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Rinus Michels: The Godfather of ‘Total Football’ (1965-78)

Rinus Michels Total Football - Ultra UTD
Whether you know it or not, football's modern day fluidity thanks its heritage to Rinus Michels and Total Football | Graphic produced by Ultra UTD | No rights reserved for original subject images as per our embedded content policy.

Let’s put it this way: you don’t get honoured with an ‘ONN’ in Holland unless you’ve truly earned. And this guy did just that when it came to transforming the game we all love.

Before ‘Total Football’ became the thing which defined Rinus Michels’ legacy in football, he was developing quite a tidy life as a professional footballer for over a decade before becoming the manager he became. Let’s be fair to him – just shy of 300 appearances and 150 goals for Ajax is no mean feat for any top pro player, now is it?

However, it didn’t take long for the front man to become a force from the dugout, though it would be a few years before he could showcase his talents with the team he’d dedicated his playing days to. An over-twenty-year unofficial ‘apprenticeship’ in the lower leagues of Dutch football acquainted Michels with the tools necessary to be successful in a role which required more of him, and once given the chance with Ajax, he didn’t disappoint.

Eventually developing a style of play that would become synonymous with the best and most successful sides of today, Rinus Michels first came to Ajax with the intention of seeing just how fluid his latest members could be. With a particular focus of improving the overall capability of his squad to get them out of their comfort zone.

Over time, he developed this idea of ‘totaalvoetbal‘ – anglicised as ‘Total Football’ – where his squad would be comprised of players capable of playing in a variety of positions. Once achieved, they’d then be able to venture and cover for each other when reading the ebb and flow of the game. They’d therefore be able to constantly adjust their game plan and make sure that the opposition didn’t ever understand what was to be expected of them.

In practical terms, here’s an example: if you’re a central midfielder, and you see your defenders lacking in numbers, you drop back and help. By which point your front man will drop deeper to cover for the role you’ve just vacated so you’re not outnumbered in your original midfield line.

Overall, this would mean that the club is more than well catered for when it comes to being in trouble, whilst simultaneously you’re able to commit more men forward in the confidence of knowing that it’s not to the detriment of the team. If you’d like to find out more, check out my own book, ‘The Football Spider Web‘ – where I speak in greater detail about this subject and its overall influence on modern football.

A player who understood and embraced Rinus Michels’ Total Football philosophy better than most could, was the wonderful Johan Cruyff. Now, you needn’t look much further than this link here to understand how I truly feel about Cruyff and what he’s brought to the game as a whole. And looking retrospectively, the game has a lot of thanks to doll out to these two Dutchmen for embracing a change that it needed to see.

With Ajax, FC Barcelona and the Netherlands National Team, the pair have linked up multiple times to bring forth this philosophy to prying eyes all over the world. With a beauty of Brazilian samba stars paired up with the efficiency of the Central European leagues, it brought the game into technicolour during its earlier stages.

Heading it all up, is the fantastically wistful and passionate Rinus Michels. A name that rarely gets bandied about in this ‘greatest manager of all time’ conversation, but one that’s more than deserving of this sort of recognition.

Do you think the commentary community tip their hat off enough to the legacy and influence of Rinus Michels? Let us know in the comments below and share this on social media if you enjoyed it!

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