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The Death of Total Football


The loss of the legendary Johann Cruyff was a poignant reminder of the loss of a unique and spectacular form of football closely associated with him. Cruyff was the poster boy for Total Football, being one of the best at maximizing the playing style for Ajax and the Netherlands in the early 1970’s, and then known for helping to evolve it into a new species as a coach. And while Total Football hasn’t really been played for a while, the loss of its most illustrious player symbolizes the loss of the playing style as well.

Total Football's poster boy

There are some misconceptions as to what Total Football actually is. The concept is not new, its roots go back to the early 1900’s. That idea being that every player could play at every single position, barring the goalkeeper. This allowed for the players to interchange positions within their system, creating a dynamic, fluid squad that became very difficult to defend. This was particularly troublesome for the opposition if they were accustomed to man marking, because if they followed their man, they themselves would be dragged into positions they were unfamiliar with and virtually neutralized.

But the reason that Total Football worked so well was not just the incredibly tactically demanding role of every player being skilled at every position, but also the creation of space and the use of space within the system. Despite the development of the Dutch Total Football of the early 1970’s being attributed to the Ajax and then Netherlands coach at the time Rinus Michels, it was successful because of Cruyff and the type of player that he was. He summarized it aptly as ‘simple football:’ "Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.”

Cruyff being handed the 1973 European Cup

As a center forward who liked to wander around the pitch and find places to do the most damage to the opposition, Total Football was perfect for him. He also understood the use of space to maximize the interchanging of players very well, and so his teammates developed an understanding with him and followed his lead. It was the perfect playing style for him, and yet because of his talents and awareness, he also brought his teams to a whole new level of football. That level won Ajax three consecutive European cups in 1971, 1972, and 1973 and took Netherlands to the World Cup Final in 1974. In addition to many league titles and other accolades, Cruyff also won the Ballon d’Or three times in 1971, 1973, and 1974.

Cruyff would go on to coach upon retirement and coached both Ajax and Barcelona, the two major clubs he played for in his career. His coaching spell at Barcelona from 1988-1996 was significant, as he is credited for planting the seeds of a new playing system for them that is now known as tiki-taka football. While some confuse this philosophy or any kind of attacking football with Total Football, they are actually very different. Tiki–taka utilizes short passes, possession, and the use of a midfielder to move the ball around and create chances. But the players do not switch positions like in Total Football. Cruyff is simply credited with its development due to his experience, tactical knowledge and understanding of the use of space.

Even after his coaching career ended, his influence at both Barcelona and Ajax remained

Total Football is perhaps the most technically demanding style of play, given that all outfield players must be skilled at each position. Between that and needing a rare talent like Cruyff, who thrived with the philosophy and because of whom the philosophy thrived, Total Football isn’t really played anymore. Particularly considering that the game has evolved to a point where technically, it might be impossible for a player to develop their skills to a necessary level at every position. But even if that playing style and the player who made it famous are now gone, their collective influence on the beautiful game will live on.


This post inspired by the music of Clockwork Orange