While researching for the recent blog on junior football player development I came across many sites explaining the Dutch “Total Football” system of play and its refinement by Spanish teams such as Barcelona and Real Madrid. Many of the elements can be seen in the tactical experience of Australian football as it is currently played at the elite level. No longer are the set positions accompanying a traditional 6 forward-6 midfield-6 backs positional structure evident other than at the start of play and re-start after a goal. Even then, there are likely to be variations of this pattern, with the only set structure defined by the rule permitting a maximum of four players in the centre square for starts and re-starts.
Specifically, the tactical elements of Total Football increasingly evident in the 'modern game' of Australian football include:
1. High defensive line. As soon as your team loses the ball the defensive line must push up to close down the opposition before they get to run forward. A high defensive line leads to zonal defense to reduce gaps for forward passing of the ball, especially in the centre of the field.
2. Pass-and-move. When in possession there is a lot of passing around in the midfield to open gaps to then penetrate forward. Passing in the build-up play is often short to lessen the chance of losing the ball and to increase the chance of a gap opening in the defense. Once gaps are opened players must move with speed of decision making and ball movement so the defense does not have time to reset.
3. Fluid team structures but with set 'start points'. While the team system will have "start points" for starts and re-starts, stoppages etc. team structures in offense must be fluid as off-the-ball players pass and move to open gaps in the opposition defense; whereas, team strategy in defense is quite structured in that players move to fill defensive ‘starting points’ to pressure space and compress play into the oppositions back half, hunting the ball carrier to attempt a turn-over while it is still close to your team goal, applying frontal and inside pressure to slow ball movement and spread the ball to the wings if it transitions out to the midfield.
Discipline and creativity is balanced within the context of the team system of play.
Applying a coaching lens, players are required to have excellent ‘game intelligence’ (or game sense) to recognize the play as it develops, read and respond to become ‘dangerous’ offensively and alternatively, to shut down dangerous space and players defensively. Players must be confident in their kicking skills so that possession is maintained while an attack is being structured.
The early experience of small sided invasion games and emphasis on the tactical focus of maintaining possession build the foundations for this system of play.