What is “Total Football”? (Origin and Tactics Explanation)

Total Football is a tactical theory of football where every outfield player is not restricted to a fixed role or position, and involvement in ALL phases of play is most crucial instead. 

That’s a very simplistic explanation... but we’ll get into more detail soon.

The key point to note at this stage is that the Total Football system allows for extreme levels of tactical and positional fluidity, like no other system out there.

And when it first appeared on the scene, it was near impossible to stop.

If you’re a big football fan, then you may already have ideas about how the system came to be.

Chances are, you’re wrong.

The Background of Total Football 

The first name mentioned in most conversations about total football is Johan Cruyff, former Barcelona star and Dutch football legend.

(click here to learn his signature move, the Cruyff Turn)

There's a good reason for it too, as his Barcelona team of the modern football era was responsible for bringing Total Football to the notice of the rest of the world.

However, they were not the first ones to do it - far from it, in fact.

a. Ajax Amsterdam

The origin of Total Football can be traced as far back as the 1910s, when former English footballer, Jack Reynolds conceptualized the idea while he was the manager of Ajax Amsterdam. 

That Ajax team were the first recorded pioneers of the Total Football system, but it didn’t get much attention until it was applied on the big stage by the Austrian national team at the World Cup.

b. Austrian National Team

That Austrian team was led by Hugo Meisl, and he had been doing a lot of work refining the system with Austrian clubs before applying it with the national team.

This was in the early 1920s when the Austrian national team was hardly a force in the game.

With the appointment of Hugo Meisl to the senior national team, a long-term plan was put in place to infuse the Total Football system as the philosophy of football that would become the identity of the team for years to come.

It was work that took over a decade to refine, and there was no bigger stage possible to show the results of all that work than what the team achieved at the World Cup in 1934.

c. 1934 World Cup

Coming off the back of a positive win over Italy in the European Championships two years earlier, nobody could have predicted the run that Austria had at the 1934 World Cup.

They got all the way to the semi-finals and played Italy off the park despite falling 1-0.

The system was played with a 2-3-5 formation, a very daring approach that brought exciting football in the form of a fluid, five-man attack. 

By the end of the game, the team had lost, but they won the hearts of football lovers all over the globe with the brand of football that they played against a strong Italian team.

d. Hungarian National Team

Less than two decades after that World Cup, another national team attained legendary status while playing a similar brand of football. 

This time, the formation used was a 2-3-3-2, which was a slight modification to the 2-3-5. 

The team that adopted the system was the Hungarian national team of the 1950s. 

They completely dominated Europe at the time, beating England twice in an incredible five-year winning run before falling to defeat at the hands of West Germany in the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final. 

That team’s attack was spearheaded by the legendary striker, Frenc Puskas.

e. Dutch National Team (Johan Cruyff)

It was not until twenty more years had passed, that Johan Cruyff became involved in the system that he is now often given credit for.

He was part of a brilliant Dutch national team that played Total Football in the 1970s. 

Although that team never won the World Cup, they still had enough success to make Johan Cruyff bring the system with him to Barcelona when he became their manager. 

That Barcelona team of 2009 is seen as one of the best teams in the history of the game, and it remains the template by which total football is referenced in the modern game.

How Does “Total Football” Work?

As previously suggested, the concept of total football is hinged on the ideology that no player is given a singular role in the game. 

Every player must be able to fill in multiple roles and positions to allow for a fluidity that makes the team extremely unpredictable and difficult to prepare for.

In this system, a striker can be sometimes seen in the middle third of the pitch, dictating play.

And a full-back can be seen marauding into the opponent’s 18-yard box in search of a goal.

This means that defenders can be seen heavily involved in attacking phases of play, and attackers can be seen heavily involved in defensive phases of play. 

For the system to work, the constant movement of the players requires each person to be ready to fill in for a teammate that has moved out of position.

When the full-back is in attack, there should be another player from another position filling in that fullback role so that the formation remains compact and the team is not left exposed.

This requires a lot of versatility and practice, and it’s why the system can take a long time to implement.

It’s heavily dependent on the versatility of the players and the speed at which they adapt to filling in multiple roles in a single game of football.

Taking that Austria team for example, the system was adopted right from the youth levels of the national teams, which in turn ensured that the players were accustomed to the system by the time they began playing for the senior team.

Total Football In The Modern Game

In truth, there is little evidence of the dominance of Total Football in Europe – as was the case in the past.

However, while the footprints of the system are fading out, we still see bits and pieces of it modified in some way by some managers considered to be “purists” of the game.

Two names that come to mind are Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola.

Bielsa is well known for his unorthodox formations with the constant high-pressing system, and it is easy to see which aspects of total football he gleaned from to create his own recipe.

The inspiration of total football is even more obvious with Pep Guardiola’s teams. 

His preferred “Tiki-Taka” style of play (especially in his days at Barcelona) focuses on dominating the ball. However, it also heavily relies on an incredible amount of versatility from the players, and the ability of each outfield player to contribute in equal measure to all phases of play.

3 Teams That Achieved Major Success

1. Austria

The Austrian “Wunderteam” was led by Hugo Meisl, and under his tutelage of total football, they won the Central European International Cup in 1932, got to the semi-finals of the 1934 World Cup, and won the Silver medal at the 1936 Olympics.

Josef Bican, the second most prolific striker in the history of the game, was a key figure in their 2-3-5 formation.

2. Hungary

The Hungarian national team (also known as the Magnificent Magyars) of the 1950s, led by Frenc Puskas simply blitzed through teams for fun while they played total football. 

They did get found out eventually, but they smashed many records before that happened. Between 1950 and 1956, the team played 69 games, winning 58 of them, drawing 10, and losing just one - the game against West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final. 

In 2016, the BBC listed that team as the best international football team in football history. Talk about domination!

3. Ajax

Rinus Michels was the brains behind the Ajax team of the 1970s, and the football that the team played continues to influence the game to this day.

Before Michels joined the team, Ajax had not won a league title in five years. When he joined, they won four in five, and also won the Champions League.

Such was the efficiency of the system that Michels put in place that when he left the club for Barcelona in 1971, the new manager, Stefan Kovacs, won the treble with the existing tactical DNA in his first season in charge.

Things fell apart not long after that though, which is further proof that much of their dominance during that period was down to the tactical brilliance of that man, Rinus Michels.

Final Words

Football has come a long way from the 1910s up till this moment, and in that time the system of Total Football has been phased in and out of the game.

At the moment, it appears that the current crop of football managers do not fancy Total Football much, as there are very rare cases of the system being played at the top level in the biggest leagues. 

However, the full expectation is that the game will return to the tested and trusted, as it always does.

Hopefully, we get to witness another legendary team be born from the result of that!

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