A completely integrated, fluid team. Every player plays in every position. A beautiful pattern of adaptation and agility — the team itself is the active intelligence on the pitch, not the individuals.
The dream of ‘agile’ and of teams since time immemorial. I’ve shared before how the systems ‘triangle game’ can give you an experience of being part of such an inherently, intuitively, mutually responsive organisation.
I hope you have had moments of the team synchronicity and flow that reflect this, when you had each other’s backs, finished each other’s thoughts, or rather felt you were part of an emergent thinking whole which inspired the next brilliant action.
And it’s so easy to compare and contrast the ‘Total Football’ approach with nasty, oppressive hierarchies. That feeling of constraint, frustration, mystery, constipation, inauthenticity. When office politics and pointless deadening bureaucracy replace passion and purpose and the beautiful dance of the optimal team.
In UK public services in the early stages of COVID, there was some of this. Barriers swept away, hospitals built, mutual support in effect, open phone lines to social services, people suddenly tasked on to what was most urgent.
And then the bureaucracy came back in. Criminal records checks on neighbours picking up prescriptions. Structured ‘patches’ for organising support to the vulnerable. And it turned out the Nightingale Hospitals were a complete distraction.
The dream, the experience of Total Football is the right one.
But don’t buy the dream without understanding the reality.
At the start of RedQuadrant, as I often say, we tried Total Football — self-organising, open, adaptive. It became Schoolyard Football — wherever the ball was, there were 22 players all crowded around it. We literally had someone come to us in tears, asking for line management. Why?
Total Football requires
- lots of skill and training — every player in the famous Dutch team of the 1970s was deeply trained in a range of positions — the strikers could defend and vice versa because they had the expertise, experience, the capability to do so
- LOTS of discipline — it’s rare that fluidity happens spontaneously. It requires drilling, training, intentional practice and learning, and just plain hard work
- superstars and people willing to do the dull, technical gruntwork — yes, in a sense every Total Football team is built around genuine stars — created partly to host them — with others willing to put in the unglamorous hours. Not that that’s a problem if
- a willingness to do the right thing, and lose anyway — that’s the romance — and a fierce competitive edge to make damn sure you win
And a lot more work — if fixing roles once has drawbacks, knowing them moment-to-moment has a cost too.