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He's Dutch, so that must mean it's "total football"


I don't know if you've heard, but apparently "total football" is coming to the MLS:


So, I have to admit a few things.  First, I really couldn't care less about Toronto's new coach (sorry, any potential Toronto supporters reading this, just being honest), and the sum total of what I know about the guy is in that above article.


What I do find interesting is that because he's Dutch, and even more so associated with Ajax (the alleged birthplace of "total football") that must mean Toronto is going to play "total football".  Right... I mean...


Let me say this, if you think "total football" is coming to the MLS, I have real estate to show you...


First off, let me put to rest the association game.  For example, the Sounders have a strong link to Tottenham (fact, look it up).  The global football world isn't like "6 degrees of separation" its more like two or three.  (Winter was "formed as a player the same time as Johan Cruyff"!  OMG, Toronto are going to sign the next "Johan Cruyff"!)


Yes, Winter looks to have a decent pedigree, developed at Ajax, a club with a proven history of success developing players..  But let's not fall all over ourselves because 40 years ago that was the club where a brilliant coach had a great idea...


About that idea.


Okay, so what is "total football"?  Well, instead of writing my own summary, why don't you have a look at the Wikipedia entry and I'll wait here for you to finish...





...okay, good, we're up to speed.  Now, there are two things you need to regard about that article.  First, the vast majority of dates mentioned are from the early 70's.  Second, of the two "current use" examples, one involves a French coach of an English team which employs players from all over Europe and Africa; the other is two examples of Spanish coaches and mostly Spanish players.  


Alright, the point here is not that the Dutch don't understand it any more, its that Everyone does.  "Total Football" is a 40-year-old idea that has been fully ingrained into the global football consciousness, and has been fully integrated into contemporary understanding of the game.  The insights provided by "total football" are only a revelation to the tactically naive.


There was a time that a National team could show up for a World Cup and surprise people, but that ended some time ago.  In the last World Cup, the only real "mystery team" was North Korea, and that was because it was North Korea.  As Jonathan Wilson points out, what the World Cup demonstrates is that national teams lag noticeably behind club teams.


If you want tactical innovation, don't watch international matches, and on that note, if you want to see "total football" don't watch the Dutch National team. In South Africa they mostly played with two defensive mids, parked right in front of the center backs, giving them a base of 6 defensive players, and hoped the individual creativity in their attacking four could come through (just because your left back scored a cracker in the semifinal doesn't mean its "total football."  Any more, any decent team has a fullback who can score, that's nothing new).


What does "total football" mean, then?


I have to admit that for a long time I assumed I didn't really understand what "total football" was.  I figured there must be some great nuance I wasn't grasping, and like Luke traveling to Dagobah to learn from Yoda, I figured I would have to travel to The Netherlands and learn from a Dutchman.  


It turns out that what a lot of people call "total football" is really just an approach that encourages fluidity and positive (i.e. "attacking) play.  Like I said, most anyone who understands soccer past a remedial level has long ago grasped the concept that defenders attack and attackers defend.  If this is all there really is too it, then I hate to tell you, but the idea was around before Rinus Michels took the Ajax job...


You know, I have to stop myself for a moment.  What I am doing here is sacrilege, and I'm sorry.  I really am.  Football, like anything else, needs its legends.  Origin stories, those sepia-toned fondnesses, those days of brilliance and innovation shrouded in the fog of time.  I myself, when declaring myself a fan of Dutch soccer, have been heard to proclaim "because its the Dutch" (at which point, those less astute in the history of the game look at me funny).


But here's the thing.  This all gets a little silly sometimes.  Every now and then, there is a moment when you have to say "now WAIT a minute" and when I saw the headline on, that was one of those moments.


Look, the Dutch have contributed an immense amount to global football culture, for such a small country (it's really quite amazing, actually).  Dutch coaches are valued the world over for their insight, and even though there is some reason to believe Dutch players are overvalued (read "Soccernomics") you can't argue that the country doesn't produce great players.  I'm not saying that.  They made the Final in South Africa for a reason...


There's something you need to understand...


No discussion of "total football" has ever been had without mentioning Johan Cruyff.  It is, in fact, an international law.  Use the term "total football" and you must also mention Cruyff...


As we know, Cruyff played center forward in the "total football" 4-3-3.  He was one of the greatest players to have ever played the game.  What made him great was that he was a a true all-around player; he was one of the most skilled and versatile players in history.  In fact, it very well may be true that if you were to rate all players on not only technical and tactical skill, but also versatility, he may rate as the greatest EVER.  


You know what, Fredy Montero is a pretty good MLS forward.  The fact that he can't play a lick of defense doesn't mean he's not a good player, it doesn't even mean he's not a great player (again a reminder we're talking MLS here).  What it means is he's not a defender.  He can drift wide, he can drop back as somewhat of a CAM, he can push forward and play high.  He's versatile, he's got good technical ability, I rate him pretty high as a center forward.  


You know what makes Barcelona so good?  Well, for starters, it doesn't hurt to have players like  Messi, Villa, Inesta, Xavi, Busquets, Puyol, Pique, and Ahlves.  Pep Guardiola knows how to pull the strings and uses his own background as a defensive midfielder to encourage "tiki-taka".  When Barca demolished Real  Madrid in late December [oops, November, actually] it wasn't because of a tactical masterclass, it was because Barca had excellent players who had all spent a lot of time playing a particular way together.  If Winter is successful, it will be because he will be able to use his background as a youth coach to construct a system; not due to some yogi-on-the-mountaintop sort of wisdom by virtue of being Dutch.  


Dave (as in the guy who founded this site) said it best in an email (and I'm using his quote because frankly I was going to say the same thing) "A team of properly constructed specialists will always be better than total football. Haven't the last 30 years shown that? No one uses total football anymore. Sure there's more interchanging, but not at the level of Clockwork Orange. I also think that constructing a team of generalists needed for total football in the MLS salary cap system will be impossible. Really? 10 Brad Evans? GREAT!"


I would amend one thing about his statement, though. which is a nuance.  It's not that no one uses "total football" any more, it's that everyone has learned from "total football".  Those lessons have their place in the global awareness of the game, just like "joga bonito", "cattenacio", whatever you call what the Germans do, and the 4-4-2.  To think of "total football" as a stand-alone concept in 2010 is to entirely miss the point...

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