Defined by his arrogance yet revered for his talent, Johan Cruyff combined sensational talent with footballing intellect to create a legend of a man. His character complexities may have irked countless people but he was idolised by many more who point to him as a revolutionary in football – both as a player and a Coach.
A man of intellect, awe-inspiring imagination and complete footballing ability, Cruyff embodied the philosophy of Total Football and was its greatest exponent. His technique and ability to comprehend the previously thought incomprehensible made him the perfect player for his mentor’s footballing philosophy.
The father of Total Football, or as he liked to call it, ‘Pressing football’, is of course Rinus Michels. His footballing ethos revolved around the belief that a high pressing game played by players with exemplary fitness levels, who could fluidly interchange positions and undertake different tasks, would change the face of the sport.
The duo shared a mutual beneficial relationship. Whilst Cruyff often refers to his mentor Michels as the man he learnt the most from, one could argue that that Michels may have never achieved the great success he did without Cruyff’s masterminding control within the set-up.
1954-55 saw the introduction of professional football in the Netherlands and Michels oversaw and ensured the conditions required for the club’s progression. Whilst Cruyff initially struggled to break into his team, any chance he was afforded was exploited and Michels was soon struck by the boy’s ability to shake off the shackles of rigidity and express himself on the pitch.
With Cruyff on the pitch and Michels on the bench, Ajax were both aesthetically pleasing and hugely successful in terms of results, largely due to their offensive power. Three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Cruyff’s talent as a player was irrefutable but what he went on to achieve as a tactician perhaps proved even more interesting.
Both at Ajax and Barcelona he arrived at a time of great depression. Asked to be the Coach of the Dutch club, he made his mark during a time Europe was bewitched by the nature of defensive football. They were the years of solid defences and skilled No 10s, but the concept of attacking football had been neglected whilst the counter-attacking era dominated.
Cruyff refused to follow the herd and insisted upon his own philosophy – the one he had helped define under Michels, albeit this time with his own modern tweaks. With a penchant for the risky, we quickly learnt to understand the Cruyff way, the 3-4-3 formation and his disgust for cautious football.
It all started with the goalkeeper who the Dutch Maestro believed ought to know how to play football. Ahead of him would stand three mobile centre-backs, in essence one traditional centre-back and two wingbacks to guard their goal. Ahead of them would play a defensive midfielder who would secure the defence and cover space whilst beside him on either side were midfielders who could both aid defensively as well as contribute in the construction of attacking opportunities. In the heart of things would operate the attacking midfielder, capable of interchanging roles with the number 9 ahead of him whilst the two wingers would offer width.
With this shape, the onus was on scoring goals, which Ajax did in spades. In their first season under his tutelage, the young side managed 120 goals but were still unable to win the title, just missing out to PSV. Cruyff achieved success during his time at the helm, but he was ultimately responsible for creating the style of play that brought them Champions League success a decade later.
Typical of Cruyff and his infamous temperament, tension affected his time in Amsterdam and he left in 1988 to Coach Barcelona. The Catalan side were living in an era of shattered hopes and little faith, fearful they would never make their mark whilst rivals Real Madrid were thriving on account of the Quinta del Buitre.
Barca’s then President, Josep Lluis Nunez, turned to Cruyff on account of his popularity. In many ways he hoped the player’s past would inspire Barcelona’s future in what would be a positive atmosphere. It would go on to be the greatest decision he ever made, but he was made to suffer in the short term.
The club’s critics were short on patience and full of suspicions. Cruyff’s 3-4-3 formation, his distaste for secure defences and strong faith in youngsters worried many who could not fathom success. He may have won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1989 but the 1989-90 season saw him nearly fired on more than one occasion.
Humiliating defeats against the likes of Atletico Madrid saw the fans expressing their anger from the stands, eventually turning their attention to President Nunez. By the time the 1990 Copa del Rey Final against Real Madrid had approached, Cruyff was hanging by a thread.
John Toshack’s Madrid were a force to be reckoned with and ended the season having scored 107 goals – 78 of them came at the Bernabeu. Whilst the start of the season saw Los Blancos struggle, with the Coach under some heavy pressure, their League performances soon started to improve as they turned into a goal-scoring machine, led by Pichichi trophy winner, Hugo Sanchez.
Cruyff knew a defeat would result in his dismissal and he could hardly argue. It was his last chance saloon. Two goals from the Catalans and with Fernando Hierro sent off for Madrid, Barcelona prevailed and Cruyff was rewarded with the luxury of time – time to develop his dream team to dominate world football and faith in his ability to do so.
“Perhaps the current Barca owed a little to that victory,” the Copa del Rey goalscorer Julio Salinas mused in an interview with AS in 2011. Perhaps they did as the cycle changed and the Blaugrana went on to revolutionise football, achieving six straight wins at the start of next season before going on to win many more games and trophies.
Cruyff both as a player and especially as a Coach changed the fate of two major European clubs and his legacy continues to live on. Both Pep Guardiola and Frank de Boer were his pupils and disciples of his teachings. Whilst the former managed even more trophies during his time on Barcelona’s bench, De Boer continues to impress in Amsterdam, creating an aesthetically pleasing side despite a limited budget and continual changes in personnel.