Johan Cruyff, the legendary Dutch player and former manager of Barcelona, was once asked his thoughts on the footballing philosophy known as “total football”. The man, who is arguably the biggest proponent of the football tactic, replied: “Attackers could play as defenders and defenders as attackers. Everyone could play everywhere.”
Total football is an attack-oriented strategy (not counter-attacking) where players have no definite position. With the exception of the goalkeeper, everybody is allowed to play anywhere on the field. Coordination, spacing, and player movement are the key elements of total soccer.
The strategy was championed by the Dutch World Cup teams of the 70’s, which featured Johan Cruyff. Once the player turned manager with Barcelona, Cruyff took elements of the philosophy and created his own tactic which became known as “tiki-taka”.
Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal would now be considered the torch-bearer of the footballing philosophy.
But there is another version of “total football” being played right now in Spain.
It’s not the free-flowing spectacle witnessed by fans in the 70’s or the beautifully-dominate Barcelona sides of the 2000’s.
This new version has been masterminded by Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone and it requires total commitment and total effort from every member of his squad. His philosophy calls for his players to live “game by game”, or better yet, second by second.
Simeone’s side will hit you with wave after wave of players fighting and defending for their cause. For the most part Atletico will concede possession to teams, only to hit them hard on the counter-attack or wait for an opportunity to score from set-pieces and corners.
There is not much that is “beautiful” about the way Atletico play, it is more of a grind.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Los Colchoneros do not share the same fluid, visually appealing style of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich. But the way each person who wears the red and white for Atletico Madrid gives their absolute fullest effort for the club is beautiful.
It’s a team committed to total sacrifice for each other and their manager.
Simeone and Atletico’s ascent has been on display for the past five years. In spite of selling some of their most prized assets, the Atleti have made a Champions League final appearance, won two Europa League titles, two UEFA Super Cups, a Copa del Rey, a La Liga title; and now, a Spanish Super Cup over the last five seasons.
Last year, cynics kept waiting for the Primera Division to turn back into a ‘two horse race’ between Barcelona and Real Madrid. But match after match, Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid continued to impose their collective will on La Liga opponents until they were eventually crowned champions on the last day of the season after drawing with Barcelona in the Camp Nou.
Atletico lost players again this summer and have had to reload their squad with a limited budget.
This week, Diego Simeone’s squad stared down the task of beating Real Madrid over two legs of the Spanish Super Cup.
Los Blancos were coming off a season which saw them win a Copa del Rey and the club’s tenth Champions League title. Their president, Florentino Perez, revamped the squad with the summer signings of Toni Kroos, James Rodriguez and goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
The majority of football experts have picked Real Madrid to win La Liga this season.
But Atletico Madrid’s version of “total football” won out over two legs of the Spanish Super Cup.
Simeone’s men grinded and fought for 180+ minutes and beat a star-studded Real Madrid lineup, 2-1 on aggregate.
During the first leg, James Rodriguez 81st minute goal was cancelled out by Raul Garcia’s effort in the 88th minute at the Santiago Bernabeu; a match that saw Real Madrid win 70% of the possession.
And this evening, newly-signed striker Mario Mandzukic’s second minute goal was enough to see Atletico win the Spanish Super Cup for the first time since 1985.
The match saw numerous yellow cards handed out to both sides and Diego Simeone was sent to the stands for arguing with the officials (at one point, he patted the fourth official on the head).
The passion on the field was mirrored in the stands for 94 excruciating minutes.
Atletico once again gave their opponent a huge possession advantage (61% for the match).
But the total effort, total commitment and total sacrifice from Simeone’s men won out in the end.
Atletico Madrid’s version of “total football” may not be appealing to most of the sport’s purists…but it is winning more fans game after game.