In general, the phrase “total football” rolls off the tongue as easily as “fiery Welshman Craig Bellamy” and often conjures images of marauding fullbacks flying to spaces ludicrously-high up the pitch in an orange blur, engaging in a intricately-woven passing game wearing spiked wooden clogs. Holland’s approach to the game, crafted on the Ajax training grounds beginning in the mid 1950s and played to perfection on European stages in the 1970s, remains an innovation of admiration to football aficionados of the beautiful game. It has been exported across Europe’s leagues, from Rinus Michels of Ajax to Johan Cruyff’s influence over the playing culture still employed to the present day at Barcelona. Arsene Wenger’s Français-Anglais application in North London is a somewhat related variant while over in Wales, Brendan Rodgers has used the totaalvoetbal concept this Championship season to bring Swansea City to the cusp of Premiership promotion.
For a club whose crest includes a stylized representation of an elegant bird, though, it feels somewhat appropriate Rodgers and Swansea would be the ugly ducklings in the rather regal family tree that is Total Football. Generally the preserve of the elite, this approach to the game requires intensive training involving teaching players to play in space rather than defined positions on the pitch and a fair amount of ego-swallowing on the part of some players who are compelled to defend their own goal rather than attack the opposition’s goal mouth. Shifting players’ expected roles and achieving success might be the most difficult adjustment for a manager at any level to achieve, as many of those playing in the English leagues for any length of time might have had the 4-4-2 etched inside their skulls since they learned to tie their boots. Transition to the Total Football concept fails even amongst the giants of European football as well and impoverishes those with the wealthiest of pedigrees.
Just ask Louis van Gaal how Year 2 of Total Football worked out at Bayern Munich this season.
Now, while Rodgers is only in his first year at the Liberty Stadium, Swansea have been in a bit of a love affair with all things from the land of windmills over the past several years. Perhaps it began with board member and shareholder John van Zweden’s interest in the South Wales side. Still residing primarily in The Hague, Netherlands, van Zweden came to Swansea from Eredivisie club ADO Den Haag, and under the company Swansea Jacks Ltd. was one of the initial partners in a consortium headed by Mel Nurse and the Swansea Supporters Trust that began to depose Tony Petty back in 2001. Since this time, Swansea have embarked on several pre-season tours of Holland going back to 2002 and have signed several former ADO Den Haag players, including current keeper Dorus de Vries.
Granted, having a Dutchman sitting on the Swansea board and de Vries in goal makes the Jacks as Dutch as having Javier Hernandez in the starting squad for Manchester United makes Alex Ferguson an adherent of Lucha libre. Rather, it seems the lessons learned from those pre-season visits to the Netherlands have been impressed upon managers stretching back to the successful tenure of Roberto Martinez as he employed a Total Football philosophy to guide the Swans up from League One to the Championship after the 2007/08 campaign. Now under Rodgers, his spin on Swansea’s Total Football experiment has been “possession with penetration,” implying that pretty passing and rates of possession to rival Barca’s mean little without advancing up the pitch and putting the ball in the back of the net.
A hallmark of Total Football is the passing game, though, and in this respect the Dutch conversion by Swansea is most easily recognized. Most of the passes are diagonal rather than straight ahead or across–to chalk it up would be the equivalent of drawing medium and large triangles rather than rectangles. In this season’s playoffs between Nottingham Forest and Swansea, the angles of the passes by the Jacks has been demonstrated most acutely. Whilst Brian Davies’ charges were pouring forward in attack more or less directly and crossing in from the wings, Swansea midfielders Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer seem to have their protractors with them when considering either a pass, shot, or run while Fabio Borini darts in and out of the diamond.
Another trademark of this approach is players playing in space, and one might notice this contrast with Forest with respect to deflected passes. Earlier in the first half of the semi-final leg in South Wales, Swansea were relentlessly in Forest’s end of the pitch, as nearly every pass to clear and advance by lads like Chris Gunter were deflected by a Swansea player who just happened to be in an area typically open. The spacing issue also was illustrated in the first leg of the semi-final tie, as when Swansea went down a man within two minutes at the City Ground, they actually appeared to play better with the additional space. After Neil Taylor was sent off for a high challenge on Lewis McGugan when some fans still hadn’t found their seats, Brendon Rodgers could be seen immediately on the sideline intently discussing with his assistants how best to proceed in less than optimal circumstances.
What was remarkable about that sequence following Taylor’s dismissal was there was a noticeable lack of fury from the manager’s box–rather than yelling at the officials and gesticulating wildly as if his entire plan for a tough away match had been destroyed in less than two minutes, Rodgers appeared to be a figure of calm amidst a sea of calamity. For him, the tactics changed very little–save having to sacrifice forward Stephen Dobbie for defender Garry Monk–as Swansea employed the same gamepland and utilized the additional space being a man down created. Dyer and Sinclair were required to rush back to defensive spaces when Forest sought a breakthrough on a counter attack, and while the fitness levels of all the Swansea players were tested in that opening leg at City Ground with one less teammate on the pitch, the scoreless draw felt much more like a victory for them and Total Football.
A final trait of the Total Football approach is employing a slightly higher defensive line. Swansea use their fullbacks as often in offensive movements as they do defensively, and maintaining a high line in the back helps to compress the pitch by a quarter of the length. This can be a dangerous ploy, as Forest demonstrated throughout the match at Liberty Stadium with McGugan and Tudgay having chances to punish Swansea’s defenders for playing too far up the pitch. With one of the best keepers in the Championship in de Vries, though, the Swans were saved then as they have been throughout the past two seasons, thus allowing them to continue moving forward according to the “penetration with possession” philosophy permeated in their dyed Dutch roots and advocated by their manager.
With a trip to Wembley–along with the chance to become the first Welsh side to play in the Premiership–awaiting, it might come down to a philosophy mined from the Lowlands that wins the day for Rodgers and Swansea. Then again, the Total Football concept seems to have been given to the Dutch by its Manchester-born manager Jack Reynolds, who directed Ajax youth players like Rinus Michels to play in this fashion as he went about converting Ajax from a small regional side into a national champion during his 27 years with the club. So, should the Welsh club successfully complete a remarkable journey from near relegation to the Conference a few years ago to playing Premiership football throught its Dutch Renaissance, there might be some recognition afforded to an expatriate Englishman along the way.
How very British.