At a club level Dutch teams had never challenged the best of Europe. When Rinus Michels succeeded Vic Buckingham as the manager of Ajax, few would have given the Amsterdam club much hope of rising quickly to the forefront of the international game. At the time they were fighting relegation, after saving them from the drop Michels won the league the next year. The following season Ajax humiliated Liverpool 5-1 at home (though Bill Shankly famously blamed the fog), and made it through to the quarter finals of the European Cup.
Michels first key signing at Ajax was Velibor Vasovic, a sweeper, who he brought in from Partizan Belgrade. In the early years one of the keys to the system played by Ajax was the use of the offside trap coupled with the introduction of the pressing game. The two worked in tandem and made the side extremely effective.
Ajax played a high defensive line in order to squeeze the space in which their opponents had to work. The great problem with this is that if an opponent with the ball has time and space he can easily play a pass over the top which catches the defensive line out. In order for the offside trap to be effective it has to be combined with pressure on the player in possession in order to prevent him playing an easy pass. Using this style of football Ajax won numerous Dutch titles and 3 European Cups, but at this stage nobody mentioned the phrase Total Football.
It was only after Holland’s 1974 World Cup campaign (also under Michels), that the media began to identify a phenomenon known as Total Football. In essence total football was taking the freedom and movement of the Danubian School, the Magical Magyars and Brazil’s 1970 side and going even further. Under total football it was expected that every player would be comfortable in any other position.
In practice this meant that if the left back went forward, then the left winger or central midfielder would drop slightly deeper in order to fill the space that had been left behind. Both Ajax and Holland, played a notional 4-3-3, but in reality it was often difficult to tell who was playing where. Johan Cruyff was supposedly the centre-forward, but he was a player who could be found almost anywhere on the pitch. Like Alfredo di Stefano before him, Cruyff would come as far back as his own penalty area in order to pick up the ball and exert his own influence on the game.
The idea of Total Football made it extremely hard for opponents to track the movement of players, but it also put enormous strain on the Dutch. Michels himself said that you could only attempt such a system if you had at least 7 world class players. With any less the system would simply break down. Both Ajax and Holland were fortunate that they had talent in abundance and even superb club players could struggle to make the starting line up (the likes of the Van de Kerkhof brothers, Piet Keizer and Ruud Geels all missed out for the national team on a regular basis).
Holland reached the final of the 1974 World Cup in fantastic form, but they met there the hosts West Germany. This was a team who played their own brand of total football, albeit a less free flowing one that Holland’s. The Germans had a mix of specialists and all-rounders. The defence for instance had two great artists in Beckenbauer and Breitner, both of whom excelled at different stages of their careers as central midfielders. Even Berti Vogts, noted primarily for his tenacious defending, was more than capable going forward.
|Holland (above) v. West Germany, 1974|
If West Germany appeared pedestrian in comparison to the swaggering Dutch it was primarily due to the absence of Gunter Netzer. In 1972 the Moenchengladbach midfielder had inspired arguably the greatest German team of all time and yet injury (along with a dip in form since a move to Real Madrid) hindered his participation of the greatest stage of all. Up front, instead of Cruyff the Germans had a goal machine in Gerd Muller, and while the results were less spectacular they were equally effective.
If anything the defeat the Dutch suffered at the hands of West Germany only served to embellish the mythology surrounding this “Total Football” side. For while it was a team composed of special players the ideas behind it were far from revolutionary. The movement, interchange of positions and importance of the collective were concepts applied by almost all the great post-war teams from Hungary to Real Madrid to Brazil. Furthermore the flexibility demonstrated by Cruyff was in essence merely an extension of the deep lying centre forward position developed by Palotas and Hidegkuti and perfected by Di Stefano.
Furthermore the reverence in which the system is held masks an oft forgotten truth about the 1974 final: West Germany were the better team. For all the early possession that Holland enjoyed, it was the Germans who fashioned the better chances and deserved their victory on the day. Holland’s swagger and panache left an indelible mark on football’s history, yet it was the ability of players and manager, rather than a tactical revolution, which was the key to their success.