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Total Football: Bringing the Dutch class with ATL style

The man to lead Atlanta United into the next chapter is Dutch legend Frank De Boer, another manager with European pedigree to take the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. But for Five Stripes fans, what does that mean for the team on the field?

De Boer is a product of Dutch powerhouse Ajax, first as a player and later as his first job as a professional manager. The club is built on the beliefs of Dutch icon Johan Cruyff and manager Rinus Michels, whose philosophy of “Total Football” revolutionized the game in the 1960’s and turned the club into a powerhouse of the game. That style followed Cruyff to Barcelona, another club that used the Total Football philosophy to dominate the European game. De Boer came up through the Ajax academy, played there for 11 years, and coached their youth and senior teams for a combined nine years.  In short, Atlanta United’s new manager was raised in the Ajax way.

So what does Total Football mean? Before its introduction soccer tactics were rigid: forwards scored, midfielders passed, and defenders defended. Total football made it much more fluid. If a forward moved out of position, a midfielder could fill the space behind him and not miss a beat. It wasn’t acceptable for defenders or even a goalkeeper to not have the technique necessary to pass the ball and dribble. Defenders had to pass, forwards had to press and defend –– and everyone had to have the intelligence and skill to be able to contribute in every asset.

The advantages to this kind of system are clear. Instead of an opposing defense having to worry about one or two threats, there are threats in every position on the field. And because of the flexibility of the players, the tactical shape and formation can stay the same. 50 years later, some details have changed but the basic tenets stay the same: tactical flexibility, possession-oriented play with everyone on the field capable of attacking and defending.

Now that style comes to Atlanta to a team that is already built to succeed in that model. Creating all the way out of the back line with an emphasis on sharp passing and constant movement was a trademark of Tata Martino’s style at Atlanta, so this is a squad ripened for this style. A player like Leandro González Pirez –– a hard-nosed defender, but equally adept at placing a pinpoint pass on the toe of his attacking teammate –– fits perfectly into this system. And Atlanta United’s midfield, as technical as any in the league, should thrive in a style that succeeds on maintaining possession of the ball.

“Frank’s style of play was very important to us,” Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said during the announcement. “His tactics feature an attacking, high-intensity style that mirrors our approach to the game. And his track record for player development, of pushing youth players into the First Team, speaks for itself.”

No matter the manager, Atlanta United’s player profile, style and philosophy are clear: passing-oriented, attacking, high-intensity soccer. There may be tweaks to that which come with any management transition, but Atlanta United fans can expect much of the same in the next chapter. It’s a new European style, but the same Southern swagger that will take the pitch at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2019.

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