Total football (Dutch: totaalvoetbal) is a tactical theory in association football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. Early proponents of the theory were the Austrian Wunderteam of the 1930s, the Argentine side "La Maquina" of River Plate in the 1940s, the Golden Team of Hungary in the 1950s, English team Burnley in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Brazilian side Santos in the 1960s. It was made popular by Dutch club Ajax in the early 1970s and the Netherlands national football team at the 1974 FIFA World Cup.
In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team's intended organisational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role; anyone can successively play as an attacker, a midfielder and a defender. The only player who must stay in a specified position is the goalkeeper.
Total Football's tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it requires very intelligent and technically diverse players.
During the 1970s, Ajax played some of their finest football ever, achieving a perfect home record (46-0-0) for two full seasons (1971-72 and 1972-73), just one defeat in the whole of the 1971-72 season, and celebrating four titles in 1972 (the Netherlands national league, KNVB Cup, European Cup and Intercontinental Cup).
The first foundations for Total Football were laid by continental pioneer Jimmy Hogan, a Burnley native. Working with Austrian coach and his friend Hugo Meisl in the early 1930s, Meisl's Austrian national team (known as the "Wunderteam") became possibly the first side to play Total Football. Hogan's influence reached beyond the Austrian borders, as two decades later the Hungarian national team (also known as the "Golden Team") played a similar style of football under coach Gusztáv Sebes. The then president of the Hungarian Football Association, Sandor Barcs, said: "Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football".
Another team who played a similar style as the Austrians, were Torino ("Grande Torino" as the team was called) in the 1940s. Between 1941 and 1947, Argentinian club River Plate formed a remarkable team, known as "La Máquina" (The Machine), whose famous front formed by Carlos Muñoz, José Manuel Moreno, Adolfo Pedernera, Ángel Labruna and Félix Loustau perfected the "false nine" style and the constant change of attack positions. "La Máquina" won several Argentine and international titles.
Also in the 1940s, English manager Jack Reynolds, implemented a Total Football style while at Dutch club Ajax. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Burnley F.C. were playing a renewed system in English football "where every player could play in every position" under manager Harry Potts. This Total Football system led Burnley to the 1959-60 league title and won many plaudits, including admiration from all-time English First Division top scorer Jimmy Greaves. Another pioneer was Vic Buckingham, manager of West Bromwich Albion, Ajax and Barcelona in the 1950s and 1960s, as his philosophy was later further developed by Johan Cruyff, a player who was introduced into the Ajax first team by Buckingham.
Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don't run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.-- Johan Cruyff
I loved the Dutch in the '70s, they excited me and Cruyff was the best. He was my childhood hero; I had a poster of him on my bedroom wall. He was a creator. He was at the heart of a revolution with his football. Ajax changed football and he was the leader of it all. If he wanted he could be the best player in any position on the pitch.
An on-field manager: the Dutch team was largely his [Cruyff's] creation. It was Cruyff, the captain, who told midfielder Arie Haan that he would play as libero. ("Are you crazy?" Haan replied. It proved to be a brilliant idea.) It was Cruyff who had groomed striker Johnny Rep as a youngster at Ajax, sometimes screaming at the bench during games, "Rep must warm up!" It wasn't Cruyff's best month in football, but it was the month that most people saw him and the style he had invented. For many, the Cruyff they know is the Cruyff of his only World Cup. He notionally spent the tournament at centre-forward, but he was everywhere. He'd sprint down the left wing and cross with the outside of his right foot. He'd drop into midfield and leave centre-backs marking air. He'd drop back just to scream instructions. Arsene Wenger tells the story of Cruyff telling two midfielders to swap positions, and returning 15 minutes later to tell them to swap again. To Wenger, this showed how hard it was to replicate the fluidity of "total football" if you didn't have Cruyff himself.
Rinus Michels, who played under Reynolds, later became manager of Ajax in 1965. Michels reworked the theory, with his introduction of forward Johan Cruyff, perhaps the system's most famous exponent. Although Cruyff was fielded as centre forward, Michels encouraged Cruyff to roam freely around the pitch, using technical ability and intelligence to exploit the weaknesses in the opposition and create chances. Cruyff's teammates also worked to adapt themselves accordingly, regularly switching positions to ensure tactical roles in the team were consistently filled. Austrian coach Ernst Happel reworked the theory to introduce strength, encouraging his players to play tougher during his spells at ADO Den Haag and Feyenoord. Happel also managed the Netherlands national team to a runner-up finish in the 1978 World Cup.
The major component was the use of space, with the need to consistently create space central to the concept of Total Football. Former Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff described it as "[the thing] we discussed the whole time. Cruyff always talked about where to run and where to stand, and when not to move". He further elaborated that position switching was only made possible due to apt spatial awareness. He also described Total Football being proactive, as well as highlighting the use of pressing, which would be used to win back the ball or put the opposition under considerable pressure. Michels and Cruyff saw unprecedented success with the system, winning eight Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, and one Intercontinental Cup. The stark rise of Total Football and its attacking prowess was also linked with the "death of Catenaccio", an Italian system reliant heavily on defense promoted by Internazionale during the 1960s. The Total Football system was prone to defeat, experienced notably in the final of the 1974 FIFA World Cup contested by the Dutch and West Germany. Michels and Cruyff saw their ability to introduce playmaking stifled in the second half of the match by the effective marking of Berti Vogts. This allowed Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß, and Wolfgang Overath to gain a stronghold in midfield, thus, enabling West Germany to win 2-1.
Brazilian football manager and former player Telê Santana mentioned in one interview, "My greatest satisfaction would be to manage a team such as 1974 Holland. It was a team where you could pick [Johan] Cruyff and place him on the right wing. If I had to put him in the left-wing, he would still play [the same]. I could choose Neeskens, who played both to the right and to the left of the midfield. Thus, everyone played in any position."
In an interview published in the 50th anniversary issue of World Soccer magazine, the captain of the Brazilian team that won the 1970 World Cup, Carlos Alberto, went on to say, "The only team I've seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me.... Their 'carousel' style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game."
FC Barcelona (particularly under manager Pep Guardiola) and the Spanish national team of the early 2010s developed a play style called Juego de Posición, based on the theory of Total Football, and the managerial philosophy of former Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff.