Football Tactics for Beginners: Inverted Fullbacks

A relatively unknown quantity, the inverted fullback position is typically used to combat wingers that like to cut inside to get involved in the...
Mobolaji Imoru
I am a keen lover of football and the tactical intricacies of the game. My aspiration is to become a coach. I write football articles in my leisure time.

Latest Posts

The Power of Football in Politics and Society

Football, and footballers, have long been stuck with a bad reputation. Hooliganism colours many people’s opinions of the sport just as much as the...

Mourinho’s return to form makes Spurs Premier League contenders

When any club hires Jose Mourinho, they do it to win trophies. Daniel Levy had the same expectation when he appointed the Special One...

A look at Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics at Leeds United

Leeds achieved the perfect start in their comeback season to the Premier League. Leeds’ amazing beginning of the season has been mostly because of...

PSG 1: 2 Man Utd- Tactical Analysis

In this analysis, we will be looking at the tactics of Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Thomas Tuchel in PSG and Man United's most recent...

Man United’s possible lineup against Chelsea based on the new and exciting back 3 formation used in the PSG victory

Manchester United's victory against PSG came after a tumultuous start to the season with questions already being raised over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's eligibility to...

Serie A’s Last Outsiders Part 1: Hellas Verona, 1984/1985

With the 2020–2021 Serie A underway, there is a general sense of uncertainty about a league that has fallen from the heights of its...

Have Opponents Got Used To Liverpool’s 4-3-3 Formation This Season

Liverpool are conceding goals at an alarming rate when you consider that they only conceded 33 Premier League goals throughout last season’s title-winning campaign....

Football Books

Foul- The Beautiful Game, An Ugly Truth [Book Excerpt]

The clip-clop of football boot studs on concrete echoed through the tunnel over the hum of distant crowd noise. A drenched team of players...

Best Football Analytics Books

We have compiled a list of the best football analytics books for the casual football fan. Football analytics and data science/machine learning in general...

The Best Football Books of 2019

It's been another eventful year in the world of football. As we look forward to 2020, we have compiled a list of the best...

The Best Football Books of 2018

It's been another eventful year in the world of football. As we look forward to 2019, we have compiled a list of the best...

5 Books every Soccer fan needs to read before the FIFA World Cup 2018

The FIFA World Cup is just around the corner and it's the perfect time to brush up your history and facts about the World...

Total Football and it’s impact on the modern game

The popularism of the “Catennaccio” in the 1960s by Helenio Herrera was game-changing in that it focused its tenets on defending and the art of counter-attack which would go on to define the Italian mastery of the art of defence. Following the death of the system of play after its dominance came into prominence “Total Football” in the 1970s.

The system of play, largely associated with Ajax and the Dutch National team, had its roots in the Austrian national side of the 1940s and the Hungarians of the 1950s. Ajax had prior exposure through English manager Jack Reynolds who managed the club in three stints ranging from the 1910s to 1940s. It would, however, be Rinus Michels who put the style on the world stage with the Dutch national team at the 1974 world cup as they awed and won the hearts of fans worldwide even in defeat.

The system is based on two tenets which are the utilization of space and fluidity of positions. Space is a key component as the aim is to make the pitch as big as possible when attacking and as small as possible when defending. In order to make this work, Ajax pressed almost maniacally with an emphasis not being on cutting passing lanes but on swamping the opposition player with the press usually led by the tenacious Johan Neskens. For the press to be successful, the team employed a high defensive line to further compress the pitch, making the playing area small for the opposition to transition.

The formation most associated with total football is the 4-3-3, which becomes a 3-4-3 when the libero moves into the midfield to match an opposition’s 4 man midfield. Unlike other teams that were engaged in horizontal switches, the Dutch national team and Ajax engaged in wholesale positional switches across each flank which allowed for players to push and drop off creating baffling patterns across the field. It was a state of extreme fluidity as players from either flank moved interchangeably while maintaining the team’s structure. Therefore, a full-back could be playing as a winger or a defender as a striker as they moved interchangeably. With pressing ensuring players were pushed up and everyone could defend and attack, the fluidity of the style did not compromise the defensive shape of the team.

This attacking system was maverick, but could be negated by aggressive man-marking and overloading of the midfield as shown by the West Germans in their victory over the Netherlands at the 1974 world cup final.

A brand of play which showed the beauty in movement, space manipulation, a reconciliation of the game’s artistry with its physicality was pure art, synonymous to the murals of the Sistine chapel, which would go on to show football as an expression of intelligent happiness.

Thus beckons the question: where has all the Total Football gone? Why do we look at football now and still see the fixed tactical schema, repression of character and the rule of physical force, instead of a model of the mystifying, exalting, all-things-at-all-times style that, at its peak in 1974, won the hearts of football fans?

21st century Total football homogenized positional discipline rather than widening players’ positional scope so that each could effectively fill any role on the pitch. It has led to every area of the pitch being treated as the middle third and focusing on the potential of reduced distances as opposed to using the axis of the pitch to control play.

Barcelona and the 2008- 2012 Spanish team were to play a brand of football in Cruyffian tone. Their Juego de Posición was based primarily on a desire for a similar fundamental product gotten from Total Football – the leverage of space, aggressive pressing, and absolute possession – as opposed to the Total Football aesthetic.

It’s no wonder that the Spanish conquerors of the 2008 to 2012 period were depicted, sometimes pejoratively, as using a 4-6-0 formation. It is not surprising that this style, which stretches specialism to its logical extreme, was ultimately found out in brutal style at the 2014 World Cup and even at the 2018 World Cup, which is why in this style; we see little of what a purist might recognise as Total Football.

An argument can be made that the continued basing of tactical shape on discrete roles has led to a ‘positional balkanization’. However, the persistence in applying the utility manhandle to players with a breadth of aptitude might say otherwise. Players such as Philip Lahm and Thomas Muller who are capable of playing in a wide array of roles seem to entail the attributes of a Total footballer. If players of such adaptability can still flourish, there must be other reasons explaining a continued preference for a general tactical rigidity in football. One of which is that total football exponents reigned when the pace of the sport itself was more languid, with the pedigree of fitness implemented by Michel’s in his teams gave them the advantage.

The game is faster, speed is the value of the game, defending against it becomes fundamental. As with pace, attacking with width and depth can be attained with fewer touches and much greater directness, therefore, it is no good to have a post-interchange central midfielder filling it at centre back, or an inside forward behind an advanced full-back, when trying to defend against such speed, particularly in the event that all players in the team are not of identical defensive skill or physical prowess.

The increased media scrutiny has made the lives of managers difficult. Managerial lifespans are shorter than ever; in 2015 the length of managerial tenure in English football fell to about 1.23 seasons. Consider this backdrop against the likes of Michels who had six seasons to establish his way at Ajax. Managers have too much to lose; they do not have enough time to invest in long term strategies, due to demands for immediate success from boards and fans.

Despite the climate of the game no longer suited to the all-as-one mystifying beauty of the Michels/Cruyff system, there is plenty to suggest that, while Total Football does not stand untouched, it still lives on in plentiful supply within the game.

Coaches such as Marcelo Bielsa and his acolytes show that pressing has remained a tactical evergreen, and that positional fluidity is perhaps beholden to it. Bielsa’s obsession for control runs two ways towards the monopoly of space and the ball itself.

Pep Guardiola is also one whose prized tiki-taka obsesses over positional points like its antecedent Total Football, but instead of taking positions themselves as changeable to a man, Guardiola’s insight was to overload individual positions with multiple players, either exploiting narrow lanes that could be keyed by elite passers or dribblers such as Andres Iniesta or opening the vacated opposite flank via a switch of play from a ball-literate defender.

In a way, Guardiola’s deeply agnostic grandson of Totaalvoetbal is a merger of the Dutch vertical adaptive style that won the hearts of millions in 1974, and the West German tactic of flooding of discrete zones of the pitch that broke that Dutch team in that year’s World Cup final.

Like Bielsa, Guardiola is also unafraid of deploying players in seemingly unfamiliar positions. Indeed, he has redesigned the likes of Lahm, Javi Martínez, Fabian Delph and Lionel Messi, seemingly at will, but in fact in accordance with the given players’ degrees of intelligence. It is no wonder that Lahm, the subject of the most complete positional Guardiolisation, was praised by the great Catalan as “the most intelligent player I have ever coached”.

The approaches of these managers – and there are others – bespeak of the autocracy of the teeming tactical mind and do not in themselves attest to the marvellous autonomy of the original Total Football.

Although the absence of true Total Football may mystify and inspire as the form itself did, the philosophy, far from being an abandoned pursuit, maybe in some sense the most sought after grail in football amongst the sport’s most protean tactical minds.

Related

The Power of Football in Politics and Society

Football, and footballers, have long been stuck with a bad reputation. Hooliganism colours many people’s opinions of the sport just as much as the...

Mourinho’s return to form makes Spurs Premier League contenders

When any club hires Jose Mourinho, they do it to win trophies. Daniel Levy had the same expectation when he appointed the Special One...

How the signing of Osimhen changed Gattuso’s approach

Napoli has started this season in an incredible manner. Unfortunately, Napoli didn’t show up to the Juventus game, which meant they would receive a...

A look at Marcelo Bielsa’s tactics at Leeds United

Leeds achieved the perfect start in their comeback season to the Premier League. Leeds’ amazing beginning of the season has been mostly because of...

PSG 1: 2 Man Utd- Tactical Analysis

In this analysis, we will be looking at the tactics of Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Thomas Tuchel in PSG and Man United's most recent...

Man United’s possible lineup against Chelsea based on the new and exciting back 3 formation used in the PSG victory

Manchester United's victory against PSG came after a tumultuous start to the season with questions already being raised over Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's eligibility to...

Serie A’s Last Outsiders Part 1: Hellas Verona, 1984/1985

With the 2020–2021 Serie A underway, there is a general sense of uncertainty about a league that has fallen from the heights of its...

Have Opponents Got Used To Liverpool’s 4-3-3 Formation This Season

Liverpool are conceding goals at an alarming rate when you consider that they only conceded 33 Premier League goals throughout last season’s title-winning campaign....

A brief history of the footballing aesthetic (and its gradual death)

The death of football at its most beautiful peak, is nigh ‘Football is the beautiful game.’ A statement we have heard since childhood. Words which...

Latest Posts

The Power of Football in Politics and Society

Football, and footballers, have long been stuck with a bad reputation. Hooliganism colours many people’s opinions of the sport just as much as the...

Mourinho’s return to form makes Spurs Premier League contenders

When any club hires Jose Mourinho, they do it to win trophies. Daniel Levy had the same expectation when he appointed the Special One...

Barcelona plot final bid to bring Premier League star to Camp Nou in January

Embed from Getty Imageswindow.gie=window.gie||function(c){(gie.q=gie.q||).push(c)};gie(function(){gie.widgets.load({id:'SW9InB3wQvFgzlegD2mLlQ',sig:'KGb3mzJds9Dl0oHdVay70nKo-0sGTXn0i9QWapQLbMM=',w:'594px',h:'420px',items:'1184273934',caption: true ,tld:'com',is360: false })}); According to the English outlet, Mirror, Barcelona are ready to make one last offer in order to...

How the signing of Osimhen changed Gattuso’s approach

Napoli has started this season in an incredible manner. Unfortunately, Napoli didn’t show up to the Juventus game, which meant they would receive a...

Don't Miss

The long & bizarre history behind why Red Bull chose Leipzig as the hub for their football club

When Red Bull tried to set foot into German football for the first time, they initially tried to use the same method they had...

The Evolution and Political Dynamism of Football in Mussolini’s Italy

On a November night in 1934, the English national football team faced their Italian counterparts, Nazionale di calcio dell'Italia. The match was held at...

When Sir Alex Ferguson Lost by 9 Goals in back to back matches

I'm shattered, I can't believe it. It was our worst ever day. It's the worst in my history, ever. Even as a player I...

  The different methods to Marcelo Bielsa’s madness

The current Leeds United manager and arguably the most influential coach in modern football, Marcelo Bielsa is the subject of this analysis because I’m...

The Football match which started a war

Plenty of football stadiums have statues standing outside of them. There's strange one here and there (Michael Jackson formerly outside Craven Cottage springs to...

Football History

A brief history of the footballing aesthetic (and its gradual death)

The death of football at its most beautiful peak, is nigh ‘Football is the beautiful game.’ A statement we have heard since childhood. Words which...

Football And Alcohol

“When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.”Football and booze go a long long way back, in...

Lifted Over The Turnstiles: Scotland’s Football Grounds In The Black & White Era

This most comprehensive book about old Scottish football grounds ever published, Lifted Over the Turnstiles contains almost 200 photos of 42 football stadiums here...

Great Squads From History – Bayer Leverkusen 2001-2002

The 2001-02 great Bayer Leverkusen side is infamous for their incredible choke job in the last stretch of the season, losing out on three...

The Forgotten story of the Basque in South America

This article is sourced from a string of Twitter posts by Impedimento, translated by the author.Exactly 80 years ago, a French steamer called SS...