‘If one’s actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, think more, do more, learn more and become more, that is when one is a leader.’
Most people who have watched Barcelona sides of the past ten years will agree that they have epitomised the idea of ‘total football’, and would be regarded as possibly the best teams of all time. Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, Pique, Alves, Busquets, Puyol. Their beautiful passing movements; their interchanges of positions; their relentless desire to win the ball back – all are now part of this almost templated ‘Barca’ style of play. Of course, it helps when the players themselves are exceptional individuals, but having a group of wonderful individuals does not necessarily mean you are blessed with a great team.
Incoming Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola may have nurtured this group of players and brought them to this level of greatness, but there was one pivotal person behind even Guardiola’s own background – the late Johan Cryuff.
Having helped Ajax to three successive European Cups between 1971-73, as well as enabling Holland to dazzle and delight the world at the 1974 World Cup, the notion of ‘total football’ was conceived through Cryuff. And had it not been for him, it may not have progressed. Post this success, a defensive element had become apparent in the Dutch game – similar to that of Louis Van Gaal’s current Manchester United (possession and control over creativity). However, Cryuff would not stand for such, and blending key principles with his own ideals, Dutch football soon grasped onto these methods before Cryuff exported his ways to the land of the elegant footballer – Spain, and specifically Barcelona.
A remarkable number of the most important teams of the modern era have been directly influenced by him. Modern Barcelona and Spain and the current Bayern Munich and German national teams bear out the point. So did Arrigo Sacchi’s all-conquering Milan team in the late 80’s (based on early 70s Ajax and featuring Cruyff proteges Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard) and the Arsenal Invincibles of 2003-04.
But furthermore, positions themselves have now evolved. For example, the modern-day full-back – used to both attack and defend; the sweeper-keeper; the false 9. All of these instances have arisen from the positional flexibility derived from Cryuff’s methods.
La Masia – Barcelona’s highly-renowned youth academy – has been built on Cryuff’s foundation: More touches, shorter passes, persistent work to recover possession, flair and exploitation of space. All of these elements have become more and more apparent with each generation of player, players that have been encouraged to be brave and want the ball, but also be astute in knowing the best option not only for themselves, but their team-mates.
The definition of majestic when playing, Cryuff’s influence on the game in his years as a coach has resulted in the face of modern football changing completely. The aforementioned ‘total football’ was born out of Cryuff’s curiosity, with his willingness to question the norm resulting in many changes both on and off the pitch.
Cryuff’s passing is one which will be mourned throughout the world, but his legacy is one that will forever remain the foundation of the game today. And through the likes of Guardiola, his teachings will continue to provoke new ideas within the game.