You ever watch a medical show like House, for example? You know the part in every episode towards the end when House is running around outside or taking a shower or splashing in a fountain or playing the piano or whatever, and he just looks off into the distance, and boom, he has an epiphany that solves the medical mystery?
That’s what it felt like when I was reading this interesting – if not disjointed – article on ESPN.com about Wayne Rooney (what? a soccer article on ESPN? Yeah, I was shocked too). I got halfway down and at one point the author, Dave Winner, starts talking about a revolution in the sport. It was the 1960′s in Holland, when Rinus Michels, Ajax and Netherlands national team coach, developed a system of play called Total Football – or as the Dutch call it, Totaalvoetbal.
Now, the theory seems a little extreme, something that would probably fail miserably if implemented in its entirety in today’s game. It involves any player on the pitch fluidly moving into any position (aside from goalkeeper) at any time if the need arises. Theoretically, under this system of play, nobody has permanent positions, just temporary ones depending on the current state of play.
Seems silly, right? Well, now apply it to the 2011/2012 Fulham squad. That’s where the epiphany hit me. Where has Clint Dempsey played? He’s played out on the left wing, he’s played alone at the front, he’s been a supporting striker, he’s found himself scampering down the right, and even as a true attacking midfielder. It’s this versatility that gives him his value, if not the 22 goals.
Now consider who’s at the helm of the ship sailing the banks of the Thames. Newly appointed Dutch skipper Martin Jol has released Clint full-tilt into a role where he can reach his potential. But here’s the key: he really has no defining role. How many times have you seen on Twitter during a game someone post they saw the team’s formation switch, moving players around to adapt to a changing scenario? Maybe a substitution has entered the game and caused a change of positional need? 95% of the time Clint Dempsey is involved in that switch in some capacity.
An article I found described Total Football as the following: “Total Football was a structuralist mode of play, players deriving their meaning, their significance, from their interrelationship with other players. Nothing was fixed; everything was fluid, to be negotiated on the pitch.” This is where Clint’s versatility succeeds. His ability to work with whoever happens to be on the pitch around him is evident not just at Craven Cottage but in his work with the US National Team as well, and that’s why this concept fits him so well.
No doubt Martin Jol is familiar with the concept of Total Football, seeing as it was developed in his country, in his favorite league. Why do you think he continues to poach players from the Eredivisie? It’s familiar to him, and he’s familiar with it.
Now, I’m not preaching that Jol is taking Fulham back to the Ajax heyday of the 60′s and 70′s, that’s just naiive. What I am doing is suggesting Martin is taking a few pages from the strategies developed in his country and implementing them in conjunction with other strategies to help his players use their talents to the best of their ability.
Like any specialized tactic, you need the proper players to make it work; no strategy will be successful with just anyone. Phil Jackson based his Hall-of-Fame career on the triangle offense, centered around Kobe Bryant, to poke holes in NBA defenses with superior ball movement. Buddy Ryan developed the 46 defense to ravage run-first NFL offenses, with safety-turned-linebacker Doug Plank playing a key role at the back, and his jersey number the inspiration for the formation’s name.
Whether he stays or goes this transfer window, Clint Dempsey would be wise to thank the Dutchman at the helm for putting him in the best possible position to succeed – by freeing him to use the entire pitch, and any position at any given moment, releasing the American’s full potential.
And whatever club wins the bidding war, their manager would be wise to take a page from Martin Jol’s book, and allow Clint Dempsey Total access to the role that suits him best – no role.