Total Football?

When Russia and the Netherlands square off today, there will be more than a semi-final birth at Euro 2008 at stake: the rhetorical prize of being today’s instantiation of Total Football is also on the line.

Whenever that Brilliant Orange bursts forth with attacking gusto, the deeds of Rinus Michels, Stefan Kovacs, and Johan Cruijff are suddenly resurrected, with the Dutch believed to have recaptured their heritage from the 1970s.

Dutch masters

That, of course, is guff: the Dutch have played some fine, fine football at this tournament, but on a systematic and even aesthetic level, it bears little resemblance to the complex genius of Total Football (“whatever that was”, as ESPN’s Adrian Healey recently pronounced bemusedly).

Here is but the merest glimpse of what Total Football actually was for the Dutch at the 1974 World Cup. Note the overlapping runs, the intense pressure, the high line the defense held, the penetrating runs, the patience to open space, and suddenly, the viper attack.

As Jonathan Wilson presciently pointed out in the Guardian, it is not the Dutch, but rather their opponents tomorrow who most resemble a resurrection of Total Football, albeit one that has to adapt to the hyper-physical world of football today.

Russian commentators, referring back to the great ice-hockey teams of the past, spoke of “clap-clap” football, mimicking the way the puck used to click from stick to stick. Others, noting the fact that both goals were laid on by full-backs on the charge, have given Hiddink credit for reawakening a form of total football in Russia, yet that style has always been implicit in the Lobanovskyi school.

Wilson is referring to Valeri Lobanovskyi, coach of Dynamo Kiev in the 1970s, the first to win a major European club title with a Soviet team, noted for his scientific methods of management. Yet Wilson believes that the Russian team is as much following on Lobanovskyi’s footsteps as in that of Ajax’s, that the Russians have their own history of Total Football to draw on.

One of the great fallacies of football history is the notion that the Ajax and Holland of the early Seventies was all about self-expression, while Lobanovskyi’s Dynamo Kyiv was some kind of mechanistic monster. Yes, Lobanovskyi imposed his style of play upon his squad, while Rinus Michels watched his grow up almost organically among an extraordinary group of talented players who had played together for so long that they came to have an almost preternatural understanding of one another’s games, but the central tenets of both were the same. Dynamo and Ajax both played a high offside line, both pressed the opposition in possession, both thrived on rapid passing and the interchange of positions. Most fundamentally, both were about the performance of the individual within the system.

This leads us to the tantalising and fascinating possibility that Russian football today has somehow merged the brilliance of both the Dutch and Soviet variants of Total Football, though of course, the modern game’s compressed nature hardly allows for the kind of self-expression available for a Cruyff (which makes the Russians one-touch brilliance the other night even more admirable, in fact). Those who played close attention to Zenit St. Petersburg’s rapier counter-attacking — under, of course, the Dutchman Dick Advocaat — in their glorious UEFA Cup title run will have seen a presage of Russia’s performance in Euro 2008 the other night, with Arshavin pulling the strings.

Perhaps, by the team you read this, Russia vs. Netherlands will have petered out into a bore draw, stage fright getting the best of the contenders for the Total Football crown, and making such terminology seem laughable. But it is certainly worth remembering, when we hear that phrase bandied around liberally, what Total Football actually was, and its existence outside the confines of the Oranje.

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