clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Soccer - Football League Division One - Sunderland

Filed under:

Total football - as invented by Sunderland

Total Football - which some claim was invented by Sunderland back in the 1930s - is finally back on Wearside!

Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images

It could be happening! Perhaps not a second promotion in a row, but there is significant momentum that may well take Sunderland AFC into the Championship play-offs.

This season, we have played some remarkable football with our talented young team, which has sometimes picked itself largely by default through the absence of other players. The team has kept the ball on the ground, passed it expertly, and shown remarkable resilience and talent, especially away from home.

Currently, we have eight first-team players out injured, but we managed to emerge from our “bad patch” - just seven points from nine games until we won at Cardiff on April 10th - to remain undefeated since.

Some crucial victories and just as importantly, the many draws played out by our play-off rivals mean that we are now within reach of the play-off positions with one game left.

Some of our performances, such as the home destruction of Middlesbrough and Rotherham, but more emphatically, away at West Bromwich Albion, Reading, QPR, and Fulham, were shining examples of flowing football.

As someone who remembers the 1970s, it brings back memories of “Total Football,” a concept practiced by Johan Cruyff at Ajax and the Dutch National Team. The idea is nicely explained on this YouTube video:

However, it does not mean that everyone runs forward and leaves the defense exposed.

As summarized on the Wikipedia page, “In Total Football, a player who moves out of his position is replaced by another from his team, thus retaining the team’s intended organizational structure. In this fluid system, no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role; anyone can play as an attacker, a midfielder, and a defender successively. The only player who must stay in a specified position is the goalkeeper.”

There are two overarching concepts in this style of football: 1. Utilization of space and 2. Fluidity of positions. However, some players who don’t move forward still have the responsibility to be in good defensive positions.

For example, Dennis Cirkin scored twice in the 2-1 win at The Hawthorns, and his performance was reminiscent of Total Football. Despite being a defender, Cirkin moved forward to power in both of his killer goals. According to the Wiki summary above, there was defensive cover when Cirkin moved forward.

Sunderland v Watford - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Did you know that Total Football was effectively invented by the Black Cats? My colleague at Roker Report, Gary, pointed me to a book he is reading: “Sunderland AFC 1935 to 1937” by Paul Days and Mark Metcalf, published on November 30, 2012.

The achievements of the Sunderland team in 1935-37 prompted legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who played for Preston North End against Sunderland in the 1937 FA Cup Final, to remark that the Sunderland team of 1937 played the same brand of Total Football as the great Holland team of the 1970s.

Sunderland heroes Raich Carter, who is perhaps the finest player ever to take the field for the club, and Bobby Gurney, still the club’s highest-ever goalscorer, helped to make the team of 1935–37 the greatest in the land.

Therefore, I firmly believe that if our fearless young team can exhibit the fluidity of positioning, sound defensive cover, and pressing that we saw at West Bromwich Albion, despite the absence of a true striker or our regular center-halves, we can win our 11th away game, and end the season in the top six.

I know that other results need to go our way, but we have a fair chance.


Editorial: Haway man Lads, let’s see a bit of fight!


Fan Letters: “Kyril Louis Dreyfus needs to change the plan or sell the club”


Sunderland are repeating past mistakes with their mismanagement of Jobe

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Roker Report Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Sunderland news from Roker Report