Saturday, January 8, 2011

No wonder analyzes and discussions went for months after the end of the World Cup. And most often the key word was ‘lessons’, as in the photo here:
Cryuff among four Argentines, but very free.
This World Cup was perhaps the most discussed ever and for good reason: it presented one of the most, if not simply the most, important change in football and there was a lot food for thought. ‘Total football’. Not exactly new by 1974, but now dominating the whole world and providing an interesting option: either to employ it, or perish. Usually, total football is summarized as ‘all in attack; all in defense’, but this hardly explains anything. There were very important characteristics of the brand, most of which became clear at the World Cup. The model – respectively, the most analyzed team, was Holland. First of all, it was kind of football dedicated to attack. The tempo was very fast, requiring players in excellent condition and capable to cover the whole field for 90 minutes. But such players were not simply runners – they were to be highly skilled and intelligent players, able to change positions following the flow of the game. A striker had to be able to act as, say, full-back, if necessary, and vice-versa. Thus, classic positions were only nominal – players acted depending on the needs of the moment and more: they had to be equally skilled at their temporary task, just the same as their primery position. The whole team was to act as a whole in both attacking and defending, thus achieving numeric superiority at any point of the pitch. Defense starts at the moment the opposition gets possession of the ball – no matter where, the player with the ball has to be swarmed by players of the ‘total’ team and dispossessed or at least prevented from building dangerous attack. Once the ball is acquired, the total team disperces, looking for empty space, and using it for accelerating their own attack and making it more dangerous. The Dutch were exactly that and as a result appeared always ‘more’ than the other team, as if having more players than the other side, but in the same time, as at the above photo, the Dutch never cluttered in attack, and even when surrounded by many defensemen they looked free in an empty space. The secret was the ball – it was to be passed quickly to a free teammate in an area where the development of attack would be most dangerous. Empty space was key for attack; crowded space – the key for defense. And the other key for defense – start defending at the moment the other team gets the ball; the farther away from our own net, the better. This approach was revolutionary, for traditionally teams used to run back to their own half in order of organizing defense – meantime leaving the opposition free to organize attack and come close to the goal. Now defense started in the oppositions half – and often the ball did not even come to their own ‘defensive’ half of the pitch, for it was recovered and counter-attack launched. As a whole, the game was elegant, skilful and creative, but it required versatile players, able to employ different tactics – the Dutch never shied away from hard tackles, rough physical playing, and what became to be known as ‘tactical fouls’ – deliberate fouls to break an opposition’s attack either before it was fully developed, or when it looked clearly dangerous near the Dutch net. The ‘total football’ required players well versed in tactics, switching them at will, and employing them to the best possible result. A prime example of tactical intelligence was the risky off-side trap (which is not Dutch invention) – it requires orchestrated rush of the whole defense at the very moment before opposite player passes the ball to already running ahead teammate. When executed perfectly, the scheme leaves the striker in off-side. When the players are clumsy, the striker is not off-side, but is entirely free to score, for the whole defense is away and running towards the centre of the pitch. A combination of tactical knowledge and acute ability for reading the game is required for such risky weapons. But when the opposition was at the same level of knowledge and intelligence, then different tactics had to be employed – and often changed during the game. Inability to change tactics when something is not working, or the opposition introduces a surprise is deadly – the Germans were innoventive at the final, and won; the Dutch were unable to switch tactics and lost just because Cruyff was blocked, but his teammates continued to supply him with balls. But inferior opponents were outplayed effortlessly, the Dutch entirely controlling the game.
Total football changed the role of the team star – firstly, it was no longer the mercurial high scoring striker, but the playmaker. However, it was no longer classic playmaker either – he had to be more than mere supplier of balls from defense to attack: a creative and visionary organizer of attacks, looking and finding the most dangerous spot to pass the ball to a frantically running teammate, a spot, where the opposition is not expecting the ball to be. Reading the game was essential and new ‘artistic’ terms came about to describe total football playmakers: conductor, dispatcher, architect. Ideally, a team should have more than one player capable of directing the game – and this was seen as a potential for further development – but one thing was already sure in 1974: that the ‘conductor’ was not to be even a midfielder anymore: among the most impressive ‘dispatchers’ at the World Cup only Deyna was classic midfield playmaker. Cryuff was centreforward and Beckenbauer was a defenseman – it was because of him another new term came into existence: the ‘libero’, positioned last in defense, like a sweeper, but not chained to defensive functions at all – the libero was to organize the attacks of his team. And to a point the fate of the first three teams at the World Cup suggested the relative superiority of the libero over other kinds of playmakers: Cryuff was still too much ahead in the attacking line to have really huge operative space, and Deyna was too traditional midfielder – respectively, the Germans finished first, and Poland – third. Beckenbauer conducted the whole field and among other things his ‘libero’ position gave him the power to control and change the tempo of the match to the best advantage of his team.
But there was one more change in the new star: previously, the team played for the star. He was receiver of balls and opportunities; the served him. And because of that the ‘old’ star participated only in attacks – when his team was defending, the star just watched. He was a consumer. The new star was just the opposite: he was to serve the team and create opportunities for his teammates to score. His new role required from him dynamic, not static, play; he was to run constantly everywhere and to participate in defense as well. The failure of Italy was a failure of the old understanding of football and the role of the star player in it, but the teams which played or at least tried to play total football had different stars – Gerd Muller is perhaps the best example, for he was a player trained in the old school and also by his position a clear consumer: yet, he actively participated in defense (although it was obvious to all, that he was no defenseman) – the point is, total football asked even established players to change their habbits. Sometimes even their nominal positions – Haan and Rijsberegen for Holland; Holzenbein and Bomhof for Germany; Vogts in the final. The whole team was to be made of stars – not just workhorses, but technical, fit, knowledgeable, and creative players.
And speaking of whole team, there was one other lesson: the total team had to be well balanced, without weak players at any position. Holland had mediocre goalkeeper and to a point lost the title because of Jongbloed: when he was called to action, he was not able to. West Germany had an excellent Sep Maier on the other hand – a goalie, capable of making fantastic saves and always up to whatever challenge. But balance went beyond the starting eleven: total football required good reserves at every post. As good as the starters and versatile as the starters: short bench deprived Holland of tactical changes when needed, but West Germany had a long bench and Schon was able to try various players until finding the winning squad. Yet, Holland played great football for the most of the tournament and nobody changes a winning team, so the shortcomings of the whole selection was were not really important (besides, those were objective shortcomings – there were simply no good players for some posts, particularly goalies). Struggling Brazil, having ‘short bench’ of inferior players, was unable to change players and become better, unlike West Germany.
In view of all that conclusions were made: the most important was that whoever stuck to oldfashioned football was to be constant loser in the future. ‘Oldfashioned’ was largely understood as defensive football – and from this perspective European football was vastly superior than anybody else, particularly superior to South American. The South Americans seemingly misunderstood the changes in the European game, interpreting them as physical fitness, discipline, and defensive tactics. The Argentine coach Cap was the blindest of all, stating that modern football is defensive football and his team was to play just defense. Zagallo strangled Brazil with his schematic discipline and defensive minded tactics. What the South Americans did not see was the most important: total football was attacking, technical, fast, but elegant game. It was far from running madly and kicking anybody nearby. It was sophisticated and entertaining, high scoring football. Holland, West Germany, Poland, Sweden, Yugoslavia, were playing either total football or close approximations of it; more traditional attacking and speedy teams – Scotland and East Germany – were at least worthy opponents to the best, envisioned capable of transforming their game into total football. At the opposite end were the South Americans, Bulgaria and Italy – they were clearly left behind and unless making quick changes towards adapting total football nothing good waited for them in the future. The new fast pace of the game seemingly left the rest of the world – Africa, Asia, North and Central America, and Oceania – not near the best, but further behind. Since not too many teams were yet capable of playing total football, the development was considered still in an early stage – it was professed that in the future total football will become much more entertaining, faster, and more skilfull. This required new kinds of training, producing total players, and new crop of coaches, full of innovative ideas. The models were West Germany and Rinus Muchels, Cruyff and Beckenbauer. The hope was in Poland and the young promising players – Bonhof, Breitner, Rep. The new game needed new mentality and as whole it was seen to exist in West Germany – the domestic championship of the World Champions was increasingly seen as the best organized, the most entertaining, producing modern players, and increasingly – the place to play football, if one thinks himself a real star. The future was bright indeed.