The following text was edited slightly before being published in a new magazine, Global Sports Quarterly. Have a read…..all comments appreciated
Its very rare in the world of football that we are able to bear witness to the presence of a truly, truly special player. The kind of player that leaves you totally mesmerised, genuinely open mouthed and in complete awe of what you see before you. A player that comes along once in a generation. A ‘game changer’.
If I uttered the phrase ‘Total Football’ to you, I’d be fairly sure that you’d understand who I might be talking about.
Hendrik Johannes Cruijff, more commonly known as Johan Cruyff, was a god given talent. A lithe and elegant player and a real student of the beautiful game, he was the perfect exponent of the Total Football system employed by his coach at Ajax Rinus Michels.
Michels was sold on the concept of the innovative and groundbreaking system via his manager Jack Reynolds, who harnessed and developed his own understanding after being seduced by River Plate’s ‘La Maquina’ side and the ‘Magical Magyars’ of Hungary. It was a fluid style of play that was genius in its simplicity.
Whilst it required a large degree of technical ability and tactical nous from each and every player, executed correctly, it rendered the (often more physical) opposition impotent. Players switched position at will, adapting their play accordingly. No one player was pigeon holed. You were attacker, midfielder and defender all rolled into one.
It was perfect for Cruyff, whose on field intelligence was peerless. Starting each game as centre forward, he would often drift to whichever area of the pitch he felt would cause maximum damage to the opponent and the flexibility of the system allowed Cruyff’s wanderlust to flourish. It was devastating, sensational.
Cruyff was born in the Linnaeusstraat in Amsterdam on April 25, 1947. The family home faced the Ajax home ground, De Meer, and clearly there was no other team that the Cruyff’s would support. On the occasion of his 10th birthday, the football fanatic put pen to paper and joined the youth system of the Dutch giants. His journey to the first team, whilst meteoric in many respects, was however was tinged with sadness. When he was just 12 years of age, Cruyff’s father unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack.
In a sign of the mental strength and fortitude we would come to admire in later years, Cruyff decided to persevere with his development under the watchful eye and guiding hand of Michels. Frail from the stress and painful loss, Michels initially concentrated on Cruyff’s conditioning and exercise. As his personal pain began to ease, the majesty of the young Cruyff began to reveal itself.
By the age of 17, Cruyff was ready to announce himself to the wider footballing public and he made his first team debut on 15 November 1964 against GVAV, scoring the only goal for Ajax in a 3–1 defeat. As he gained a foothold in the first team, it was clear to anyone who knew a thing or two about football that here was a gifted young man who already had an insight and analysis into the game that belied his tender years.
It was manna from heaven for Michels. Cryuff’s seamless transition from one position to another and ability to read the game and dictate play was the main component in the success of the Total Football system. Many other teams tried to replicate the system, but it was Ajax that won the silverware that supported Michels’ philosophy.
When he went into management, firstly with Ajax, latterly and famously with FC Barcelona (mirroring the route of mentor Michels), it was obvious that Cruyff could only be content playing one way. The student became the teacher.
Despite being an outspoken, fractious and often aloof character, which made him more enemies than friends, the Dutchman had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game, a tactical acumen beyond compare, and the credentials to have such football luminaries as Rijkaard, van Basten, Guardiola and Stoichkov buy into his project without question. He was intelligent, incisive, visionary.
Never one to mince his words, the late Bill Shankly once succinctly put it: “Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple”. Cruyff himself is quoted as saying “the hardest thing in the world is to play simple football”.
He was absolutely convinced in that simple philosophy of how the game should be played and nothing would deflect him from the core values of the system that he had grown up with. It worked thus; Three mobile defenders. Another to cover space who would essentially operate as a defensive midfielder, two midfielders who’s primary role was to distribute to the attack-minded players. A ‘false 9′ second striker, two out and out wingers and a front man in Cruyff’s own image – mobile and versatile.
It was, is, and will remain the benchmark of how to play beautiful football. It is a style of football that has elegance and panache and is so wonderfully pleasing on the eye. Nowadays we might refer to this style as ‘tiki taka’. Pass, move, pass, pass, move…….
When Cruyff returned to FC Barcelona as manager in 1988, it was on the proviso that the whole outlook of the footballing side of the club should be changed, that he would be given ‘carte blanche’ to revolutionise the way football was played. He would instill his way of working at every level of the club, from the youngest La Masia incumbent to the first team.
There would be no deviation whatsoever from this policy. His ideal was that if all FCB teams were trained in the same way, by the time these players reached the first team, the style of play was already completely natural to them. It paid dividends almost immediately, including Barca’s first ever European Cup.
Its no coincidence that Pep Guardiola’s all conquering Barça team have revolutionised modern football and the Catalan would readily acknowledge the Dutchman’s influence. Working together during that ‘Dream Team’ era at Barca, Cruyff saw himself in Guardiola. The same deep thinking, tactically aware and relentlessly competitive individual that he had once been. Who accepted nothing but the best in all things. It was therefore a completely natural progression when the baton was passed.
Within our midst we now have the complete midfielder of his generation, Xavi Hernandez. Guardiola the teacher, Xavi the pupil. Once the latter has finished playing and has accumulated the necessary coaching credentials, I fully expect we will see another reincarnation of ‘Total Football’, and so the philosophy continues…..
We also recognise the success of this formula through the current Spanish National side, and more and more football clubs are now adopting the policy of ‘total’ football. Managers are now wanting to sign ‘ball players’ as opposed to ‘athletes’ to compliment their staff. Think of players such as Joe Allen at Liverpool, Santi Cazorla of Arsenal or David Silva of Manchester City. Intelligent, responsible and talented. The ideal football player.
Presently Cruyff sits as a member of the Ajax Supervisory board, as advisor to Club Deportivo Guadalajara (better known as Chivas), and is occasional manager of the Catalan national team. He is also the founder of Cruyff football, a company dedicated to developing players via a training methodology that helps players and coaches maximize their performance. At 65 years of age, he shows no sign of slowing down.
Perhaps more than any other footballer that has played the game, Hendrik Johannes Cruijff will leave a legacy that is likely to remain unsurpassed.