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Dutch 4-3-3 Total Football

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I attempt to recreate the Dutch 'Total Football' tactic from the 1970's and then see how Norwich and Man City get on using the tactic!

Way back when in the happy carefree days of 2018, there was a World Cup and much to a lot of peoples surprise, the Netherlands failed to qualify. This was despite them finishing 3rd in the previous World Cup and having a good record of qualifying for major tournaments since the 1990 World Cup. Looking through their tournament record they have reached an incredible three World Cup finals and five European Championship semi finals which is up there for the best countries in the world at there tournaments.

But why? As a nation they have a very similar population to other European countries such as Poland, Ukraine and Romania all of who have very patchy qualifying records and have no where near the same level of success in tournaments even when you combine their records. It’s all down to a footballing philosophy known as ‘Total Football’.

Sindelar-aut.jpg Matthias Sindelar


Although this philosophy first rose to prominence when used by the great Ajax and Dutch national sides of the 1970’s it can trace its roots back to the great Austrian national side of the 1930’s that implemented a form of this philosophy. Lead my star player Matthias Sindelar, they used positional interchanges and intelligent passing to dominate the European game in the 1930’s before they were annexed by Germany. This saw the breakup of a phenomenal team (and the suspicious death of Sindelar at the age of only 35) without winning a major international tournament however, this style of play left an impression on the sport and it evolved over the next few decades.

In England you had Burnley winning only their second (and so far) last top flight title in 1959/60 playing a style of total football meanwhile on the continent Rinus Michels is credited with developing the style we are most familiar with during the 60’s and 70’s as the manager of The Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona and won both the FIFA and Dutch coach of the century and is generally considered one of the greatest coaches of all time. As a small aside, just imagine how different the last 60 years of English football could have been had Burnley’s ideas been widely adopted at the time. Instead we have been treated to decades of ‘hard work’ and ‘desire’ being valued higher than technical skills and ability on the ball as seen in other nations.

Graham Taylor: When England's World Cup hopes were ended by Koeman ...

When fully developed, total football revolutionised Ajax and propelled them to the top of the European game for a period of time. Between 1947 and 1965 they won three league titles. Over the next 18 seasons they won a staggering 11 titles and didn’t finish lower then 3rd in the league (they have only finished outside the top three on four occasions since 1965). they were utterly dominant. A their absolute peak between 1970 and 1974 this Ajax side won a European trophy every year including 3 European Cups, they simply could not be stopped such was the impact of this tactical innovation. With Johan Cruyff given free reign to roam about the pitch and other great players such as Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol and Johan Neeskins backing him up, this great Ajax side soon translated into a great Dutch National Team.

Attacking Movement

Total Football is a philosophy built on two different approaches when the team has the ball and when it doesn’t. When in possession, rapid and frequent positional interchanges are used to drag the opponents defence out of place where every player on the pitch needs to be able to fill in for any of his team mates depending on the situation. I’ll come onto the team without the ball next….


This level of flexibility relies on long term technical coaching from a young age as well as knowledge on the part of these individuals to know when and where to cover gaps that appear. Lets take a look at how the Netherlands team of the 1974 World Cup set up on paper.


I’ll stress that this line up is on paper as the movement of players in this squad was something to behold. Lets take the most famous player of them all Johan Cruyff as an example. Although he nominally played as the central striker he was, in the words of Simon Kuper, everywhere on the pitch. One moment appearing on the wing to provide crosses and another dropping into a deep midfield role to leave the opposing centre halves with no one to mark all the while captaining the side and proving to be an inspirational leader on the pitch. This is very well highlighted in a short FIFA documentary about him where he is frequently popping up in different areas of the pitch driving play forwards.

This phenomenon wasn’t just limited to Cruyff however as looking at the profiles of a lot of the Dutch team from this time demonstrates that although they had a primary position, they were comfortable playing in many areas of the pitch. This positional flexibility played havoc with teams that employed a traditional catenaccio style of play as this tried to man mark players out of the game which was incredibly difficult to do when the whole opposing line up was switching around seemingly at will.

Total Pressing

In contrast to when they didn’t have the ball was the defensive strategy of this philosophy where they would consistently and almost manically charge down the player with the ball to compress the space available to their opponents. this idea would lead to the pitch becoming compressed when the opposition had the ball and stretched wide open when the Dutch had it.


Just have a look at some examples of this pressing from the 1974 World Cup. Compared to the more modern style of pressing that uses pressure to box the opponent into certain zones of the pitch or isolate players this was more akin to children on a playground or that weird Japanese game show (steady) with 100 kids playing against three professional players.

You just would not see teams even attempting to press the ball this way any more as it would literally be suicide as teams and individual players have evolved to bypass presses of this magnitude. Watching the video back now and I find myself willing the hapless player on the ball to just pass the damn thing sideways and a team mate will have practically a free run at goal.

Perhaps my favourite moment of the whole video is below where Argentina have a free kick on the edge of the Dutch area blocked and the ball then ends up on the touchline instead of man marking or having two men go to the ball as you may see today…..well…..just look below.


Six players sprint directly towards the ball at full tilt, two more jog towards it while two more jog towards the half way line. One good cross field ball from the Argentine player and this would likely be a one on one. Instead he panics and just boots the ball into the orange wall bearing down on him. Had he missed…i’m honestly not sure where the ball would have ended up. In the picture above the only players not visible is one of the CB’s and the Goalkeeper such was the level of commitment to this philosophy.

Although incredibly effective for the most part there was a monumental risk with this style of play, namely if your opponents were almost as comfortable on the ball as you, this ridiculous level of pressing would lead to chances the other way. And, well unfortunately there is a reason that the Dutch side of the 1970’s is remembered as one of the best to never win a major trophy. For all the dominance Ajax had at club level the Netherlands just couldn’t recreate it in competitions as they lost both the 1974 and ’78 World Cup finals to the hosts.

On both occasions they were too defensively fragile to overcome sides that were able to nullify some of their attacking threat and they would have to wait until Euro ’88 to get their first international trophy. Oh and fun fact, the Dutch keeper at both tournaments wore the number 8 shirt. This is because squad numbers at the time were decided by alphabetical order!

In Game

So with all this in mind here is what I came up with in game. You can download it from the steam workshop here.



As you can see I’ve gone for the classic 4-3-3 set up with a sweeper keeper unfortunately FM20 still doesn’t allow for sweepers in game so I’ve had to revert to a flat back 4 with one CB covering behind the other in as faithful a recreation as I can manage.

Although you could argue some of the player role I have selected aren’t strictly accurate I have set this formation up to emphasise the flexibility that the Dutch operated with during the 70’s as every player on the pitch (apart from the GK and the two CB’s) are designated to move from position and contribute to all phases of play with overlaps, high tempo movement and lots of overlaps emphasised as focal points.

Similarly when they don’t have the ball every player is instructed to press the ball aggressively with a high line of engagement, a high defensive line and playing the offside trap, it is definitely a high risk and reward outlook much like the Dutch used in real life.


Alright lets take a look how this panned out in game!



Chris Pratt Happy - Imgflip

This hasn’t happened before! So as you can see, Man City have won the league with the =8th best winning points total in history while just falling one goal short of tying Chelsea’s goal scoring record from the 2009/10 season as they scored 102 goals!


Even more pleasing to see was Norwich who managed to survive by finishing 16th with a solid 4 point cushion over the bottom 3. Impressive and the fiirst time ‘ve had a title winner and survivor in the same tactics experiment! Bloody hell. Lets take a deeper dive.

Norwich City

So lets start off with Norwich. As mentioned they are predicted to finish 20th and do start this season with a weak squad in FM as well. In this experiment they ended up finishing with the 6th best attack in the league (which is pretty incredible) which was balanced out by having the =18th defence (less incredible). It’s fair to say Norwich scored their way to survival and they had a number of players who reached double figures for goals.


Predictably the forward three scored the majority of the goals with Pukki and Drmic leading the way with 14 each whilst assists and chances created were spread evenly between the full backs and wide midfielders who were leading the way in both categories!

For all of Norwich’s ultimate success in staying in the league their ultimate survival looked very unlikely after a few months. Despite beating West Ham in their second game of the season wins were hard to come by with heavy defeats a regular occurrence. So bad was Norwich’s form that by the time December rolled around they were sitting in 19th with only 13 points and without a win in over a month and a half.


However after this tricky part of the season they slowly started to turn things around as the sheer weight of goals scored began to rack up the points to guide them slowly up the league. January was a fruitful month as Norwich eventually moved up to 18th before a great run of form from March on wards finally secured a second season of Premier League football with survival finally secured on the 3rd of May thanks to a thumping 6-1 win over Southampton with all the goals scored by different players.


Domestic Cups


So with some moderate success in the league I had little hope for any significant cup runs but you never know I guess. Turned out both cups would be weirdly similar with Man United knocking them out of the 4th round of the Carabao Cup….


Before Man United also knocked them out of the 4th round of the FA Cup. though in both cases they did pull off a decent result in the previous round.


So despite the lack of a significant Cup run this was a very impressive season all round as Norwich met expectations in all competitions and even survived! Genuinely i’m chuffed at this, it’s the first time I’ve made a tactic that allowed the weaker of the two teams to survive!

Man City

With the success of Norwich it was time to take a look at the title winning side of Man City who as we all know had a great season and the list of results clearly shows this. They started off like a train winning 9 of their opening ten games and only conceding 6 goals in the process. This left them comfortably top of the league and this was a position they never relinquished for the rest of the season as they romped to the title.


City’s form slowed down a little during the middle of the season as the fixture pile up kicked in but it mattered little. They even managed a 6-1 thumping of Southampton which is pretty strange that both teams in this experiment managed to beat them by this score.



A surprising defeat to Bournemouth with three games to go made things very nervy however they regrouped to overcome Liverpool 3-2 thanks to a late Sterling goal to all but seal the title. A final day win over Villa finally got them over the line!


The leading players in the team showed a similar pattern to Norwich as the front three absolutely dominated the goal scoring charts with an incredible 110 goals between them while no one else in the squad even managed to crack double figures!

One area of difference here was how chances were created. Where with Norwich we saw the wide players predominantly creating goal scoring opportunities, with Man City we have the front three once again dominating the proceedings as they created over 100 chances and assisted 44 combined which is phenomenal. Behind them it was the wing backs and wider midfielders who created the most but they were some way behind the deadly front three!


Very impressive stuff. Though it does look like the strikers did most of the leg work while everyone else left them to it……

Domestic Cups

Although this tactic seems to have been a model of consistency in the league lets see how it got on in knockout football.


Oh god. I mean, I know it was a penalty shootout but that is pretty staggering. Looking at the match stats Man City dominated on shots 24-6 but just couldn’t score so maybe it was a ‘typical FM’ result.

The FA Cup went a little better as things started off well thanks to playing three Championship teams in a row and easily overcoming them before they were drawn away to Liverpool. Both sides played out an absolute classic that eventually finished 4-4 and went to penalties. Unfortunately Fernandinho missed the very first spot kick to see us knocked out with Liverpool going on to bean Man United in the final.


Pretty unlucky here but that now makes it 1-1 between us and Liverpool in competitions. If only there was some way to settle the score……



After being drawn in a group consisting of two mediocre teams and Real Madrid I was surprised to find that City got through the group only dropping 2 points away at Madrid and pretty much hammering everyone else.


City got a fairly kind draw through the knockouts as they beat Lyon 9-1 over two legs, Atalanta 6-0 and then Bayer Leverkusen 4-0 to stroll to the final. Why is it that I can never get these kind of draws when I’m playing the game properly?

The final would be a much tougher test against Liverpool and honestly I couldn’t have done this better had I planned it. For once the game wasn’t a tight affair as Liverpool seemed to have faded away completely by this point in the season and were easily beaten 3-0 to give City their first Champions League title.


What an accomplishment and if you were keeping count, City got through the knockout stages of the Champions League with a ridiculous 22-1 aggregate score. Formidable.


This may come as no surprise given that some of the foundations laid out by total football (namely aggressive pressing of the opponent when they have the ball, positional flexibility and encouraging independent thinking) form key aspects of modern football, but this formation works in FM20 even after I made the formation. What surprised me was the fact that it seems to work very well with both teams with Norwich just about surviving comfortably in the end and Man City winning the two most difficult trophies to win of the 4 they were entered into.



Edited by Experienced Defender
I copy-pasted the text from his website into the post
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Good effort! Although I would be a little concerned by attacking mentality and combination of some of the team instructions such as high tempo, pass into space, counter and overly aggressive defending. In fact do you really need all those TIs? You seem to select almost every single team instruction in the game for a style that probably needs only 6-8 key instructions. Sometimes less is better.

So in my opinion it doesn't really scream Total Football to me at all. But if it works for you, kudos to you and I would be curious to see how it works out for Norwich. I always love an underdog story.

Edited by crusadertsar
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