Total Football - Lessons from the Field

I have been using a soccer (football) analogy in my posts on organizational change management for some time now.

I believe that we need to simplify the roles within organizational change management and that we only need managers, coaches and players. These roles need to build a workforce that is resilient to constant change.

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Game On!

Managers are our organizational change management subject matter experts. They are the people who form our centre of excellence and are the roles we would refer to today as change leads, change practitioners or change managers.

Managers ensure that we are building, maintaining and sustaining resilience across our workforce (our players).

Managers determine the strategy that is going to be played out and direct the gameplay. They provide instruction and motivation. 

Coaches ensure that Players are game fit.  They develop the skills and capabilities of the Players.

Coaches are the active coalition of change agents and sponsors. Coaches are advocates, facilitators, motivators, mediators and advisors.

They are change sponsors supporting and reinforcing constant change as the norm.

Players are our workforce who will ultimately win or lose the game. It is the players that actually make things happen. They use the gameplay and capabilities with which they have been equipped to win the game.

Change is constant for players. Every match played is different to the one before. The ground is different, the pitch is different, the weather is different, the supporters are different, the opposition is different, the game tactics are different, and the position they play is different. Even during the game things change. Tactics are changed, player numbers can change (if red cards are shown) and the position being played may change,

The players don't resist change – they say ‘Game on!’ For these players, constant change is the norm and they have the resilience to deal with it.

This is a winning team.

Total Football

I was recently introduced to a concept that expands my analogy even further. 

That is the concept of Total Football.

Total Football is a tactical theory in football in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in the team. 

It was made famous by the Netherlands national football team in 1974 when they reached the final of the FIFA World Cup. 

Jack Reynolds who managed Ajax three times between 1915 and 1947 however, laid its foundations and it has continued to be developed. (I’ve no idea why it took until 2018 for me to hear about it!!).

Total Football could be described as ‘organized chaos.’ Any player can move into another’s position. A player who moves out of position is replaced by another team member. In this fluid and flexible system, no outfield player is fixed in a predetermined role. Anyone can successively play as an attacker, a midfielder or a defender. The only player that stays in position is the goalkeeper.

The aim of Total Football is to confuse the opponent.

The traditional way to play football was simple: a goalkeeper, a line of four defenders, a line of four midfielders and a final line of two strikers. The ball was passed forward from line to line so that w eventually the strikers could kick the ball into the goal.


Total Football blew this system out of the water.




I believe there are parallels with the concept of Total Football and the resilient workforce we need today when change is constant, complex and unrelenting.


For the strategy of Total Football to work there has to be a midfielder who can coordinate both offense and defence. In the workplace we need leaders who can play different roles but also direct the game of play as needed.


The success of Total Football depends largely on the adaptability of each player in the team. They need to be able to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation.

In the workplace, when change is constant, complex and unrelenting, we need everyone to be able to adapt to the changing conditions.

We need adaptive leaders and employees that are comfortable with the fact that they may need to play multiple roles. 

Interchangeable roles

Employees understand that their roles are interchangeable. They can wear many hats. 

In the workplace we need managers and coaches who ensure that everyone has the versatility and stamina to undertake multiple roles. They will ensure that the players have the required fitness and skills and are able to meet the technical and physical demands placed upon them.


In Total Football, it is all about team. The same applies in the workplace if the organisation is going to thrive, let alone survive in a world of constant change. Total teamwork, collaboration and cooperation is essential.


The epitome of Total Football as the revolutionary movement it was, required a leader to implement and inspire. In 1974, this was Johan Cruyff.

Today, every leader in the organisation needs to inspire and motivate the team. They lead by example.


Central to Total Football is the concept of movement into space. Players do not wait for the ball to come to them in a predetermined area of the field, They move to wherever other players are not regardless of whether it is an attacking space, midfield space or defence space.

We need a proactive workforce that is prepared to lead and take the initiative. They are self-managing and therefore do not wait for instruction on what to do next. They know what needs to be done and are the masters of their own destiny.

They see advantages and opportunities and they grasp them.

They don't wait – they move!


The organisation today needs to look like a team playing Total Football if it is to succeed in a world of constant change.

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It needs to outmanoeuvre and outsmart the competition.

The workforce is versatile, adaptive, flexible, proactive, collaborative and coordinated. 

Leaders are inspirational, motivational and do not expect the players to play a game that they wouldn't play themselves.

That’s a winning team. Game On!






Karen FerrisComment