It is sometimes hard to believe that before the 1970s, the most common tactical approach to a football game was the ‘Route-one’ style of play.
Long before the roles ‘mezzala’, ‘raumdeuter’, and ‘ball-playing defender’ were even thought about, formations rarely strayed from the typical ‘2-3-5’ system or a ‘3-2-5’ system.
As the decades progressed, the most common formations steadily evolved into a 4 defender formation, usually with a 4-man midfield and a double target-man attack.
It was only really when Dutch legend Johan Cruyff and his Ajax teammates in the late 1960s made waves around Europe with their revolutionary ‘Total Football’ style of play, that football began to adopt more slick passing and movement-based tactics.
The revolutionary Total Football tactic made its way to Catalonia where European giants Barcelona adopted the style – before signing the master of the tactic, Cruyff, in 1973. It’s a little known fact that it was actually, in fact, English manager Vic Buckingham who developed the tactic and developed Cruyff into the legend he became while in charge of Ajax and Barcelona.
However, it is an even lesser-known fact that the roots of the Total Football tactic can be traced back even further.
'The Godfather of Total Football'
Buckingham, a talented wing-half for Tottenham Hotspur between 1935-1949, is often credited by many for the making of Cruyff – including by the Dutchman himself, as well as the evolution of football during that era.
Speaking in an interview with The Guardian in 2014, Cruyff spoke about the influence of the Englishman in the early beginnings. “I think of Vic Buckingham who picked me. They were open-minded but, tactically, you have to see where we were at that time,” Cruyff said. “Football in Holland then was good, but it was not really professional. They gave us some professionalism because they were much further down the road.”
Buckingham not only will remain the man credited with developing Total Football, but also the man that developed Ajax as a club. When the Englishman joined the Amsterdam club, it was viewed as a bizarre move as the Dutch side were ‘borderline amateur’.
The supporters and the players immediately put their trust in Buckingham though and followed his philosophy thoroughly due to their respect for him.
Speaking of his ‘gentleman-like nature’ Bobby Haarms, Buckingham’s assistant manager, said: “If he smiled at you, you knew you were on the bench. Dutch football was good. It wasn’t a rough-tough, got-to-win-things mentality. They were gentlemen”. It was this mutual understanding between the Ajax fans, personnel, and Buckingham which cemented the faith in the untried tactical philosophy that strayed far from what the Dutch side knew.
The forgotten man who mentored Buckingham, however, was Peter McWilliam – who first was told of a new possession-based style by his teammate at the time Robert Smythe McColl while the pair were at Newcastle United.
While the eight-time Scottish international’s managerial career never really hit the same heights that his students’ careers did, it was his original and innovative philosophies which captured the interest of his players, Vic Buckingham and Arthur Rowe, while he was managing Spurs in the late 1930s, as well as newly-promoted youth player Bill Nicholson.
Rowe's revolutionary 'Push and Go' tactic
Before the successes of Ajax and then Barcelona, it was Tottenham that took advantage of McWilliam’s teachings under their new manager Arthur Rowe back in 1949 where the North London side was sitting uncomfortably in the Second Division.
But from the go, it was clear that Rowe’s ideas were going to ‘save English Football’ according to the club captain at the time Ron Burgess, who also described the new tactical approach as ‘revolutionary’.
The influence of Tottenham on football at the time, of course, was nowhere near as much as that of Ajax and Barcelona, so it was the element of surprise really that caught the English teams out and set Spurs up for the next 20 years.
The stubbornness of English clubs that refused to adopt Rowe’s ‘Push and Go’ strategy allowed Spurs to gain the Second Division Championship in 1950 and then the First Division Championship in 1951, relatively unchallenged.
It was actually in Hungary where Rowe realised his mentor’s teachings could be used and tweaked to create a tactical style that would drive English football into the future. Just before the start of the Second World War, Rowe had just retired before beginning a lecture tour in Hungary, where he met Gusztáv Sebes and Ferenc Puskás, the legendary Hungarian footballing figures who were behind the 6-3 thrashing of England a decade and a half later at Wembley. The football style in Hungary had clearly already adapted to a more modern approach – leaving Rowe convinced England was about to be left behind on the International level.
Bill Nicholson's ambition and influence on English football
Rowe’s long term suffering with illness caused him to leave Spurs by mutual consent in 1955, but his ‘Push and Go’ project was not left in the dust, with club legend Bill Nicholson taking over before taking the club to the first ‘FA Cup – First Division double’ in the 20th century and only the third club in the history of English association football to achieve the feat.
This was followed up by Spurs becoming the first British team to win a European Cup when they beat Atletico Madrid 5-1 in May 1963. It was Nicholson’s tactics which really was the first tactical style in the same family as the Total Football approach to capture the attention of other teams in England and influence clubs to adopt a more modern approach to the game.
Nicholson once said: “It is better to fail aiming high than to succeed aiming low. And we of Spurs have set our sights very high, so high in fact that even failure will have in it an echo of glory.”
Nicholson’s ambition for Spurs was to make them the biggest club in England and create the most attractive style of Football for any fan to watch in England – something he accomplished during his time in charge and, along with Rowe and Buckingham’s achievements, is largely down to McWilliam’s philosophy. While it was the Scotsman’s ideas originally, the tactical tweaking’s of those ideas by the trio all connected by Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, shaped the way football is played today.