Dutch Total Football and the practice of design

I realise this is a somewhat tendentious angle for a blog post. The Dutch system of Total Football emerged more than 40 years ago. And what has it got to do with design?

I shall try to explain. I just finished a book that has been on my reading list for a very long time: Brilliant Orange by David Winner, a most original, indeed brilliant, appreciation of the revolutionary new approach to football introduced by the great Dutch teams of the 1970s.

Before then the Netherlands were a footballing backwater. But from 1971 the country's leading club side Ajax won the European Cup - today's Champions League - three years in a row. And the national side reached the World Cup final in 1974 and 78. They did so by introducing a new way of playing the game, dubbed Total Football because of its emphasis on the ability of each player to switch positions with any colleague. When defenders attacked forwards dropped back to defend. And vice versa. This allowed the team to maintain its structure at all times and assume a permanent mode of attack.

I'm old enough to dimly recall the 1978 World Cup and Holland's progress through it. I liked their orange shirts and the way they played. I liked the names, which now read as a roll call of the some of the top players in football history: to name a few, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, Arie Hann, Johnny Repp, and, of course, Johan Cruyff, the best footballer Europe has produced. I remember the reverential tone the commentators assumed when they were on the field. An aura surrounded the Dutch, granted by their devastating performance at the previous World Cup when they had ripped through all opponents, somehow contriving to fall at the last hurdle in the final against Germany, despite scoring in the first minute and allowing the Germans only a couple of touches of the ball through the first third of the game. You can watch nearly all their 1974 games on YouTube. I particularly like this one:

Since then I've virtually supported Holland through every subsequent World Cup and European Championship. They've usually had the best team, nearly always reaching at least the semi-finals. Somehow they've only won tournament, the European Championship of 1988: their inability to cope with penalty shoot outs has put them out on virtually every other occasion. Win or lose, they consistently play the most attractive football (please overlook their shameful performance in the 2010 World Cup final, when they abandoned their traditional style to try to kick Spain out of the game, a team, ironically, built on Dutch footballing principles).

So I've long wanted to read Brilliant Orange. Winner is interested in the same questions as me. How and why did the Dutch develop a new way of playing football, an approach that, as it has been adapted by other club sides and nations, has helped football earn the label of 'The Beautiful Game'. I haven't played football for quite a few years, and at my advancing age I'll probably now never engage in anything more than the occasional kick about, but the game still holds a considerable aesthetic appeal for me. And, for reasons I've hitherto never quite been able to articulate, reminds me of what I do every day: design.

For Winner, the Dutch style of football has its roots in wider Dutch culture. He draws bold - and convincing - parallels with Dutch art and architecture, the characters of which are in turn shaped by the Netherland's unique geography. Holland, Winner reminds us, is a small, almost completely flat country much of which has been reclaimed from the sea. It has a relatively large population, the great majority of whom are crammed into a few cities. Space, therefore, is at a premium, and the the Dutch have over the centuries developed sophisticated strategies for making the most of it.

Winner writes: 'Space is an inordinately precious commodity, and for centuries the use of every square centimetre of every Dutch city, field and polder has been carefully considered and argued over. The land is controlled because as a matter of national survival it must be. The Dutch water system has to be regulated tightly because more than fifty per cent of the country is below sea level. In the west of the country the entire landscape is man-made.'

He goes on to quote architect Dirk Sijmons, who says: 'What is nature and what is artificial? You can't say. The landscape is an abstraction in the sense that it is only points, lines and surfaces, like a painting by Mondrian. We live in a kind of inhabited mega-structure below sea level.'

Starting with this insight about space, Winner goes on to illuminate three aspects of Dutch football - indeed all intelligent football - that helped me to understand the game's parallels with the practice of design.

Spatial awareness

Winner argues: 'Space is the unique defining element of Dutch football.... no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch.' Players switch in and out of position, seeking always to open up fresh areas of space within the football pitch's limited geometry, probing for a passage through crowded opposition defences to the goal. Cruyff was referred to as a 'Pythagoras in boots' for his ability to find new space through his acute positioning and sharply angled passes.

The Dutch philosophy of Total Football was a systematic application of well-honed principles of spatial management to the limited geography of the football field. Winner quotes artist Jeroen Henneman, who waxes lyrical: 'Suddenly football was not about kicking each other's legs any more. You went to matches at Ajax and came away with the feeling that you had seen something very special and that only you could see it. But then you talked to other people and you realised the everyone felt the same thing. There was something spiritual going on, though exactly what would be hard to discover. Perhaps it is to do with the sense of beauty that goes with the football in Holland. The beauty is in the space and in the pitch. It is in the grass, but it is also in the air above it, where balls can curl and curve and drop and move like the planets in heaven. Not only on the field. The folding of the air above it also counts. The Dutch prefer to work out how to beat someone with intelligence and beauty rather than power.'

Amsterdam, reclaimed from the sea (Source: bMA)

Winner meets photographer Hans van der Meer, who speaks in mystical terms of the 'moment of tension' in a game when clever use of space opens a gap in an opposition defence: 'There are one or two moments when a situation develops and you understand something will happen. This is the moment of tension, of possibility. The next moment they are over - the game moves to something else. Everyone in the crowd shares this tension. The pleasure of going to a football game is that you all feel this together. It's like chess.'

For me, all of this resonates with the practice of design. Everyday I try to make the most of a limited space, in my case the pixels on a screen, to order text and images in an effective way. Design elements must be positioned carefully, according to an appropriate visual hierarchy. And there comes a 'moment of tension' when, after shuffling the pieces around it becomes clear just how they should be positioned. That is the mysterious moment when the design is completed, when everything is in its right place.


Dutch football is rightly lauded for its beauty, but it would be a mistake to refer to Holland as 'the Brazil of Europe'. Their approach is quite different to the free flowing uninhibited style associated with South American teams. Dutch teams may be composed of a rich palette of talents, but individual creativity is only permissible within the context of the system. South American commentators have noticed the difference. They greatly admire Dutch football but signify its more systematic nature by referring to the Dutch national side as 'The Clockwork Orange'.

Observer journalist Simon Kuper writes: 'When the Dutch say someone can play football they are referring exclusively to his technique and his reading of the game. Courage, desire to win, pace and height mean nothing to them.'

Winner writes: 'There is something slightly mechanical about Dutch football's system-building. Teams are planned and manufactured. The point of the vaunted youth-schemes is to churn out numbered products for the machine. A number 8 from the second youth team can step neatly into the shoes of an injured number 8 in the first team and will know precisely where to fit in, how to mesh with the team's other moving parts.'

He goes on to quote selections from exhaustive Ajax coaching guidelines which read like a - very long - engineering textbook: 'Each position is linked to a fixed shirt number for the sake of clarity. In turn, each shirt number is associated with several basic tasks, which the player wearing the shirt has to carry out. There are tasks to be carried out when Ajax is in possession, and others to be carried out when the opposition has the ball.'

Art for arts sake isn't tolerated. Skill and imagination are greatly valued, but only insofar as they are employed in the service of the team.

And so it is with design. Design is not the same as art. The particular elements of a website, a poster or a book cover can certainly be beautiful - indeed they must be beautiful in and of themselves - but they must work together. Nothing should be allowed to stand out, to unbalance. Everything has its place so far as it serves the composition, the design's function, the message.


The effect of all this careful use of space, order and discipline is to raise the game of football into the realm of the aesthetic. Football isn't art, but it can be played in an artful way. Dutch Total Football was not designed as an end in itself, for the admiration of armchair aesthetes, but as a pragmatic means of winning games. But its accidental, surface appeal is compelling: the subtle switches of position, the acutely angled passes, the sudden changes of pace, the weaving of intricate patterns, the patient, measured probing for an opening.

At its best the effect is harmonious, balletic. Winner quotes Dutch ballet dancer Rudi van Dantzig, a friend of Rudolf Nureyev, on Johan Cruyff's athletic grace: 'Rudolf said Cruyff should have been a dancer. He was intrigued by his movements, his virtuosity, the way he could suddenly switch direction and leave everyone behind, and do it all with perfect control and grace.'

The coaches and players who built the Ajax and Dutch national sides of the 1970s weren't ballet dancers, art critics or professors, just sportsmen trying to work out a way to win. But over time they realised they had created something - quite unconsciously - that transcended football, something of aesthetic value, not just a novel and effective sporting strategy. Winner recounts how the attacking defender Ruud Krol, a veteran of the 1974 World Cup finals, intrigued by the lofty comparisons he and his colleagues' football had drawn with art, took three years off after retiring to visit the world's galleries and museums, which he had never had time to do as player.

Good design also prompts comparisons with art, even though that isn't its purpose. The function of design is to communicate information effectively: art is an end in itself, design is a means to an end. But when design works it has tremendous aesthetic appeal. Space, text, image and colour combine to form a balanced composition to which it is appropriate to refer using the language of art: grace, harmony and beauty.

That seems to be an appropriately positive note on which to end. Suffice to say I highly recommend Brilliant Orange if you have any interest in football or Dutch culture. And you should take a look at the football when the European Championships start in a couple of months: Holland are in it.