend when a short 15 yard sprint, in the other direction, attacking the half way line would suffice. This level of aggression and application geared toward possession and attack grew organically from the team’s natural patterns of play:

“Pressing for Ajax stemmed largely from Johan Neeskens’s aggression,” writes Jonathan Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid, “…he pursued [the opposing playmaker] often deep into opposition territory. At first the other Ajax players hung back but by the early seventies they had become used to following him. That meant they were playing a very high defensive line, squeezing the space in which the opposition had to play.”

Michels himself admits to not having a blueprint for the way football should be played when he arrived to coach Ajax. His aim was not to implement an overarching ideology but simply to identify tactical mistakes that had led to the team, at that point, battling relegation. “In starting you have no exact idea about the aims after which you are going to strive,” yet in incremental piecemeal gains the team’s development accelerated. The change from 4-2-4 to 4-3-3 was not a premeditated step in their tactical evolution, it was a reaction to being overrun in central midfield against several teams (most notably Feyenoord, who themselves employed a 4-3-3). Likewise the team’s aggressive pressing was not a foresight Michels had made but a collective progression that the team, as a group of intelligent players who had been together for a long time, made. The process took several years (a couple of decades if we’re honest) but by the early seventies the system, totaalvoetbal, had undergone constant shaping and reshaping until the individuals within the team weren’t so much implementing a tactical system as much as they were playing instinctive, habit-football:

“People couldn’t see that sometimes we just did things automatically. It comes from playing a long time together. Football is best when it’s instinctive. This way of playing, we grew into it. Total Football means that a player in attack can play in defence – only that he can do this, that is all. You make space, you come into space. And if the ball doesn’t come into you, you leave this space and another play will come into it.” –Hulshoff

I was criticised in a previous article (see here) for dryly rendering a player’s position on the pitch as strictly part of a system. My intention was not to reduce the flux and dynamism of football into a bleak tactical analysis. It was rather to broadly highlight the role of an individual within a system and how that system can either enhance or detract from his talents. Take the principles of Total Football for example; we can retrospectively strip it into the need for attackers to defend and vice versa, or rather for this ability in each player to be identifiable. Though its inception was not premeditated, this does not detract from its rigid requirements (technical brilliance, positional awareness, supreme fitness, and an individual sense of responsibility). Paradoxically, this rigid blueprint begets a fluid, cohesive, interchanging style of football we had not seen before (nor since). Simply stating that a player’s talents – their strengths and weaknesses – dictate their position is as reductive as saying Ajax achieved what they did only because of the individuals on the pitch.

The truth is far more convoluted, both overtly and subtly dependent on a multitude of circumstances, and lies in the Dutch condition of the time; socially, and politically. Dutch architects spoke of the need for understanding individuals and systems as inextricably linked. Literature of the era – Barthes, Levi-Strauss, and Lacan – proposed semiotic theory, anthropological theory, and psychoanalytic theory respectively. The Dutch zeitgeist of the time imbibes the Ajax team with very relevant theoretical analyses; the value of any one player, his individual significance and meaning, was derived from his relationship with the others. Hubert Smeets, a journalist, observed:

“The Dutch are at their best when they can combine the system with individual creativity. Johan Cruyff is the main representative of that. He made this country after the war. I think he was the only one who understood the sixties.”

If you enjoyed this, you can follow me on Twitter

Sources:

Brilliant Orange, David Winner

Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson

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  • The Ballad of GS
    4 years ago

    I’m going for Netherlands at the World Cup. Purely because of this article.

    Beautiful.

    Reply
  • Daylight Robbery
    4 years ago

    As a follower of Dutch football for many years, this was very interesting. Stumbled across these quotes from Cruyff which are very apt in the context of the article – the latter two are my favourites:

    “When you see a player sprinting, he left too late.”

    “It’s better to lose with your own vision than win with someone else’s.”

    “Italians can’t defeat you but you can lose to them.”

    “Football is simple, but the hardest thing there is, is to play simple football.”

    Reply
  • Teshale Barca
    4 years ago

    while reading this article i was thinking the influence johan cruyff on barcelona.
    I wish if cruyff become a coach again to give us another rijkaard and guardiola.
    Long live for the source for dutch barcelona is playing a beautiful football on top because of them.

    Reply