"Total Football" is the label for an influential theory of tactical association football in which any player can take over the role of any other player in the team. It was pioneered by Dutch football club Ajax Amsterdam.
In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team's intended organizational structure. In this fluid system, no player is fixed in his nominal role; anyone can be successively an attacker, a midfielder and a defender.
Total Football's tactical success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular their ability to quickly change positions depending on the situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions, hence it puts high technical and physical demands on them.
Rinus Michels, who played under Reynolds, later went on to become manager of Ajax himself and refined the concept into what is known today as "Total Football" (Totaalvoetbal in Dutch), using it in his training for the Ajax squad and the Netherlands national team in the 1970s. It was further refined by Stefan Kovacs after Michels left for FC Barcelona. Dutch forward Johan Cruyff was the system's most famous exponent.
Although Cruyff was fielded as centre forward, he wandered all over the pitch, popping up wherever he could do most damage to the opposing team. This resulted in a need for a dynamic system like Total Football. Cruyff's teammates adapted themselves flexibly around his movements, regularly switching positions so that the tactical roles in the team were always filled.
Space and the creation of it were central to the concept of Total Football. Ajax defender Barry Hulshoff explained how the team that won the European Cup in 1971, 1972 and 1973 worked it to their advantage: "We discussed space the whole time. Johan Cruyff always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move."
The constant switching of positions that became known as Total Football only came about because of this spatial awareness. "It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch," said Hulshoff. The system developed organically and collaboratively: it was not down to coach Rinus Michels, his successor Stefan Kovacs or Cruyff alone. Cruyff summed up his (Total Football) philosophy: "Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing." The 1972 European Cup final proved to be Total Football's finest hour. After Ajax's 2:0 victory over Inter Milan, newspapers around Europe reported the "death of Catenaccio and triumph of Total Football". The Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad declared: "The Inter system undermined. Defensive football is destroyed."
Michels was appointed for the 1974 FIFA World Cup campaign by the KNVB. Most of the 1974 team were made up of players from Ajax and Feyenoord. However, Rob Rensenbrink was an outsider, having played for clubs in neighboring Belgium, and was unfamiliar with Total Football, although he was selected and adapted well. During the tournament, the Netherlands coasted through their first and second round matches, defeating Argentina (4-0), East Germany (2-0) and Brazil (2-0) to setup a meeting with hosts West Germany.
In the 1974 final, Cruyff kicked off and the ball was passed around the Oranje thirteen times before returning to Cruyff, who then went on a rush that eluded Berti Vogts and ended when he was fouled by Uli Hoeneß inside the box. Teammate Johan Neeskens scored from the spot kick to give the Netherlands a 1-0 lead with 80 seconds of play elapsed, and the Germans had not even touched the ball. Cruyff's playmaking influence was stifled in the second half of the match by the effective marking of Berti Vogts, while Franz Beckenbauer, Uli Hoeneß and Wolfgang Overath dominated midfield, enabling West Germany to win 2-1.
The ill-fated Austrian "Wunderteam" of the 1930s is also credited in some circles as being the first national team to play Total Football. It is no coincidence that Ernst Happel, a talented Austrian player in the 1940s and 1950s, was coach in the Netherlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He introduced a tougher style of play at ADO and Feyenoord. Happel managed the Netherlands national team in the 1978 World Cup, where they again finished as runners-up.