Described as “Pythagoras in boots” and winner of three consecutive Ballon d’Or titles, Johan Cruyff was Europe’s first football superstar. A pupil of Rinus Michels at Ajax under the pioneering Totaalvoetbal (Total Football) revolution of the 1970s, the Dutch side won four Eredivisie titles and the 1970/71 European Cup under Michels. Cruyff, under the stewardship of Stefan Kovacs, would win two further European Cups in 1972 and 1973, with a team containing Ruud Krol, Piet Keizer, Arie Haan and Johan Neeskens.
Cruyff was a graceful, technically accomplished player, with an agile and athletic style. However, he didn’t need to rely on any physical attributes, although they certainly helped the untrained eye see his unbridled talent. Cruyff’s true genius was in his mind, claiming “Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don’t run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.” During his playing career, he honed a gift for the tactical side of the game and the revolutionary style of his teams as a manager would help develop a legacy which is still being studied and replicated to this day.
Having been mentored by Michels and later, Kovacs, Cruyff took up the reins as manager of Ajax in June 1985, he implemented his own Totaalvoetbal by using a 3-4-3 system. Like the famous Ajax sides of the 1970s, Cruyff coached his sides to play an extremely fluid shape which enabled his players to be able to play in any position as required. He also encouraged the defence to play higher up, thus limiting the amount of space the opposition had to manoeuvre.
Cruyff’s Ajax finished league runner up in 1985-86 despite scoring a staggering 120 goals. They won the KNVB Cup in successive seasons between 1985 and 1987 and also won the 1986/87 European Cup Winners Cup, defeating Lokomotiv Leipzig, 1-0 in Athens. The scorer of the solitary goal was Marco van Basten, who would become one of many Cruyff disciples over the next three decades.
Cruyff not only inspired the senior players at Ajax, but he also revolutionised their youth academies by insisting they play the Totaalvoetbal style to ingrain the tactic from an early age. The success of the Ajax Youth Academy is now world renowned and it has produced the likes of Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert and Dennis Bergkamp, among others who were rightly lauded as some of the 20th century’s most iconic players. Under his tutelage, football had turned into time and space with Cruyff emphasising that “Why does a player have to chase the ball? Because he started running too late. You have to pay attention, use your brain and find the right position. If you get to the ball late, it means you chose the wrong position.”
After enjoying a successful playing career with Barcelona, Cruyff returned to the city to become the founder of the next tactical and youth breakthrough by establishing a similar talent factory at Barcelona. With the help of a core of Catalan players, Cruyff sowed the seeds for the future tiki-taka innovation. However, in May 1988 Barcelona was unrecognisable from the worldwide behemoth we know today. The team had long been in the shadow of rivals, Real Madrid, and they had won just 2 league trophies in the 28 years preceding Cruyff’s reign and had been financially unsettled for many years.
His innovative tactical style produced some spectacular results as his ‘dream team’ including Hristo Stoichkov, Romário, Michael Laudrup, José Mari Bakero, Pep Guardiola and Ronald Koeman helped Cruyff’s Barcelona to become the foundation for the modern-day identity of Barça, arguably the greatest football dynasty of the last 30 years. Within three years of joining Barça, Cruyff had guided their return to the top of the league and secured the 1988/89 European Cup Winners Cup, defeating Sampdoria, 2-0. In total Cruyff won 11 trophies in just eight years, including winning the European Cup in 1992 after beating Sampdoria in the final.
Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift. –
For someone who mesmerised the world with his skilful deception of Swedish full back, Jan Olsson in 1974 and who had been obsessed with the artistic virtues of the game, Cruyff will no doubt have been more pleased with the fresh elegance and style with which Barça rose to dominance. Now world-renowned, his playing style originated in Holland, travelled to Barcelona and has had such far-reaching, seismic influence. Since Cruyff’s arrival in 1988, Barcelona have won 15 league titles, 9 Copa Del Rey, 12 Supercopa, 5 Champions League and several other silverware, all of which total to 51 trophies in 30 years. Their trophy cabinet will only become bigger in the future.
With Totaalvoetbal as its foundation and Cruyff realised the dream of his playing days by creating a style which focused on the visually stunning, by infusing the teachings of Rinus Michel with a focus on pressing the opponent, maintaining possession while noting the importance of the spatial chess match and the positional fluidity of his players. Tiki-taka was born.
Louis van Gaal and in particular Frank Rijkaard delivered more silverware after Cruyff left Barça in 1996. They helped to bring the Barça style into the 21st century. Rijkaard favoured an attacking 4-3-3 with a central playmaker before Pep Guardiola mixed Cruyff’s Totaalvoetbal with a greater emphasis on an aggressive pressing style. His Barça side won the sextuple in 2009 playing the modern-day tiki-taka.
The disciples of Cruyff’s master plan were just as important to the success of his Barça side. They would go forth and spread the gospel of tiki-taka and Totaalvoetbal not just in Spain but also Holland, Germany, Italy and England. Most were graduates of arguably the world’s most famous youth academy, La Masia.
Some of the most famous La Masia alumni include Guardiola, Lionel Messi, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Víctor Valdés. They have all played a vital role in the phenomenal success of Barça and the Spanish national team over the last decade. In 2009 when Barça defeated Manchester United 2-0 in the Champions League final, the game was significant as Barça became the first Spanish side to complete the treble, and it was also noteworthy as they did so with eight La Masia graduates in their squad. So effective was Cruyff’s La Masia set up, that the 3 finalist at the 2011 Ballon D’Or were La Masia graduates. An entire starting eleven made up solely of academy players became reality in November 2012. La Masia itself closed in 2011 but the academy has been credited with some notable achievements over the years.
In 2010, the game threw up an ironic moment in the biggest game of all. Long thought of as the greatest team to never win a World Cup, Cruyff’s birth country had made the final for the first time since 1974. They faced his adopted country, Spain, who happened to have six La Masia academy players, including Xavi, Iniesta and Puyol, in their starting lineup. Playing the Guardiola/Cruyff fusion of tiki-taka, they outclassed an overly physical Dutch side. Cruyff, never one to hold back, criticised the approach used by his fellow countrymen, adding that “the style of Spain is the style of Barça and that is the best publicity for football”.
Many La Masia students have praised Cruyff’s methods and his pioneering Totaalvoetbal style. Xavi commented “He changed the image of the club, he introduced the philosophy to keep the ball, to play triangles, to attack. That still remains true, we are all students of Cruyff’s school of thought”.
Under the instructions of Cruyff, who was present at a youth team game, Guardiola was moved from the right wing to defensive midfield to play a pivot role. The move would be momentous for Guardiola, who went on to play a vital role in the victorious 1992 European Cup campaign. As Barça manager, he took over in 2008 from another former Cruyff pupil, Frank Rijkaard, who had won two La Liga titles and the 2005/06 Champions League. Guardiola oversaw the most successful period in the club’s history as they won an amazing 14 trophies in just four seasons.
The tiki-taka legacy was a huge reason for the team’s success, as the team passed, moved and pressed their way through defences all over Europe in a way not seen since Cruyff’s Ajax over 30 years earlier. A majority of his players had grown up in La Masia and tiki-taka was in their veins; the Barça sides under Guardiola merely brought it to life.
Cruyff’s legacy is so much more than numerous individual titles as a player or team trophies as a manager. They were merely the reward for decades of an unrivalled dedication to producing a romantic, pure version of the beautiful game, from the grassroots to the first team. At Barcelona, he didn’t just give them a brand of football, he gave them a DNA.
Modern managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger have referenced Cruyff’s tactical methods. Sir Alex’s 1994 United side were on the receiving end of a 4-0 hammering at the Camp Nou and that night the United manager experienced something of an epiphany, he humbly noted “that was a big lesson, I hadn’t understood it until then but they showed us how important it was to control possession in European matches”.
Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side of the late 1980s and 1990s won successive European Cups and a Serie A title, with the Dutch trio, and former Ajax academy pupils, Rijkaard, van Basten and Ruud Gullit at its core. Sacchi’s tactical style drew inspiration from Cruyff but he also implemented a high-pressing style and utilised the offside trap to great effect, much like Guardiola’s Barça would do more than ten years later. Fellow Italian, Maurizio Sarri has been responsible for some breathtaking football over recent years and it is clear that Sacchi’s methods, tiki-taka and Totaalvoetbal have shaped his brand of football at both Napoli and Chelsea. Cruyff’s fingerprints are seen in every case of a fluidic football that you now witness.
Cruyff, a heavy smoker for much of his life, lost his battle with cancer in March 2016, prompting not only messages of condolence but also of praise and celebration from ex-colleagues and pupils alike. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Cruyff is responsible for the re-birth of the European game by making it a pleasing, aesthetic spectacle and his influence will continue to invigorate the game for decades to come. A rebel, a pompous, arrogant purist, a romantic and a pragmatist, Cruyff’s legacy both on and off the field is unlikely to ever be matched.