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Total Football after One Year: Evaluating Aron Winter

Aron Winter looks kind of confused but that is because he can't find any total football to be seen!
Aron Winter looks kind of confused but that is because he can't find any total football to be seen!

I sincerely hope that each and every person who reads this has had a chance to see total football in its purest forms.  For those of you who have not and are unfamiliar with what the concept really is I will highlight the basics of it.  The concept of total football comes from the Dutch, mainly Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels while they were both at Ajax.  The approach to the game requires all players to be able to play a role in all elements of the game.  It begins with the requirement that the keeper is able to start play from the back making passes with both feet and from there it builds through the entire team.  In the Dutchmen's vision there are no one dimensional players and players have to have a very high playing IQ.  They need to be intelligent because it involves an almost constant switching of roles as players switch and overlap frequently and with so much freedom to get forward you are often required to cover for the man behind you. 

The total football tactic came from Ajax and it was perfected by them in the early 70's when they won pretty much every single game they played.  For it to be this effective though it required all 11 men to be at the top of their game.  With so much movement and fluidity a team employing this approach can not cover a weak link so there is no room for poor players.  Unless you are the goalkeeper you need to be prepared to play every role on the field and even the keeper was now being called on to do more then ever before.  In the past the keeper was just a shot stopper but now they are expected to be a part of the attack.

So now that you have a clue what total football is if you want to see the best current examples of it watch the Dutch National team, Spanish national team or Barcelona when they are really firing on all cylinders.  The later two play what is often referred to as tiki-taka but it has clear roots in the dutch total football.   Even better go back and find some footage of the 1972 Ajax team that went undefeated and claimed 5 titles while playing this tactic.  The next best choice would be to watch some of the better games from Barcelona when they were managed by the tactic's main proponent Cruyff.

Having established what it is we can now look at why this tactic was supposed to come to Toronto FC with Aron Winter and what it will mean for the club going forward.

First off, it should be made clear that at no point this season did Toronto FC ever come close to pulling off a match where they employed total football.  There were some elements on display including both of the goal keepers commenting on how they were required by Winter to spend time in training working on their ability to pass the ball with both feet.  That is one essential building block of the tactic and without keepers who can pass well the whole thing falls apart since it builds from the back.  Along with working on that element the formation that Winter employed in most games was a 4-3-3.  That tactic is the staple of clubs that play versions of total football but what TFC's version crucially lacked was the fluidity to make it successful.  At the end of season press conference Ty Harden and Andy Iro made it clear that they felt this tactic was actually to blame for many of the teams defensive woes.  In fact they are probably quite right.

When you play any form of the total football tactic it relies on your midfield trio being quick to get forward as soon as the back 4 play the ball up to them.  This is supposed to result on your side gaining a numbers advantage with a quick attack.  It should not be confused with counter-attacking football though as it does not rely on pouncing on turnovers.  It instead relies on winning the numbers games and making quick passes and quick runs.  This works great if your players can pull it off and keep the ball but when they turn it over quickly in the midfield then it leaves the back line exposed.  The midfield trio are then pushed forward and with one quick pass after the turnover they are suddenly on the wrong side of the ball and it becomes a numerical advantage for the other team.  That is fine when you have world class centre backs and midfielders who can track back well but Toronto FC had neither of those things this season.  Often Harden and Iro were left on an island by themselves and with their penchant for mistakes, that is just a recipe for disaster.

In response to this Aron Winter was forced to frequently abandon his total football formation and drop Torsten Frings back to help out the defenders.  What this did is basically result in a simple trade off.  You have now made the choice to sacrifice the numerical advantage in the attack which total football thrives off of to instead ensure that you are not out numbered in defence.  It proved to work well as Toronto were a lot less porous with Frings in what became a back five but what it did was put more pressure on the wingbacks who were now responsible for pushing forward and creating those numerical mismatches as well as on the two remaining midfielders who had to be at the very top of their game to get the ball from the back five to the attackers. 

This often failed to happen as it was asking to much of the likes of Julian De Guzman and Terry Dunfield.  As a result Winter was forced to make another compromise in his total football tactics and take a more direct route with balls often being pushed right up to the strikers.  That is not total football at all but it was good awareness of the personnel that Toronto had.  If you have the likes of Danny Koevermans and Ryan Johnson up front then it is crucial that you get the ball up to them and give them a chance to make an impact on the game.  This did mean that Toronto often generated a limited number of chances but thankfully Danny Koevermans knows how to make them count.

So there were elements of total football on display from Toronto FC but it was clear that as the season progressed Winter, and de Klerk for that matter, were forced to make adjustments to their playing style.  They came in with this grand vision but it is clear that they came to the realization that they did not have the personnel to play the game the way the Dutch so often love.  They made changes to bring in the kinds of players that might be able to play their version of total football but those players are such a rare breed that even if they did a good job improving the team it was never possible for them to really play the way that Winter wanted. 

The biggest positive of the year is that Winter got better in adapting his tactics to the players he has as well as to the MLS.  He came to the league and the club knowing very little about either and having limited coaching experience so there was clearly a learning curve but now that he has a bit more comfort he is proving to be capable of abandoning some elements of his beloved total football for the sake of getting the results.  When TFC won games this year it was often far from pretty but Winter is learning that sometimes it is better to be effective and win games than to lose playing a bold tactic.

The question is why do Winter and de Klerk have such a fondness for total football?  The simple answer to that is just look where Winter came from.  He spent large chunks of his career playing for Ajax and the Dutch National team where he would have been heavily exposed to the approach.  He played over 200 games in the midfield of clubs that played this tactic and the fact of the matter is that he was one of those special players that fit well into this approach.  He had the awareness and ability to move all over the pitch and make the kind of passing plays that a central midfielder is called on to make.  His love for total football surely only grew when he began his coaching career in the Ajax youth system.  In their academy young players are groomed to be the ideal player that is capable of doing everything in the game.  They do not allow players to develop with only one foot or to lack the skill to defend and attack.  In this setting Winter learned to encourage his players in the basics of total football.

The reason behind de Klerk being so fond of total football again comes from that Ajax connection.  de Klerk was forced to retire at a young age due to injury and he went to work on becoming a top coach.  His coaching journey saw him join Ajax and as an assistant coach to Frank de Boer on their youth team he would have again learned to develop players the Ajax way.  He spent nine years working in various parts of the Ajax youth system so for that time he would have lived and breathed this tactic.

For both coaches it was years spent at Ajax that led to them wanting to bring total football to the MLS.  It may have been a bit optimistic of them to think that they could bring it to Toronto FC in their first season but the fact of the matter is that they have brought elements of it to the team and that should be seen as a positive.  Now that they are showing the ability to adapt to the teams needs, it has helped assure more of the fans that they have what it takes to coach in the MLS.  They have also brought the Ajax approach of focusing on developing young talent.  Just look at how willing they were to use the likes of Matt Stinson and Ashtone Morgan this season to see their willingness to bring youth along to the first team.  They are also very much involved in the promotion of the new academy setup as well as what they are calling Toronto Youth (reserves + academy).  Ajax is famous for the quality of the young players it produces so if any of that can rub off on our Reds it can only be a good thing.

So how do we evaluate the first season of the total football era?  I think we can say that it has come with a lot of growing pains but as the players learn the system and the coaches learn the players and the league, things have gotten much better.  I am excited to see what elements of total football continue to be employed by TFC going forward and I honestly think it will make Toronto a better team going forward.  So year one of total football goes down as a real painful learning experience but like the end of the season it ended with optimism.  Total football is now laying the building blocks for a bright future in Toronto.  Feel free to disagree with me but I am glad that Ajax is having an influence on TFC.