Friday, May 15, 2015

catenaccio, totaalvoetbal, tiki-taka

'That’s the essence of strategy: to outperform rivals, who are trying to do better than us' 

Phil Rosenzweig ‘Left Brain, Right Stuff’ 2015 

On the evening of 31 May 1972 in Rotterdam, Ajax of Amsterdam defeat Internazionale of Milan 2-0 - via two second-half goals from Johan Cruyff - to win the European Champions cup for the second successive year.

The Times reported ‘Ajax proved that creative attack is the real lifeblood of the game; that blanket defence can be outwitted and outmanoeuvred, and by doing so they made the outlines of the night a little sharper and the shadows a little brighter.’

This game is often said to be totaalvoetbal’s finest moment.

The Dutch press trumpeted ‘The Inter system undermined. Defensive football is destroyed.’ 

The Inter system, or catenaccio was a tactical system in football with a strong emphasis on defence.

The system had been employed most notably and successfully by Helenio Herrera, coach for the great Internazionale team - known as Grande Inter - in the latter half of the1960s.

Inter dominated domestic Italian football during this period and when they won three Scudetti, two European Champions Cups and two Intercontinental Cups.

Herrera adapted the traditional Italian 5–3–2 formation known as the verrou (door bolt) - a parking-the-bus approach focused on preventing opponents goal-scoring opportunities - to include the new idea of the swift counter-attack.

Counter-attacking being a rapid back-to-the-front tactic typically beginning with long passes from the defence catching opponents out of position while they are focused on attacking manuevers.

Key to the catenaccio system – and rapid counter-attacking - was the introduction of the role of a libero or sweeper. The libero is a free creative defender who operates behind a line of three defenders, ‘sweeping up’ loose balls, double-marking and setting up counter-attacks from behind the defence.

The Grande Inter team were captained by libero Armando Picchi.
Though perhaps the most famous sweeper of all is the German, Franz Beckenbauer.
The irony of this fact shall become apparent.

Herrera was also notable introducing motivational psych tactics and was good for a few one-liners.

‘Class + Preparation + Intelligence + Athleticism = Championships’ 

But while Inter and catenaccio were dominating European football a new development began to emerge in the Netherlands.

Totaalvoetbal, (total football) pioneered by Ajax of Amsterdam, under the guidance of coach Rinus Michels emerged from around 1965, flourished between 1970 and 1974, and that one night in May 1972 appeared to have effectively killed Herrera's catenaccio stone dead.

To observers at the time totaalvoetbal, seemed to be the antithesis of catenaccio.

For a start, totaalvoetbal is an attack-oriented strategy.

A pro-active approach. There is no counter-attacking, total football works by constant positional interchange among the players, pressing hard to gain and keep possession while preventing the opposition from having the ball.

The genius of total football was its agile approach.
NO player is fixed in his role; anyone can assume the role of an attacker, a midfielder or a defender, depending on the nature of the play.

In the 1970-73 era Ajax dominated the domestic Dutch league and won three successive European Cups. In 1972, after Ajax defeated Inter 2–0 in that European Cup final the experts confidently announced the victory as the ‘destruction of catenaccio’ .

The final nail in the catenaccio coffin was the following year as Ajax destroyed Milan 6–0 to lift the European Super Cup.

While seemingly polar opposites in approach - catenaccio being defence oriented, totaalvoetbal attack based – there are commonalities.

The Dutch striker Johan Cruyff, for example, was totaalvoetbal’s poster child.

Cruyff was officially a centre forward, however he played all over the pitch, starting attacks from wherever he could collect a pass.

Cruyff's teammates had to adapt themselves flexibly around his movements, regularly switching positions so that the team kept its shape, although the positions were filled by anyone.

In a sense the Cruyff role was the attacking free role version of the defensive libero of the Grande Inter era.

Cruyff summed up his (total football) philosophy:
"Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing." 

The 1970/71 Ajax coach Michels was later appointed Dutch national team coach for the 1974 FIFA World Cup in Germany.

Unsurprisingly, most of the 1974 squad were players from Ajax and rivals Feyenoord (who also played a style similar to the Ajax totaalvoetbal).

The Dutch cruised through their first and second round matches, defeating Argentina 4–0, East Germany 2–0, and holders Brazil 2–0 to set up a final with hosts West Germany, which they were expected to win.

So, when Johan Neeskens scored from the penalty spot to give the Netherlands a 1–0 lead within 80 seconds of play (and before a German player had even touched the ball) totaalvoetbal’s moment on the global stage seemed to be imminent.

However, the German defenders Beri Vogts and – in a throwback to the Inter catenaccio system – libero Franz Beckenbauer, were able to snuff out Cruyff's influence, dominate midfield, and went on to win 2-1.

Using the same strategy, the Dutch reached the 1978 World Cup final only to fall once more at the final hurdle, this time to Argentina.

Perhaps totaalvoetbal could be countered?
Perhaps defensive football was not destroyed?

Though neither the ’74 German side, nor the ’78 Argentina team would be described as defensive, in the catenaccio sense.

Even Beckenbauer, in his sweeper role, often played further up the pitch into midfield.

While both the park-the-bus and counter-attack of catenaccio, and the all-out-attack of totaalvoetbal, had each delivered success in the short term it turns out that neither strategy was enough on its own .

Just like how ‘performance’ based direct digital marketing that seeks to capture intent and convert will not deliver long term effects on its own, without the presence of brand building work, conducted consistently over time to create demand.

Just this week, Amsterdam’s own Martin Weigel addressed this very issue, in a long piece - that is worth taking the time to digest in its entirety – a section of which is quoted below..

‘Under pressure to account for our activities and to show that they are having an effect (any effect) and hooked on the crack cocaine of the short-term, we seize on intermediate metrics…like crazed junkies desperate for the next fix. 

This data might be exciting, it might be highly responsive to communications activity, it might be easy to measure, and it might give us impressive sounding numbers to use in case study videos, but it is short-term data that tells us nothing about the long-term business effects of our efforts. 

Worse, our holding up of short-term metrics that simply measure the exposure of consumers to our ideas as evidence of our success relegates our contribution to the mere distribution of content. And so – such is our appetite for evidence that something happened in the short-term – we relentlessly conspire to render the creation of enduring ideas, the building of memories, the shaping of perceptions, preferences, and behaviours a trivial side-show. 

The very things which that are the source of our value as an industry, and the generators of sustainable value for brands and businesses.’

The way forward is not this OR that, but this AND that.

Johan Cruyff, at the end of his playing career now knew this.
He took over as coach of Barcelona in1988 and continued through to 1996.
During this time Cruyff introduced a new theory.


Cruyff’s revelation incorporated the purism of totaalvoetbal and the pragmatism of catenaccio.

Not this OR that, but this AND that.

Characterised by zonal play, short passing and movement, working the ball through various channels, and maintaining possession tiki-taka is associated with Barcelona from Johan Cruyff's era through to the present, and also the Spanish national team.

Crucially, Tiki-taka is "both defensive and offensive in equal measure" – the team is always in possession, so never needs to switch between defending and attacking. 

Tiki-taka – as employed by the Spanish national team has won them Euro 2008, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.

And also continues to be used by arguably the greatest club team in the world, Barcelona, which have won two European Champion’s League titles in recent years while also co-dominating Spanish domestic football (alongside the slightly more pragmatic Real Madrid).

Tika-taka has been described as the most difficult version of football possible: an uncompromising passing game, coupled with intense, high pressing.

To the same token, combining direct response with long term brand-building - 'brand response' - is not easy either. In fact it's perhaps the most difficult form of marketing possible.

Further in Martin Wiegel’s article he points out:

‘The short-term is invariably easier to manage and measure than the long-term…what is important, and what is easy to measure, are not always the same thing. We forget the distinction between the important and the easy at our peril.’

Cruyff, similarly is wary of being data or performance driven at the expense of all else.

'I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer data. Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities - technique and vision - are not detectable by a computer’.

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