“Football is simple. But nothing is more difficult than playing simple football.” – Johan Cruyff.
It has always been known that football is a game played as much on the field as in the mind. As more and more people thought about it, many philosophies developed, be it possession football, counter attacking football, tiki-taka or the Catenaccio. However, it is not so simple, though, as to say that the “correct” way of playing is the one that wins most often, as success is not measured merely in points and trophies; there must also be room for romance. That tension, between beauty and cynicism, between what Brazilians call futebol d’arte and futebol de resultados is a constant, perhaps because it is so fundamental not merely to sports but also to life: to win or to play the game well? It is hard to think of any significant actions that are not in some way a negotiation between the two extremes of pragmatism and idealism.
All these years, football managers around the world came up with their own vision and tactics. But is tactics the only thing that determines how a side plays? Absolutely not! It is rather one aspect among many - alongside ability, fitness, motivation, power and luck, in an immensely complex tapestry. A physically fit team must play in a different way from a tired team; a team that includes dilettantish players must set up in a way to cover those deficiencies.
One such vision, propounded by Jack Reynolds when manager of Ajax, and developed by Renus Michaels, who played under him, brought about a revolution in the playing style of football, popularly known as “Total Football”.
In theory it means that any player can take over the role of any other player in the team. A player can be an attacker, a midfielder and defender, there are no fixed positions, except for the goalkeeper. Though looked with suspicion in the beginning, Total Football proved its point with the highly successful Ajax and Dutch teams of 70’s.
But then every system of football has its own requirements. Total Football requires highly fit players, both physically and mentally. But it is widely accepted fact that once a person becomes an expert at Total Football, he becomes a Total Footballer.
Renus Michaels, who was the manager of Barcelona (1971-1975) introduced Total Football to the club as well as brought Johan Cruyff to Barcelona who had a pivotal role in the shaping of Catalan philosophy. Guardiola, who played under Cruyff mixed the philosophy of Total Football with a high pressing possession game which was fondly known as “tiki-taka”.
Though almost a carbon copy of Total Football, tiki-taka ‘s major notable difference is the focus more being on ball movement rather than quickly changing positions. It involves clever, intricate one touch passes, working the ball through various channels, creating small triangles leaving the opposition defenders baffled and always chasing the ball.
The games, as they saw it, was about space and how you controlled it: make the field big when you have the ball and it is easy to retain it; make it small when you do not and it becomes difficult for the opposition to keep it. A high pressing approach off the ball has been used by possession-hungry sides like Barcelona, Spain, Roma and recently Bayern Munich under Guardiola. This system relies on ball retention and all teammates being able to keep the ball and pass it around. However, the best part is how they work off the ball. As soon as they lose the ball, they start pressing at an incredible intensity to win the ball back.
But, of course, no tactic is perfect. The biggest problem in this system is tiredness. It takes a lot of running and energy to sustain this pressing for 90 minutes which is a problem for old and lazy legs. Players in such a system would need, above all, the watchfulness to look for openings to upset possession, the serenity to wait for those split second moments without becoming sidetracked or over-aggressive, and the audacity to take instantaneous advantage of any momentary failure. Exceptional enough qualities, but they can be taught, to players who lack profound knowledge of their teammates.
Total Football revolutionised the way of playing tactical football. But, one never can be sure, that someday, someone might come up with something even better, which surprises the world in ways they never imagined to be possible, and make Total Football a distant memory.