The Defining Moments Within The History of Football Tactics For The Evolution of the Tiki Taka
For the last 20-25 years football has evolved into a battle of possession, where tempo and neat passes is utilized to its extreme. The move of players from Amateur to Professionals, gladiators of the sport, with sublime fitness and technical skills to master the art of controlling the match. One of the most successful clubs within this period has been the pride of Catalan, FC Barcelona.
For around 10 years FC Barcelona has terrorized defenses with their beautiful attacking possession football. The origin of the name came somewhat unexpected in the World Cup 2006, were Spain faced Tunisia in the second match of group H for Luis Aragones’ side. It’s not the miserable defeat against France in the first knock out phase we remember, but it’s the comment from a passionately Spanish commentator, who is only trying to describe Spains way of keeping possession.
“Estamos tocando tiki-taka tiki-taka”
One phrase, who would define Barcelonas and Spains possession football for the eternity. One of the most defining moments in the history of football tactics in the 21th century was born that day by Andres Montes. Since then, I suppose we all can agree that while the official name of the playing style was born on that day, the playing style of Spain and Barcelona have been developed bit by bit for years before. When Pep Guardiola made the final touch to the football philosophy and tactical template 2 to 3 years later, we could experience a playing system which was as devastating as it was deeply rooted in the club. But where does the Barcelona and Spain way of keeping possession really originate from? Was it a genius’ master piece – something so revolutionizing that it will impact future football tactics for decades?
In order to connect past with present I will hereby hand you my own version of the evolution of Barcelonas tiki taka playing style, by looking at some of the most defining moments in history of football tactics. It will be a journey through nearly 140 years of football history – from some of the most historical moments, tactical advancements and founding of some of the greatest football philosophies to the subtle changes of formations and player roles – all with the common relations, that they have (in my point of view) directly or partially influenced Josep Guardiolas Tiki Taka style of play.
In the beginning football was all about “all-out attack”, kick and run. Individual skills such as dribbling and running with the ball was seen as the best way to overload the opposition – an approach which was only beneficial due to the offside law of that time. Passing between teammates were rarely seen, but then again teams often deployed at least 5 forwards using formations such as 1-1-8, 1-2-7 and as we shall see below 2-2-6.
While the English invented football, it was the Scottish who brought us the art of short passing. It all started in 1872. The first official international association football match between England and Scotland gave us the first evidence of passing football. In a time where long-kicks and direct play were used, the Scottish coach had to come up with something different in order to beat a superior (stronger and more physical) English side.
While the English side set up in a 1-1-8 formation (a rather attacking formation wouldn’t you say?), the Scottish coach decided to pull back one forward and one half-back, deploying a 2-2-6 formation, a player positioning rather similar to the box in a 4-4-2 and not that different from 4-2-4. Unlike England, who brought in players from a total of 6 clubs, Scotland only used players from one club; Queen’s Park – currently the oldest football association club in Scotland! The Scottish 2-2-6 wasn’t only more solid defensively, but also had better patterns to utilize a passing game, which made them play around the physically stronger and tougher English, rather than competing in an one on one battle for possession.
“[…] the influence of Queen’s Park was all-encompassing, leading ultimately to the highly romanticised ‘pattern-weaving’ approach, characterised by strings of short-passing ziggzagging between the forward and half-lines.”
Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, 2008
I would imagine, in a time when 5 forwards’ only duty was to cover for one’s dribbling run (in order to protect the man with the ball and make sure he succeeded scoring a goal), the Scottish team made the opponent chase the ball around, forcing them to use energy hunting down the ball rather than attacking and dribbling with it. What’s certain is that with Queen’s Parks 2-2-6 formation, the birth of combination play – team football was at its starting point. Because of this clever tactical idea, David held his Goliath to a draw.
For the next years, the Scots (and the English) influenced the world with their different beliefs and ways of playing football. One of those people was Archie McLean, who took the Scottish game to Brazil. He had an enourmous influence on the development of the Brazilian style. He went to Brazil for what should become a three month stay, but ended up founding the Scottish Wanderers together with a Scottish society in Sao Paulo and stayed for nearly 40 years.
Archie McLean and the Scottish Wanderers played a style very similar to the classic Scottish short passing game – a playing style brazilians had never seen before. Long balls and individual dribbling were frawned upon, as McLean firmly believed technique and skill could dominate physique and individuality.
But it was the partnership between McLean and his left winger, Hopkins, who amazed the country with their quick short passes, as the former liked to get the ball at his feet in order to either play one-two combinations or dribble behind his opponent. The ball would flow around the field in intricate patterns being described by the locals as “Tabelinha”. The basics of the Tabelinha was quick short passes, one-two’s to maintain a higher tempo and flowing movements.
It’s worth mentioning, that possibly because of this playing style, and the resemblance to the samba, the locals found it easier to replicate this playing style compared to other English sports. In football they could use their creativity, samba moves and their freedom to take the Scottish influence into the beautiful playing style we’ve only heard of; 1958 (Pele) or 1962 (Garrincha or Mario Zagallo), who made Brazil to World Cup winners for the first and second time. Brazil at that time used a lopsided 4-2-4 or something similar to the 4-3-3. Read more about this in the chapter of The Influence of The Brazilian Samba Football; from Attacking Fullbacks to Modern Wingbacks
Over the next decades the passing and combination game would continue to evolve. Forming passing triangles and patterns became key to evolutionizing the game further. Passing became more and more accepted. It was no longer seen as unmanly anymore, despite England clenching to their own philosophies. I guess passing and so-called ‘pattern-weaving’ was seen as a way of outnumbering opposition and be able to compete despite not having the best individualist – simply put; strategy over individualism.
With the influence of passing combination came the need for more structured player positioning. Thanks to Reverend Spencer Walker, who also introduced passing to English school football, fixed forward positioning with one main duty: passing the ball to each other,(!) was introduced. I would imagine that the same question was as important as it is today: where do you put your spare man in order to overload the opponent?
Between the 1880’s – 1930s, the preferred formation in the world was a somewhat rigid 2-3-5. The formation should be known as the pyramid and was at that time, seen as the right way to play, invented to overcome the Scottish Style. Eventhough it was a rather attacking tactic with 2 fullbacks (markers), three half-backs and 5 forwards, the slightly change of player positioning, from 2-2-6 to 2-3-5, meant not only a more balanced team but also better defensive security. Instead of an unbalance of defensive and attacking duties, the 2-3-5 favoured a tactical balance of 5 defensive minded players vs 5 opposite attacking minded players.
With the reverting of one centre forward into the midfield, a new player role was born. The center half back became the very heart and lungs of the new formation. He should not only be proficient in the art of attacking – recycle possession to more attacking minded players, but also be an expert in defending – a real allrounder. I would believe he could be resembled to a man marking box to box midfielder, who could easily score goals, and win the ball. He was both the leader on the pitch and the “playmaker” – aka the most important player in the team.
Yet again, a change to the offside law of 1925 also forced some mandatory changes to the player positioning and formations used. Eventhough the classic pyramid (2-3-5) was still widely in use, clubs who favoured more of a short passing approach tweaked their formation in order to be even better balanced against 2-3-5. The years between 1920 and 1930 gave us many different variations of the 2-3-5 formation. One of the most defining moments in that period, in terms of the evolution of tiki taka and Barcelonas possession based style, was the withdrawn center forward utilized by Mathias Sindelar in the Austrian “Wunderteam” of the 1930’s.
The Wunderteam was in fact the Austrian national team, a team led by Hugo Meisl. Behind the Austrians success (14 unbeatean matches between April 1931 to December 1932) was also the master work of an Englishman; Jimmy Hogan; a mentor, and like-minded friend to Meisl.
While Meisl believed the best way to win matches was to retain possession, Jimmy Hogan1 strongly believed in the benefits of quick short passing, mainly on the ground, but using long balls as a way to relieve pressure on your own team and unsettle opposite defenders. But both had a firm belief in the importance of letting the ball do its work and focusing on technical skills such as first touch and passing accuracy.
“Under Meisl soccer became almost an exhibition, a sort of competitive ballet, in which scoring goals was no more than the excuse for the weaving of a hundred intricate patterns”.
Brian Glanville, Inverting the Pyramid, 2009
His work from 1910 to 1936, became known as the Danubian School, as Jimmy Hogan traveled from club to club, nation to nation, mainly around the Danubian River (hence the name) as a mentor, tutor and coach. Clubs like FK Austria Vienna, MTK Budapest, BSC Young Boys to name a few, and national teams like formerly mentioned Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland all approached him and enjoyed success under his guidance.
The foundation for the Austrian Wunderteam’s later success was the Danubian School. The main thing behind the Danubian School was the all-approach to both intelligent and basic technical skills (in order to improve ball mastery). Jimmy Hogan demanded versatility and the ability to pass the ball on the ground. By showing players on boards how they should play, Hogan turned physical inferiority (lack of strength, weight and speed) to an advantage by improving their tactical awareness (movements and runs) founded in great technical abilities and excellent ball mastery – much like the basics behind Barcelonas youth development plan.
By 1930s, Meisl’s Wunderteam had managed to perfect their attacking movements and develop a more fluid tactic where combination play, movement and passing were far more important than dribbling and running with the ball. Key to the playing style, was the work of a maestro – an intelligent and creative 175cm tall slender guy. His name was Mathias Sindelar, otherwise known as the ‘Mozart of football’. His position was centre forward – or was it really..?
The big difference from the classic 2-3-5, was the use of the centre forward. Normally he would lead the line pushing forward, but Sindelar favoured to drop deep into the hole and use his creativity and dribbling capabilities from there. By dropping deeper, he would be able to create a passing triangle with first Fritz Gschweidl (until 1931) and later profilic goalscorer Josef Bican (a pacey inside forward, from 1931), and at last versatile inside forward / winger Anton Schall. His movement caused
big problems for the opposite defender at that time – a time when the fullback would man mark the player – everywhere he went. As Sindelar dropped into the midfield area, the opposite fullback would follow him, which created space for his inside forwards to move into.
Mathias Sindelar can be described as the first false nine. The movements of Mathias Sindelar and his teammates was described as the (Danubian) Whirl by Hugo Meisls brother, Willy.
“He was endowed with such an unbelievable wealth of variations and ideas that one could never really be sure which manner of play was to be excpected. He had no system, to say nothing of a set pattern. He just had … genius”
Friedrich Torberg, Die Erben der Tante Jolesch, 1978
1 Jimmy Hogan is also entitled as one of the most influential men behind Total Football and has been credited for the success of Mighty Magyars/Golden 11 aka the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s, where players like Ferenc Puskás, Nándor Hidegkuti and former Barcelona player Sándor Kocsis were all taken into our hearts.
With the formerly mentioned change in the offside law of 1925, it opted for big changes to playing styles and defensive setup.
It was no longer beneficial to play with only two markers (fullbacks). While the defenders years before had become fairly accustomed to setting up an offside trap, it now required better defensive organization. One of the fullbacks could no longer step out of the line to try to close down the forward – a misjudgement here would quickly lead to one on one situations.
The direct result of the offside law before 1925 favoured clubs to push their defensive line high in order to congest the playing area around the half way line. Now suddenly, the new change opened up space for the forwards, making the game more stretched, which in the end opened up for more diversity in passing.
In England, Herbert Chapman (Arsenal manager between 1925-34),enjoyed success by inventing a totally new formation – known as the W-M formation (3-2-2-3) – a tactic which looked to play on the counter. Chapman firmly believed a “team could attack for too long” – giving the opposite defensive line too much time to setup a defensive block – in other words, the element of surprise would vanish in the thin air the longer the attack kept on.
I presume Herbert Chapman has to thank his centre forward Charlie Buchan for the success of the WM formation. He realized the importance of reverting the centre half back into a centre fullback in order to provide more defensive cover for the two fullbacks. With the lack of enough depth in midfield, the inside forwards were pulled back in a deeper position in order to balance defense and attack. One of these reverted inside forwards was Alex James, a player often compared to the playing style of Dennis Bergkamp. As a deep inside forward, James could utilize his exceptional ball control, technique and ball mastery and dictate play behind the attacking line – being more of an advanced playmaker of that time.
The change did not only give success, but the formation became even more defensively stable, both providing more space for each of the forwards in the attacking line and creating more triangles and passing patterns. The positioning made the team able to play out from the back, but also stretch the pitch in order to use the whole playing surface, making it even more difficult to defend against.
But the main reference to the tiki taka playing style would be the strong resemblance to the formation (player positoning) and shape used by Herbert Chapmans admirer and friend, Vittorio Pozzo 2 – a tactical wizard. The former English student admired the English playing style such as the classic formation (2-3-5).
Even though he saw the benefits of the WM formation and the third-back line, he settled for a more attacking approach instead.
He made a compromise between the WM formation, the pyramid formation (2-3-5) and the knowledge of the Danubian School. Vittorio Pozzo kept the 2 back line of the pyramid and used a centre halfback instead, similar to the classic pyramid.
The new player positioning would become known as the centro mediano – central point. The centre halfback would sit in front of the two fullbacks providing more cover and support for them. The new change to the role of the centre halfback in the ‘il metodo’ was a highly dynamic player – a pivotal role. He would drop between the two fullbacks and man mark the centre forward when not in possession, and advance forward when in possession. The centro mediano was utilized by Luis Felipe Monti – who could be described as the “first” deep-lying playmaker. He would dictate play – positioned behind the two inside forwards – favouring more direct passes out to the wings, just like the traditional English centre half of the classic pyramid.
While the fullbacks and centro mediano formed a defensively strong triangle, the two other halfbacks could now play wider, covering the flanks. The two inside forwards played deeper than in the WM – positioned closer to the half way line (median) in order to support the wide players better. The two inside forwards in the likes of Giuseppe Meazza (a superb dribbler and a man with the eye for a great pass) and Giovanni Ferrari looked to break down opposite defences and formed a highly dynamic duo.
Vittorio Pozzo described the elegance of legend Giuseppe Meazza like this: “He was a born forward. He saw the game, understood the situation, distributed the ball carefully and made the team offense operate. Having him on the team was like starting the game 1–0 up”.
The benefits of the new shape was that it created an overload in the transition zone, when facing opponents who played 2-3-5 or WM, as the Italian 2-3-2-3 had 5 closely linked players around the halfway line. All in all, the shape gave not only better defensive balance, but also opted for more effective counter-attacks as you had players almost in every area of the pitch. The defensively balanced, but highly attacking formation, was hereby referred to as the WW – as the M was literally and effectively turned upside down. As you will notice, Pozzo’s 2-3-2-3 formation formed many more triangles than the formations used up to that point. The 2-3-2-3 with the dynamic centro mediano made it easier to build from the back.
“Vittorio Pozzo was one of the earliest exponents of man-marking; a sign that football had become not merely about a side playing its own game, but about stopping the opposition playing theirs”.
Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, 2009
Vittorio Pozzo was appointed as Italian national coach several times. His longest period were between 1929-1948, but he had also coached the Italian national team before the Olympics 1912. There he faced Hugo Meisls Wunderteam for the first time. While Italy lost 5-1, it led to a lifetime friendship and rivalry with Meisl. With Pozzo’s ‘il metodo 2-3-2-3’, Italy won back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938, facing Czeckoslovakia and Hungary – the very students of the ‘Danubian school’.
Yet again, it’s an English football match in the spotlight of my attention. The fixture between England and Hungary November 1953 changed the football tactics history forever. An English side who had never been beaten on home soil by continental opposition got pulverized by the highly mobile and tactically innovative Hungarians; losing 3-6. Hungary was tactically superior and showed that England had fallen behind in the evolution of football tactics.
[Complete Match] England vs Hungary 3-6, 1953 with English Commentator
The victory was, humorously, dedicated to an Englishman: “Jimmy Hogan taught us everything we know about football”.
But behind the success, was also the tactical mastermind of Gusztáv Sebes and his philosophies. Influenced and inspired by the two pre-war World Cup wins by Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy and the Meisls Wunderteam, the Hungarian deputy minister of sport (Gusztav Sebes), started on the work to shape Hungarian football in the likes of Honved and MTK.
Sebes who had socialistic ideals, believed the key to succes was the notion of every player pulling an equal weight and being able to play in all positions on the field. He shared the beliefs of Vittorio Pozzo who meant that players playing together on a regular basis will get a better understanding of each others play.
Sebes revolutionized football tactics with 4 important innovations/ideas – which made way for the Total Football of the 70’s:
A) implementing fitness regimes and training sessions in order to work regularly on players physique, natural fitness, skills, and tactical understanding on a weekly basis. As players were amateurs working alongside playing football on the weekends, regular training schedules were highly uncommon in those days.
B) withdraw the centre forward in the likes of Nándor Hidegkuti into the attacking midfielder position becoming more of a modern second striker, otherwise known as a deep-lying forward in order to drag opponents out of their positions leaving space for others. Eventhough it was already done before, it may have opened up the eyes of the world to move over to zonal man marking.
C) Sebes demanded that every player should be able to play all positions on the pitch. The system provided a tremendous amount of flexibility which resulted into a highly effective group dynamic and on-field fluidity based on versatile players – a foundation based on a total understanding between all team members and their familiarity with the style and strengths of eachother.
D) While the WM and WW formations where often diverted into an attacking and defensive unit, the new Hungarian style utilized a highly fluid attacking tactic were all players were involved in the attacking build-up and movement in transition from defence to attack. This was very unlikly these days, as everyone had their limited skills and duty.
“When we attacked, everyone attacked, and in defence it was the same. We were the prototype for Total Football.”
Ferenc Puskas, Inside Forward and Captain, (84 goals in 85 caps between 1945-56)
In regard to tactics and formation, the WM had transitioned to a WW formation by the innovation of a fellow countryman; Hungarian coach Márton Bukovi and the inspiration of Italy pre-war – a formation which turned the M upside down describing it as a 2-3-2-3 formation. Sebes used a further development of the WW formation by pushing the inside forwards (Puskas and Kocsis) further forward, while his centre forward Hidegkuti would play behind them. One of the half backs was withdrawn into a more defensive centre half position, acting more like a central defender than a defensive midfielder. With the Mighty Magyars and Sebes’ ideas, the goalkeeper was now more involved in building up the play from the back – acting more like a sweeper keeper than a traditional GK. Grosics, one of the 6 key players was often referred to as the ‘fourth back’.
As Zakariás would often drop deep from his half back role, it started resembling a flat back four. The formation of the Mighty Magyars can only be described as a lopsided 4-2-4 formation, where there were no ‘distinct’ player positioning like in a 2-3-5 or Arrigo Sacchis 4-4-2. The 4-2-4 formation was later introduced in Brazil by Bela Guttman which ended in the first of five World Cup wins for Brazil.
The success of the Mighty Magyars were players who constantly looked to change roles and positions – highly effective against a static man marking system. This innovative tactical philosophy and style created both space for others to roam into, but also made the opposite defenders unsure if they should follow them or stick to their designated position. No matter what they did, it would leave a gap in the middle for primary playmaker Hidegkuti, but also Puskás and Bozsik, to exploit.
By getting his team to attack with fluidity and interchanging positions, the 5 key individuals: Nándor Hidegkuti, Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis, József Bozsik and Zoltán Czibor, could form the base of Magnificant Magyars or Mighty Magyars success. Utilizing their magnificent skills, intelligence and creativity to the benefit of the team – an era which lasted for 32 unbeaten consecutive matches – a record that still stands today.
Viktor Maslov might not be the most famous name in world football. But for me, he is one of the most influential football managers, especially if we look on the rise of the pressing game and the massive steps tactics had taken the last 5-10 years in regard to utilizing pressing as a way to counter the opposition. Maslov who was known to demand the players loyalty and trust would be regarded as a father figure. In terms of pressing, he is definitely the grand old man – or Grandad as he was nicknamed by his players!
Viktor Maslov3 was born in Moscow 1910, playing for Torpedo Moscow throughout his playing career – featuring as their captain between 1936-39. This was also the club he would go on to manage as his first managerial experience (1942-48). Viktor Maslov could be described as a revolutionary coach, a tactical innovator or a visionary manager, who focused as much on communication and trust, as team-building and player motivation. In a wider perspective, you could say he professionalized the game.
In regard to the defining moments of the tiki taka evolution, we must fast forward to 1964, when he took on the managerial job of Ukrainian Dynamo Kyiv. Maslov who had started to experiment with players’ nutrition, diet and physical preparation, was the pioneer of early sport science – an experiment which laid the foundation for running the full 90 minutes of the match. The focus on natural fitness and player stamina were only one of the steps which made way for utilizing pressing – giving opponents less time on the ball! As simple as it may sound, pressing or closing down was uncommon these days, and even though the Dutch Total Football and Arrigo Sacchis 4-4-2 tactic would later use it, it wasn’t until Barcelonas Tiki Taka playing style several years after, that it went mainstream.
In order to utilize pressing, Maslov made some groundbreaking changes – first the invention of the 4-4-2 formation / (system) – a tactical mastermind which focused on an organisation that effectively made Maslovs side able to hunt in packs. The Soviet coach had studied the 4-2-4 formation which Brazil won the World Cup with twice the years before, and saw the benefits and need of Zagallo (left winger), who dropped deep, in order to outnumber the midfield area against teams playing with 4-2-4 formations or any variation of it (lopsided 4-3-3 incl.). Maslovs approach was to retreat both wingers, position them as wide midfielders – in order to let them work the space in front of the fullbacks. As there was no longer room for wingers, Maslov converted forwards into midfielders in order to keep the level of creativity and flair for his wide midfielders. By positioning the former wingers as wide midfielders, in a time man marking was common, I would believe it drew the opposite fullbacks out of position; who should they man mark now when nobody was in their zone?
He then instructed one of his central midfielders (former defender Vasyl Turyanchyk) to play a holding role, becoming the first holding midfielder in behind the iron curtain, turning the 2 banks of four into a 1+3 midfield when not in possession. The defensive minded player would stay between the defenders and midfielders, and protect the back four. It made sure that Maslovs side could look to regain possession as a tight unit. The fixed defensive point of Turyanchyk made it able for the fullbacks to have dual responsibilities – becoming what we know today as attacking fullbacks, who joined the recycling of possession.
The 4-1-3-2 formation was similar to the formation Alf Ramseys’ England won their first World Cup with in 1966 – a tactics and playing style referred to as “The Wingless Wonders”.
“Once it became apparent that there was no need for out-and-out touchline hugging wingers, the midfield four became far more flexible”.
Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, 2009
The invention of pressing and the introduction of zonal marking, (which was first used by Zeze Moreira, Brazil 1958), made the team play with a much higher defensive line, aiming to win the ball back higher up the pitch. This defensive pressure was normally started from the midfielders. When the midfielders would push out to harass the man in possession, there wasn’t any space behind them for the opposition team to roam into – resulting in an more effecient and stronger press.
The opposition, who were used to dwell on ball and have seconds to make a judgement were now forced to spend less time on the ball in order to not lose it! What he did was actually to exploit his ideas about how football was not to be played; as he strongly believed players should never dwell on ball, but keep the tempo of the match by passing and moving instead of individual dribbling – perhaps looking at it as lost time. I would imagine that the introduction of pressing these days both stressed and bewildered the opposite players – in the end resulting in a vast amount of mistakes. Viktor Maslovs pressing regime surely opened the eyes of fellow coaches. By abolishing wingers and introducing pressing it became the beginning of the end to the traditional winger, who had earlier been given loads of time to accelerate and dribble down the flanks.
“Every now and again Maslov’s players did, by chance or by instinct, switch positions. The 4-4-2 system introduced by Grandad was only a formal order; in the course of the game there was complete inter-changeability; any defender could press forward without fear, because he knew that a team-mate would cover him if he were unable to return in time. Midfielders and forwards could allow themselves a much wider variety of actions than before. This team played the prototype of Total Football”.
József Szabo, FC Dynamo Kyiv, 1959-69
But it wasn’t only supreme organisation and player positioning that gave his side a more balanced formation.
Maslov firmly believed zonal marking was the right approach to counter the opposition. He thought good organisation made it possible to congest space and be superior in every part of the field.
The improved organisation of the midfield and their “unique” player positioning coupled with the introduction of zonal marking made sure that it became harder to exploit space both between lines but also between players in each line. The birth of the 4-4-2 formation and strategic zonal marking made sure that each player was now covering for eachother despite being aggressive in their pressure.
In my opinion, the innovation wasn’t as much as about pressing but also about team building.
Behind the success of the 4-4-2 formation was Maslovs approach to team-building – an approach perhaps ahead of his time. His focus was to find players who fitted the system rather than individual skills, which he believed benefitted the team far more. Players like former Dynamo Kyiv star and winger(!), Valeriy Lobanovskyi, was quickly shipped out. It was perhaps a ruthless approach, but in the end it showed that individuals don’t win football matches, teams do.
“No matter how talented the individual, if they did not function as part of the collective, they had no place within it”.
Inverting the pyramid, 2009
Viktor Maslovs playing style and system became further developed by Valeriy Lobanovskyi who used statistical analysis in order to benefit the teams results – in the aim of removing human errors based on facts rather than personal judgement. Suddenly computers were part of football, something which was unthinkable in 1970s. The computer ordered had only one purpose – to collect data about player and team statistics. The former Maslov student, Valeriy Lobanovskyyi, discovered that controlling space were far more important than controlling the ball; both in defense and attacking situations.
– Graham Taylor heard about Maslov in the 1970s and incorporated pressing into the game plan of Watford, whom he coached all the way from the former Fourth Division to the First.
Perhap tactical evolutions need innovative players and coaches. Those who improvise and dare to do something out of the ordinary. Those who have the vision to react to the changes of the time. But it doesn’t have to be revolutionary to be evolutional. One huge part of the tactical evolution in football is the Brazilian Samba football. When Brazil first adopted the 4-2-4 formation it was the early birth of the attacking fullback. Due to the large open space in front of the fullbacks it encouraged them to venture upfield, as they knew they had cover behind them.
One of the first attacking fullbacks on the international scene was Djalma Pereira Dias dos Santo aka Djalma Santos. The right back of the Brazil national team and Portuguesa/Palmeiras between 1952-68 is considered to be one of the best right backs in history. Djalma Santos recorded 964 appearances, scoring 23 goals in his playing career. For the Brazilian National team he managed to experience 4 World Cups: 98 appearances and 2 World Cup trophies. He was part of the All Star team 1958, when Brazil won their first World Cup trophy, by playing only 1(!) match – the final.
On the opposite side of Djalma played Nilton Santos, a left back who recored 3 goals in 75 appearances for the Brazilian national team, and was as talented going forward as Djalma. Perhaps Djalma and Nilton Santos were the perfect players in the 4-2-4 formation – a player who was as defensively solid as he was skilled in attack. They could be decribed as players who had it all.
In the case of Djalma Santos, he was quick to cover ground, a good tackler and a player who helped to recycle possession. Standng only 173cm tall, he was even decent in the air. But unlike many other fullbacks at the time, when their “only” duty was to man mark opposite wingers, the technically gifted and highly creative Brazilian fullback tended to move forward and join the attacks, often overlapping the inside forward (a feature Vic Buckingham, who would impact the evolution of the Tiki Taka, also encouraged for his possession-keeping sides at that time). Djalma Santos also tended to whip the ball over his opponent or make an easy pass to a nearby player rather than dribble his way around him. The attacking fluidity and flexible systems, where the world hailed the likes of Pele, Vava, Garrincha and Mario Zagallo, was in my opinion aided by Djalma and Nilton Santos’ defensive and attacking skills.
[Complete Match] Brazil vs Sweden 5-2, World Cup Final 1958, (Djalma Santos shirt number 4), Swedish Commentator
Perhaps it was them who became the blueprint of the style of the Brazilian attacking wingbacks in the years to come, perhaps it was the evolution of the football tactics and the transfer to zonal marking. What’s certain is that the first attacking fullbacks made an impact to how the attacking style of the full-backs role was preferred to be played from then on. When Mário Zagallo was appointed the national manager of Brazil 1970 – becoming the first to win the World Cup both as a player and a manager, the 4-2-4 formation was scrapped in favour of a more flexible 4-3-3 formation (the first variant of the 4-2-3-1, which we see today). Here, the attacking movements and playmaking skills of Carlos Alberto Torres played a significant role. The attacking right back captained the Brazilian national team and recorded 8 goals in 53 appearances, scoring what is considered one of the best goals in the history of the Fifa World Cup.
Carlos Alberto’s Wondergoal, World Cup 1970 Final against Italy
Carlos Alberto was a significant attacking fullback who had the dribbling capabilities and ball control of the best wingers. As the video above shows, Carlos Alberto had an excellent vision and comprehision of the game, which were the foundation for his timely forward runs. In front of Carlos Alberto was Jairzinho, an inside forward who favoured to cut inside (becoming the style of inverted wingers Barcelona applies today).
It wasn’t until 19824, when Brazil (who had been using it for several years), set-up in a 4-2-2-2 formation in the World Cup held in Spain, that the world could experience the modern attacking wingbacks we see today. Without wingers the attacking wingbacks in the likes of Leandro and Júnior could cover the entire flank. The narrow but fluid 4-2-2-2 formation was hereby given width from the wingbacks. Leandro and Júnior were now forced to run up and down both to deliver crosses, but also dribble along the touchline to make space for the more creative players, in addition to providing defensive stability required from the traditional fullback duties.
In my opinion, the introduction of attacking fullbacks / wingbacks was a masterpiece. They had more space to accelerate into compared to the traditional wingers and they could also unbalance the opposite team and provide opportunities to come on the blind side of the opposite wide defender, causing more problems. As they were often positioned behind the man in possession, they had already the right positioning to accelerate quickly and venture forward, compared to a winger who must either play with his back to the goal or be positioned with his shoulder against the goal, in order to have full vision of the game.
It became more difficult for the opposition team to pick up their timely runs and it gave the wingbacks far more space in the attacking third (than the traditional winger). On the other side, there is still very little space behind the fullbacks/wingbacks when defending. All in all, it gave both defensive balance, but also an attacking unpredicability where fullbacks attack space rather than wingers roaming for space. Thanks to the Brazilian school, and their attacking wingbacks, we have all been able to experience the deep runs from Cafu, Roberto Carlos, Maicon, Marcelo and, last but not least, Daniel Alves of FC Barcelona – players who all are/were capable of providing and extra attacking threat.
The 4-2-2-2 formation was later utilized by Carlos Alberto Parreira in the World Cup 2006 – referred to as ‘The Magic Square‘ and by Vanderlei Luxemburgo at Real Madrid 2004/05 without major success – referred to as the ‘magic quadrilateral’.
One of the few countries who played the tradition 2-3-5 formation into the late 1950s was Holland. At this time they were decades behind the tactical evolution, bewildered by ideas of using a centre halfback and solely two centrebacks. But this would soon change… perhaps in tandem with the youth movement of 1960s?
Eventhough the Hollands and Ajax’s playing style wasn’t referred to as totaalvoetbal until the World Cup 1974 in West-Germany – a competition Johan Cruyff was named the best player of the tournament – the invention of what would later be entitled the Dutch Total Football had slightly begun years before.
Like the Tiki Taka playing style wasn’t founded by Pep Guardiola, the Dutch Total Football didn’t magically erupt from the genius of Rinus Michels. As always in the evolution of football tactics there are a number of people to credit – managers and players who have all made an impact on the Total Football we experienced in the 1970s. Like the tiki taka, the Total Football had been influenced by trends, new visions on how to play the best football, tactical answers to common problems at the time and at last, how to counter the opposite team effectively.
The evolution of the Total Football has been a case about: A) internal matters, such as influential coaches like Jack Reynolds (Ajax coach 1915-25, 1928-40, 1945-47) and Vic Buckingham (Ajax coach 1959-61, 1964-65), who brought with them their own belief on how football should be played, new coaching and training methods and of course their characteristics and personalities, and players like Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens, who would influence on the playing style. On the other end of the scale you will have B) external inputs, which can be credited to Jimmy Hogan, Willy Meisl’s The Whirl, Gusztáv Sebes’ Mighty Magyars, the arise of the sweeper in the Catenaccio system, and the impact Brazil’s two World Cup trophies must have had on the whole football audience – from players to coaches – from young teenagers at that time who sought for new idols, to the generations after. (Note! Johan Cruyff were at the tender age of 15 years old in 1962).
In the first period of the 1960s, Helenio Herrera had great success with the ultra-defensive strict man marking system called Catenaccio. The style replicated the essence of how football were played in that period: rigid, defensive minded systems who look to destroy the opposition team with strength and often dirty tricks. Football had become boring, a game where avoiding losses were far more important than playing beautiful football. The Dutch Total Football was in my eyes invented as an answer to counter the strict man marking system adopted in the Catenaccio and other similar systems, founded from something as “destructive” as keeping possession. When Rinus Michels, the former Ajax player developed by Vic Buckingham, was appointed manager 1965, Ajax were nowhere close to European international standard. They struggled at that time to avoid relegation. With the appointment, Michels installed a 4-2-4 formation – copying the two times World Cup winners Brazil – a formation which soon should become 1-3-3-3 with a libero.
The Dutch Total Football, which was invented by Jack Reynolds, influenced by Vic Buckinghams quick passing, free-flowing exciting attacking football and put in system by Rinus Michels can be described as a tactical system where the founding belief was about controlling space in the different aspects of the game – from defensive block (without possession) to attacking shape (with possession), and of course also in the transition phases when the team was looking to regain possession quickly.
It was based om simplicity, team ethics and flexible space. It could be described as a further development of Viktor Maslovs idea of dominating space and overloading the opposition in all areas of the pitch.
With the invention of Dutch Total Football the game took a closer step to the modern football which we experience today, not only because it involved intensive pressing – a further development of Viktor Maslovs pressing system, an aggressive offside trap and lots of movements – much like The Mighty Magyars or the improvised Brazilian Samba football discussed earlier, but also because of the new vision on how to benefit from 11 players on the pitch – utilizing their strengths to counter 11 oppositions.
In the heart of the concept of Total Football was the founding belief, or theory, about flexible space. The idea was that “any pitch dimension could be altered by the team playing on it”.
“When we were defending, the gaps between us had to be short. When we attacked, we spread out and used the wings […]”
“When we defended, we look to keep the opponent on the halfway line. Our standpoint was that we were not protecting our own goal, we were attacking the halfway line.”
Ruud Krol, “Brilliant Orange; The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer”
Rinus Michels firmly believed that retaining possession became far more easy when you made the pitch as big as possible when in possession of the ball, and similarly squeeze the playing size for the opposition team when your team was not in possession. By narrowing the space – making the pitch smaller – it would become far more difficult for the opposition team to retain possession. This was often done by playing with a very high defensive line (normally defending a line 10 yards inside own half) in together with the aggressive but effective offside trap set by the libero (Velibor Vasovic) and the relentless pressing from Johan Neeskens, which forced the others to push up together with him. The squeezing of the space made sure that there were less obvious passing alternatives for the opposite team and forced them to make quicker judgements than they were used to.
In the attacking phase, midfielders became wide midfielders where wingers were hugging the touchline before cutting inside, while the formation contracted in the defensive phase ensuring that wide midfielders were positioned much closer.
“You make space, you come into space. And if the ball doesn’t come, you leave this place and another player will come into it. This movement flows down the sides of the team and also in the middle”.
Barry Hulshoff, “Brilliant Orange; The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer”
One of the significant features of the Dutch Total Football was exactly how the players utilized the space. When the early version of the 4-3-3 was finally incorporated, the new Ajax formation ensured spatial football could take place. The 1-3-3-3 formation, as I see it, had three channels: the left side, the right side and the centre of the pitch – all with their different diversities of playing effective football.
In order to counter the opposition team, Rinus Michels looked at how he could keep his players fresher than the opponent. The answer he worked by was to decrease the amount of running from the players based on better positioning in relationship to eachother. Less running on each meant a fitter squad who maintained a higher level of concentration. Fresher legs (and mind) meant that Ajax could pressure the opposition in higher amount of times.
The solution was as simple as position switching through effective and intelligent movements.
“Fitness has to be 100%, but how can you play for 90 minutes, and remain strong?”
“You don’t want to run back to defend because you are trying to save energy. Instead of running 80 metres back and 80 forward, it’s better to run only 10 in each direction. That’s 20 metres instead of 160!”
Ruud Krol, “Brilliant Orange; The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer”
Where the notion in the years before had been in the idea of players designated to their specific role duties and position, the new style encouraged all players on the field to involve in all phases of the play – utilizing the players versatility and adaptability. When one player drifted into a new position (new found space), another would cover and fill his position. This meant that it required universal players. In other words; all the outfield players should be able to take over anothers role and being skilled in their primary duties. The primary position switching happen within the three channels. When Keizer cut inside, it left an open space either Krol or Cruyff could move into. If Cruyff moved inside, Mühren or Neeskens could take his place. And if Krol pushed up, someone had to cover his role. The closely attacked players within each channel (and also vertical line) could then save energy by smarter running. The chain of events required tactical intelligent players and a squad who played by instinct – which was highly familiar with eachothers strengths and weaknesses. Suddenly the phrase habit football was born.
When the playing style was fully incorporated into Ajax, the result of constant movements and position-switching led to the ultimate balanced team – otherwise understood as a team in total control. It ensured that the tactical shape and organisation through all phases of play was kept, even when players drifted out of their normal position, leaving no new space for the opposition to exploit, either to counter in or in the stage when Ajax pressured relentlessly. The tactical masterclass made it far easier to retain possession effectively and deny the opposite players space to exploit. It provided a new dimension to the attacking phase with unpredictability and organized chaoes, something opposite defenders had never experienced before.
The most striking difference between the Total Football and the Tiki Taka is the eagerness to play attacking direct football – a playing style much more similar to how Borussia Dortmund or Real Madrid plays at their best. Ajax would look to relieve pressure when necessary by playing in their goalkeeper – a player now functioning more like a technical sweeper than a traditional goalkeeper. Players would play quick short passes between eachother too, but the core of the system was their attacking attitude, where the length of passes was of less importance than attacking from every angle of the pitch.
“In four passes we would be in front of goal. Nowadays they take twenty passes — backwards, sideways, backwards. We didn’t play like that. We went for the goal.”
Sjark Swaart, “Brilliant Orange; The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer”
The highly fluid Totaalvoetbal playing style was merely advantageous because of the interchange of positions and the players ability to cover for eachother through excellent anticipation and team spirit. Habit football would lead the path to the tiki taka football we’ve experienced the last decade. In the period between 1965 – 1974 Ajax won 7 Eredivise titles, won the KNVB Cup 4 times and claiming three consecutive European cup trophies (1970-73). Ajax was famed for scoring goals in this period, and are still holding the record of the enormous amount of 122 goals (in 34 games) in one season (1966-67) in Dutch football to this day.
Breaking records were as normal as position-switching; in 1971-72 season, Ajax entered the hall of fame as one of few clubs who won the continental treble pluss the Intercontinental Cup in the same calendar year. With the playing system of totaalvoetball, Rinus Michels would later lead the Dutch national team to a World Cup runner up, loosing the final against the host West-Germany, just within the totaalvoetbal era, as players were in decline.
“The only team I’ve seen that did things differently was Holland at the 1974 World Cup in Germany. Since then everything looks more or less the same to me… Their ‘carousel’ style of play was amazing to watch and marvellous for the game”.
Carlos Alberto, Brazil, World Cup Winner 1970
I guess if we could look back in another 100 years, we’ll discover that the steps the evolution of football tactics has done the last 100 years were only revolutioning for that time, and that the steps have been rather small in a wider context.
Football has gone from individuality to the systems we see today. From formations with 6 to 8 forwards to the modern trend of strikerless formations.
In regard to the the tiki taka, I guess we have been fortunate enough to experience some of the best playing styles and football philosophies the world have ever seen yet, incorporated into one playing identity: the tiki taka. From another perspective, it may have been Barcelona who were ahead of everyone else and incorporated a formation with Lionel Messi as a false 9, and a short passing tactic which favoured the new change of the offside law 2005.
No matter how we look at the evolution of Barcelonas tiki taka playing style, you can not do anything than wonder: How much effect had the appointment of Josep Guardiola in the birth of the tiki taka? Was the foundation already laid out several years before with the managerial periods of Vic Buckingham (1969-71), Rinus Michels (1971-75, 1976-78), Johan Cruyff (1988-96), Luis van Gaal (1997-2000, 2002-03) and Frank Rijkaard (2003-2008) – all directors and pupils of the totaalvoetbal.
Were Barcelona between 2008-2012 the modern version of the Dutch Golden Team, where individual freedom was given within the main playing identity and system? Could the tiki taka have happen without intelligent players like Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi and/or Sergio Busquets? Perhaps Barcelonas tiki taka football is more bound by the history of football tactics rather than revolutionizing football? I will leave those questions hanging and ecourage you to express your opinions below.
“At Barcelona we are taking football back to its origins”.
Daniel Alves, Fc Barcelona 2008-
What’s certain is that spatial football and dominating zones through effective pressing is just the beginning of a wider awareness within the football association. Football has and will always be about scoring one more goal than the opponent. It’s only how you achieve it, that has/will be changed throughout history – influenced by the rules set, changes to the offside laws and other bounderies which in the end curb 22 competitive players.
Sources and Credit
Inverting the Pyramid (2009) by Jonathan Wilson
Brilliant Orange; The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer (2008) by David Winner
History of Football Tactics, BigSoccer Forum
Gottfried Fuchs – Before the D – a blog about pre World War II Football
Brief History of Football Tactics: The Danubian School, From Ademir to Zizinho
Jimmy Hogan: The Englishman who inspired the Magical Magyars by Chris Bevan BBC Sport 24.11.2013
1938 World Cup: Italy repeats as champions by John F. Molinaro CBC Sports
The Scot who gave Brazil the most beautiful game of all, Scotsman.com
Viktor Maslow; #2 Football Greatest Managers, The Equaliser (2010).
Tactics and The Role Played by Religion in the Shaping of the Modern Game, Jonathan Wilson, WorldSoccer.com (2012)
Djalma Santos; Footballer who won the World Cup with Brazil twice, Ivan Ponting, The Independent, 2013
The Godfather Of Total Football Passes Away, The Daisy Cutter, 2013
Photo #1, “1912 Stockholm Football Final” is taken in the Stockholm Olympics final, a match between Great Britain and Denmark.
Photo #2, The First False Nine, “Mathias Sindelar” (1903-1939), National Team of Austria aka ‘The Wunderteam’
Photo #3, Gianpietro Combi (left) and František Plánička (right) at World Cup (1934) kick off between Italy and Hungary
Photo #4, Viktor Maslov – Source of image – http://equaliserblog.wordpress.com
Photo #5, Pele dribbling past a defender during Malmö-Brazil 1-7 (Pelé scored 2 goals) at Malmö city stadium.
Photo #6, Brazil line up against Peru World Cup 1970. From left to right: Carlos Alberto Torres, Brito, Piazza, Félix, Clodoaldo and Everaldo; Jairzinho, Gérson, Tostão, Pelé and Rivelino.