Toronto FC head coach Aron Winter and assistant coach Bob de Klerk oversee practice.
Courtesy of Toronto FC

Talking Tactics: Total Football in MLS? Not just yet

Since Aron Winter was appointed as Toronto’s head coach in January, much has been said about the arrival of Total Football to MLS. That's an exciting idea if it's true. The Dutch style of play was a completely revolutionary approach.

How many truly innovative, tipping point-type revelations have we seen in the game? The catenaccio comes to mind. So does Franz Beckenbauer’s bold interpretation of the libero role. And while there are others, perhaps none are as ground-breaking as the fluid, whirling and beautifully aggressive system of Total Football.

But here’s something else you must know about the attractive attacking system: We haven’t seen the beautifully balanced tactical approach since legendary manager Rinus Michels and his Clockwork Oranje flummoxed hapless opponents at the 1974 World Cup.

Sure, we’ve seen a few fabulous Dutch teams since then. The KNVB outfit that nearly took down World Cup hosts Argentina in 1978 was full of talent and improvisation, but had adopted a more channeled and rigid approach by then.

Other teams from the lowland nation of clever, highly technical footballers later deployed dynamic 4-3-3 formations. Good on ‘em for it – but they weren’t truly playing total football.

All of this will be important knowledge around MLS this year. Why? Because sure as cold wind in March at BMO Field, you will hear broadcasters this year speaking of Winter and TFC as practitioners of Total Football. Alas, they’ll be very wrong.

[inline_node:330080]The Reds will not be spinning the total football wheel any more than they’ll be playing the old “W-M” formation or the lambasted 3-6-1 (RIP).

Only the big referee in the sky could say why, but broadcasters habitually insist on referring to modern Dutch tactics and Total Football almost interchangeably, which is wrong. (Writers do it, too, although not as dependably.)

Sure, Total Football and modern Dutch tactics share some common elements – but soccer under Dutch direction shouldn't be labeled “Total Football” any more than carrots and onions in a bowl should be called “soup.”

A super-fast – and highly simplified – primer on Total Football: It’s more of a concept than a formation, per se. It’s about fluid interchange from players unburdened by fixed roles: One player moves, the next fills his spot. It’s about technical ability fit for all roles, defending and attacking, and it requires the tactical acumen and positional awareness to meet the various demands.

Modern practitioners of free-flowing, fluid soccer (Arsenal and Barcelona, most notably) certainly share some concepts with Michels, the incomparable Johan Cruyff and other Total Football creators. This is where Winter and TFC enter the conversation.

The former Ajax player and assistant coach wants his players to be comfortable on the ball – another central tenet of Total Football and the Dutch game in general. It was the bedrock of Michels’ revolutionary ways. So there is certainly some ancestral linking between Total Football and what TFC will roll out at BMO Field.

Winter wants a 4-3-3 arrangement. That, of course, is the basic shape of classic Total Football. The formation allows teams to press high, create turnovers in dangerous spots, then immediately be positioned to exploit the moment. See Barcelona, the modern masters of the approach.

The Blaugrana pounce like a viper to regain lost possession before the ball crosses midfield. Once an opponent does breach their end, Pep Guardiola’s team will organize just like most other modern sides, defending in two lines, interrupting passing lanes and seeking little pockets of numerical advantage. They will not, however, aggressively push the offside trap as Michels’ students did in total football’s heyday.

And neither will Toronto FC. That will be the main difference between Toronto’s new attacking system and the real Total Football approach.