The old adage goes, ” Mimicry is the most sincere form of flattery “.
If that is indeed the case, then Johan Cruyff received adulation all around the world, spread across generations of the sport he changed so positively.
From the famous ‘Cruyff Turn’, to the intuitive pass and move methodology that fared him and his teams so well, football everywhere has at one time or another, taken something from the man known affectionately as ‘ Jopie’ in his native Netherlands.
This is not a chronological article highlighting the glittering array of accolades Cruyff picked up as a player and later as a Manager. His career was peppered liberally with the most sought after awards and trophies that are available to a footballer, and no doubt there will be a smorgasbord of pieces that list exactly what has resided in his vast trophy cupboard at any time.
This blog is here to raise a figurative glass from all who have witnessed a great football match, to salute the man who can claim responsibility for changing the face of the game we all adore.
Johan Cruyff made it ‘ The Beautiful Game ‘.
At Ajax in the late ’60’s, he and his then Ajax coach Rinus Michels, set about revolutionising Dutch football. With Michel’s avant-garde tactics and with Cruyff pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved on a pitch, they soon found the magic formula. Eredivisie titles began to flow freely, and a European presence soon followed. Michels is credited as being the father of ‘Total Football’, but without Johan Cruyff as the man to pave the way for his teammates, to fully implement the then wacky ideals that Michels advocated – then there would be no ‘Total football’.
If Rinus Michels was the true pioneer of ‘Total Football’, the man who fully realised these plans was Cruyff. Michels was the architect, but Johan Cruyff built it from the ground up, adding flesh and bone to mere thought. He took not only his club, but his country, and overhauled the way they thought football should be played. The fruits of labour are in the results – and what Cruyff did still resonates today, throughout the sport.
He was the first real thinker on the pitch. Most teams wanted a combination of hardmen and nimble attackers, but Cruyff repeatedly showed the power people in the KNVB that there can be another way. He let the ball do the talking, fully utlising every movement in his lower limbs to instruct the football to do his bidding.
He could not be pigeon-holed into one stereotype however. He had an incredible scoring record, and no doubt, if records showed assists from that halcyon era when he played, then the numbers would point to a staggering amount of goals laid on a plate for others. He was a leader who did not accept second best. He had incredible fitness levels and never shirked a challenge.
Modern day players are lauded for being leaders in their chosen field. Mesut Ozil is gifted with vision. Luis Suarez has a hunters instinct for goals. To combine all aspects of attacking play successfully is as close to implausible as anyone can muster, and only a handful of players in the history of the game can claim to have encroached on this potent mix. Johan Cruyff would be the stencil from which all would be drawn from.
Whilst he will always be remembered for the near miss in the World Cup Final of 1974, the very fact he and his team were there resonated around the globe. From nowhere, the ‘Oranje’ were blitzing opponents with a style of play that opponents had no answer for. At the vanguard of this was Cruyff. On the way to the final, they had scored fourteen goals and conceded just one in six games. The manner in which Michels had orchestrated his team to play was all encompassing, a dazzling display that did not take for granted any area of the pitch. It seems so ironic that the team that robbed the ‘Oranje’ of World Cup glory was a team that was the antithesis of their own. A heady mix of efficiency and direct play, the match could be compared to a fight between the graceful yet powerful Mohammed Ali and the brute strength and ferocity of Joe Frazier.
This did not dampen Cruyff’s claim to the annals of football however. In fact, it was as a Manager that perhaps showcased his greatest asset and what set him aside from anyone else who has laced up a football boot.
In footballing circles, it is a common thought that most successful footballers do not transition their glory to the shores of management. There are of course exceptions, but for every Pep Guardiola there is an Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho and Vicente Del Bosque.
Johan Cruyff bucked that trend of course. His leanings toward more intelligent play and by taking what he had learned under the tutelage of Rinus Michels, he set his teams out to obliterate their opponent with aesthetically pleasing play. The adversary cannot touch what he cannot approach. Thus, his sides were more than adept at passing and moving, forever dizzying their foe before choosing the optimum moment to strike. Lethal, but it came down to making the right choices, using your head. A famous quote of his ( one of many ) is that ” there is only one ball, so you must have it “. It succinctly points to his ethos, and what set him apart from all else.
At a time when no one was thinking it, Johan Cruyff showed how valuable composure on the ball is. It allows you to make the correct decisions, something which he could pride himself on throughout his distinguished playing career. His managerial career was so successful because his ideas were so simple to manifest during ninety minutes.
Total Football means that the goalkeeper is the first attacker and the striker is the first defender. The team has a hive mindset – a shared outlook and target – and act accordingly with their tasks. It isn’t drilled a la Jose Mourinho and Fabio Cappello, it means that whoever has the ball, then he will have options that will take the team closer to scoring a goal.
All modern teams have taken notes from this masterplan, and must all acknowledge where it originated from. Every team that has found a modicum of success has at least a dash of Cruyff in their midst. What other player can claim to have such an impact?
Any player that has come onto the scene since Cruyff changed the scenery will also give a nod toward the Dutch master as an inspiration. Managers will use his gameplans and certain tenets of Total Football to organise their team.
Throughout the game, Cruyff can be seen – his influence has birthed modern day football as we know it.
As an Arsenal fan, we all adore the man who wore Number 14 for our club. There was a man before him though, who chose Number 14, after returning from long term injury – and used it from then on. Thierry Henry chose Number 14 for a reason. Dennis Bergkamp – another Arsenal demigod – was coached by the man himself. Johan Cruyff gave Bergkamp his shot at Ajax.
Arsene Wenger has cited Rinus Michels and Total Football in the past as one of his motivations. Barcelona began their love affair with possession football when Cruyff was at the helm. Ajax still hold Cruyff’s ideals dear. Johan Cruyff and beautiful football are intrinsically linked, forever entwined down to the DNA of every move that unfolds on the grass.
Wherever football goes, in its current guise, it has been shaped permanently by Johan Cruyff. From tousle-haired artisan to suited visionary, the Dutchman gave his genius to the sport and it has benefitted from it exponentially.
We as fans must be forever grateful. Rest In Peace Johan, and thank you for the legacy you have left behind.