Rinus Michels the legendary coach who refined Totaalvoetbal or Total Football
Ruud Krol, the left back in the 1974 Dutch team summarized it best:
"Our system was also a solution to a physical problem. How can you play for 90 minutes and remain strong? If I as a left back run 70 meters up the wing it's not good if I immediately have to run back 70 to my starting place. So if the left midfielder takes my place and left winger takes the midfield position, then it shortens the distance. That was the philosophy."
If there is one country that knows the importance of space, it is the Dutch. With land at a premium, they came up with innovative ways to increase acreage to accommodate one of the highest population densities in Europe. They are masters of land reclamation.
Pushing those boundaries of space was a huge feature of those legendary Ajax teams in the 1960s which took European football by storm. There was nothing like it seen before. Rinus Michels who came to Ajax in 1964 after Vic Buckingham was sacked initiated a radical breakaway from the traditional norms associated with football.
As a player you could be anything, a striker, a midfielder, or a defender. The exigencies of that moment dictated your nomenclature. Krol points out above, you were supposed to fill in the space left behind by the wingback, whether it was the left midfielder or the striker.
David Goldblatt in his masterful opus " The Ball Is Round" writes, "alongside this display of positional flexibility and position switching, Ajax attempted to change the space in which the game was being played. "
Wingers and attacking full backs stretched the field to the utmost, hugging the touchlines. While in defense they collapsed the playing area. Crowding the ball carrier and the opposition, playing a high defensive line including the goalkeeper, and using the offside trap.
"When they attacked they attacked with eleven, when they defended they defended with eleven."
The hierarchical sense of football was turned on its head. In its place was what they would call in cybernetic parlance, a parallel distributed process. It allowed for speedier responses to changes in spatial demands, i.e., the expansion and collapse of space. The continuum of the game was dictated by which player would have the best access to that space, either by a pass, or an intercept. It made no difference in the division of labour whether he was a striker, a full back, or a midfielder. There was a constant switching of positions.
Barry Hulshoff, the Ajax defender on this new approach, " It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch. "
Playing the sort of high intensity, high energy football demanded extra-ordinary levels of fitness and discipline. Michels completely changed the club culture. Under him, players trained full time, upto four training sessions a day. Carlos Tevez would have never hacked it under this system. Players eschewed ego for complete professionalism and a commitment to win.
Elements of total football were already in place before Michels showed up at Ajax, by his predecessors, Jack Reynolds and Buckingham. However, their ideas although radical, could not be implemented with success because of a number of reasons, but one major factor was the lack of like minded players.
Michels made a number of changes getting rid of the players who he believed could not be part of this new philosophy. He brought in Velibor Vasovic, a tough minded defender from Partizan Belgrade with an unremitting desire to win. From the Ajax youth ranks rose names that would go down in history including Krol, Neeskens, Suurbier, Hulshoff, Muhrens, and Johann Cruyff , the future poster boy of Totalvoetbal. Cruyff and then Stefan Kovacs, the coach installed in place when Michels left for Barca, guided Ajax to its finest hour.
Two antithetical philosophies clashed in the 1972 European Cup final. The suffocating nihilism of Catenaccio embodied by Helenio Herrera and Inter and the free flowing Totaalvoetbal of Michels and Ajax. It was Ajax winning the final, 2-0, heralding the death of Catenaccio.
The legacy of Totaalvoetbal is not just preserved in the Dutch teams that so many love but it has been propagated outside its shores. In fact, that might be the singular achievement of this philosophy. Michels left in 1971 for Barcelona orchestrating a rash of Dutch coaches who have burnished that club with indelible elements of Totaalvoetbal. Cruyff was to follow and then Van Gaal. The number fours in Barca's cantera provide a unique counterpoint to Barca's high possession, high pressure game.
Van Gaal acknowledges his debt to Michels. But he sees himself as different too.
"My idol, my father was Rinus Michels, who was runner-up with Holland in 1974 and the 1988 European champions. It is the same way in Munich. Only Michels was too defensive, I'm more attacking. It has made us popular and successful."
Jose Mourinho can claim some revenge on Totaalvoetball, 38 years later with his version of Catenaccio proving to be successful in overcoming Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals. Can he do it again today?