On the 4th anniversary of the death of the great Johan Cruyff, it’s good to recall a famous quote from one of his most inspired proteges:
“Johan Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”
– Pep Guardiola
The style that Barcelona plays today, the style that ruled football for 15 years, and the style that guided Spain to European and World Cup glory from 2008-2012 was perfected and propagated by the Dutch Master. Not only was he a legend on the pitch, he began a stellar managerial stint when he turned up in May 1988 at Barcelona FC when its team president Josep Nunez was facing a mutiny from his under-performing team. A tax scandal had the players in open revolt against the management, and Nunez was facing severe heat. The club president then parachuted in Cruyff as a tactical masterstroke to neutralise restless fans and to win over the players.
What Nunez had miscalculated was that Cruyff would not be grateful for the opportunity and just do his bidding. Cruyff was always his own man, an imperious leader on the field, who played almost every position. He was not going to back down to management or his “boss”. And what he proceeded to do in the next 8 years was change the way Barcelona was run, and changed the way football was played, forever.
As a player for Ajax and the Dutch national team, Cruyff was an exponent of Total Football: indeed, he was its poster child and flag bearer. The foundations for Total Football were laid by Jack Reynolds, who was the manager of Ajax from 1915–1925, 1928–1940, and 1945–1947. Total Football also saw further development by Gusztav Sebes, coach of the Hungarian national football team during the 1950s, who drew heavy inspiration from Burnley native and continental pioneer Jimmy Hogan. These gentlemen together framed the philosophy that could be summed up as: every player can play every position. Rinus Michels, coaching the iconic Dutch national team in the 70s took this philosophy further with Cruyff: the forward was allowed to roam the whole field, and his teammates flowed fluidly around him.
Cruyff brought the same approach to Barca as a coach. In a wide-ranging clean-up after the players’ rebellion, fifteen players were sold, including first-teamers Victor Munoz, Ramon Caldere and Bernd Schuster. They were replaced with 12 newcomers, including winger Txiki Begiristain, attacking midfielder Jose Mari Bakero, centre-forward Julio Salinas and defensive midfielder Eusebio who all became key elements of Johann Cruyff’s future Dream Team.
Cruyff had been a player at Barcelona from 1973 to 1978, bought from Ajax for a world record fee of USD 2 million. He chose a Catalan name, Jordi, for his son, and that made him the darling of the local fans. He helped the club win La Liga for the first time since 1960, defeating their Madrid 5–0 at their home.
Thousands of Barcelona fans who watched the match on television poured out of their homes to join in street celebrations. A New York Times article said that “Cruyff had done more for the spirit of the Catalans in 90 minutes than many politicians in years of struggle”. Football historian Jimmy Burns stated, “with Cruyff, the team felt they couldn’t lose”. He gave them speed, flexibility and a sense of themselves.
So when Cruyff returned as coach, expectations, always high in Catalunya, skyrocketed. Some key elements underlaid his leadership style.
- Hands off and no interference: “If you want to talk to me,” Cruyff told the president, “I’ll come to your office. You don’t come to my dressing room.”
- Playing 3-4-3. The late 1980s was the era of 4-4-2 or 3-5-2. When Cruyff sketched out his new approach, his team “couldn’t believe how many attackers were in the team, and how few defenders. He single-handedly introduced a new way of playing football in Spain. It was a revolution.” The formation was adapted from the 4-3-3 Cruyff played under Rinus Michels. It put the emphasis on attack. “I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0” said Cruyff.
- Not hiring for size, which had been the previous practice: the usual pre-Cruyff practice at La Masia, the famed Barca training school, was to hire teenagers who were tall and big. The minimum height was 1.8 metres (5 feet, 9 inches) and anyone below that was culled from the youngsters squad. When the Dutch legend came in, he ended that height-based policy. He wanted players who could hold the ball, keep the game tight, pass it around and not just boot it forward. He was instilling a possession football mindset. After Cruyff left, Barca stuck with his approach. This would later lead to club stalwarts Xavi, Iniesta and the legendary Lionel Messi being part of the Blaugrana team, though they never would have met the dreaded height requirement.
- A practical mindset, that works with the fans. Said the master, “Barça fans like seeing players from the cantera in the first team – it makes them feel that the coach somehow is more a part of Barcelona. I tried to produce a game that they could claim as Catalan.”
- His training ground ethic: As Four Four Two’s Andrew Murray wrote, the midfielder Eusebio described it beautifully.
“He used to stop every session four or five times and correct our positioning: ‘No, no! Not there. One metre more to the right. Now look: you have a much better angle for the pass. It wasn’t there before’.
These tiny details make you think. They stay with you, and in the end you join the dots between each passage of play. There’s no other coach who could explain that to you, because he was the best in the world as a player. Built up over years they form a huge part of your skills.”
Barcelona won 11 titles under Cruyff. They won 4 La Liga titles in a row, and the European Cup in 91- 92, when they beat Sampdoria. They were in the finals again in 1994, and up against AC Milan. Cruyff was confident. “Barça are the favourites,” crowed Cruyff. “Milan are nothing out of this world. They base their game on defence, we base ours on attack.” Stunningly, the Italians prevailed, by a wide margin. The 4-0 result left Barcelona shell-shocked, and eventually led to Cruyff’s downfall.
He sold some of his stars, axed others. Success still eluded the team, and they won no more silverware. Cruyff knew the end was nigh, and was sacked a day before the final game of the 1995-96 season.
That final still stirs memories, and spurs Barca onwards. As Eusebio says, “It’s no coincidence that Pep Guardiola was in charge of an incredibly successful generation, because he knows what we were missing in the 1994 Champions League Final: hard work and respecting the opposition. I have no doubt that Pep thought about Milan before any game he was expected to win as Barça coach.”
And while defeat is part of every great player or coach’s memories, the good work that Johan Cruyff did is a key part of Barca’s DNA till today, 32 years after he started coaching.
About Cruyff’s lasting influence on Barça’s youth Guillem Balague noted, “Cruyff demanded changes at the academy and La Masía began regularly producing the players he wanted as well as providing the kids with a sound education, dual ambitions of the Dutch coach and the club. “The player who has come through La Masía has something different from the rest, it’s a plus that only comes from having competed in a Barcelona shirt from the time you were a child”, says Guardiola. He is talking not only about the understanding of the game and their ability, but about human qualities. The players who go through La Masía are taught to behave with civility and humility. The theory being that, not only is it pleasant to be unassuming, but also if you are humble, you are capable of learning – and the capacity to learn is the capacity to improve. If you aren’t capable of learning you won’t improve. Since his arrival, Johan had tried and succeeded in convincing the club to train all the junior teams in the same way as the first eleven – and to favour talent over physique.”
For the record, Johan Cruyff was voted the European Footballer of the Century in 1999, won the Ballon d Or 3 times in the 1970s, and was the runner up to Pele in the World Player of the Century poll. He was ranked number 4 in the greatest football coaches of all time by France Football.
As his teammate Johan Neeskens said,
“If you look at the greatest players in history, most of them couldn’t coach. If you look at the greatest coaches in history, most of them were not great players. Johan Cruyff did both – and in such an exhilarating style.”
Finally, in the words of the outspoken man himself:
—Johan Cruyff in his My Turn: The Autobiography