Johan Cruyff’s legacy is the brilliance of Barcelona - his spirit made flesh

When we marvel at the beauty of Barcelona’s current team we have to thank the vision of one man who tore up the rule book and coached every player to be comfortable on the ball, playing Total Football with total freedom

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The Independent Football

Football lovers drone on endlessly about who is the greatest player. The debate usually converges on the trinity of Pele, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. Older fans may add Alfredo Di Stefano to the candidates’ list. Romantics will also venture the name of Johan Cruyff, who died on Thursday aged 68.

What football’s big five have in common is that they left lasting images of ingenuity, power and grace in our collective mind’s eye. What is unique about Cruyff is that his footprint is deeper, longer and more enduring than those of all the rest. There is no Pele style, or Maradona style, or Messi style, or Di Stefano style to be found in the way the game is played today. But there is a Cruyff style. Or, as they say in Spain, a Cruyff ideology.

The most admired and most successful team of the present day – on this point there is no discussion – is Barcelona, the living expression of the Dutchman’s idea of how the game should be played. Cruyff’s spirit hovers around the Barcelona team, penetrating the thought processes of every player on the field. 

Cruyff’s most ardent disciple, Pep Guardiola, is this Barça’s architect, the manager under whom they won 14 out of 19 possible leagues and cups in four years, a feat unequalled in the history of the game. But one thing Guardiola has never failed to repeat is that the original design belongs to Cruyff, under whom the Catalan played and learned his craft in the early 1990s.  “Cruyff made the Sistine Chapel,” Guardiola has said. “The job of those that have followed him at Barcelona has been to maintain it.”

Football’s Michelangelo, it should be acknowledged, had a Dutch master of his own. Cruyff’s coach at his boyhood team, Ajax Amsterdam, was Rinus Michels, the man who devised the concept of “total football”. 

What it meant was an end to the venerable and ancient notion that each player on a team had a fixed and immoveable role; what it required was for every player to be comfortable on the ball. Defenders attacked, attackers defended and possession was king.

The core idea that Cruyff duly ran with, which he articulated in words and expressed both on the field and from the touchlines, was that players should not be constricted by rigid geometrical systems; that the game should allow for a measure of anarchy; that, above all, professional football should be fun. And the most fun, as every child who plays the game knows, is when you, not the other team, have the ball at your feet.

As a player for Ajax and for Holland, the best national side never to win a World Cup, Cruyff was generous and fearless. As coach of, first, Ajax, then Barcelona, he was similarly free-spirited, rarely bothering with detailed tactical talks or high-flown inspirational rhetoric. He worked relentlessly in training on honing his players’ skills, with special emphasis on precision passing under high pressure to accelerate the team’s rhythm of play, but his last words before the team ran out on to the pitch were invariably variations on: “Go out and have a good time.”

Early on in his tenure as Barcelona coach Cruyff went out for a drink with some friends. Various Heinekens later, he announced to one and all that it was his intention to change the game of football. “My defenders will be midfielders, I’ll play with two wingers and no traditional centre forward,” he declared. His companions assumed he was drunk, and maybe he was, but that was what happened. He did change the game, never wavering from the ruling principle that the ball was sovereign, that possession was all.

One player exemplified Cruyff’s approach back then. Miguel Angel Nadal, the uncle of the celebrated tennis player, arrived at Barcelona from Mallorca, where he had played as a creative central midfielder and frequent scorer of goals. Cruyff astounded the Spanish football world by playing him at centre-half. Nadal did have to learn to defend but his chief mission, as Cruyff had defined it, was the one he had learned as a youth: initiating attacking plays. The classic, John Terry-style “stopper” had no place in the Cruyff scheme. Nor does this kind of defender find a place in today’s Barcelona. 

Like Miguel Angel Nadal, the man who now plays at centre-half for Barcelona, Gerard Pique, started out in the youth teams as a midfielder. The same goes for his habitual defensive companion, Javier Mascherano, except that he played in midfield until he was 26, the age at which he moved to Barcelona from Liverpool. Look around the rest of the team and you’ll see that same versatility Cruyff insisted upon. It is not clear, for example, whether the primary purpose of the two full-backs, Dani Alves and Jordi Alba, is to defend or to play as out-and-out wingers; the spaghetti-thin Andres Iniesta is an exquisitely elegant attacking midfielder who last season robbed more balls in defence than any other player in the Spanish league; as for Messi, he is, like the Holy Spirit – and like Cruyff in his playing days – everywhere at once, popping up one moment on the right wing, the next in central midfield, the next in the heart of the penalty area scoring a goal. 

At the Barcelona that Cruyff built even the goalkeeper is expected to think tactically. Hoofing the ball hopefully forward is as verboten for the man wearing the gloves as it is for every player ahead of him. Again, it was Cruyff who set out the article of faith: “In my teams the goalkeeper is the first attacker and the striker is the first defender.”

It is true that the Barcelona team of the last seven years has won more trophies than Cruyff’s ever did. This reflects in part a more methodical approach on the part of Guardiola and his successor Luis Enrique, in particular when scrutinising their rivals’ strengths and weaknesses. Guardiola was being a little coy in attributing himself the role merely of maintenance man. Yet he did have a point. The main reason why Barcelona have triumphed in recent years is the quality and intelligence of their home-grown players, most of whom were schooled in the unshifting ideology that Cruyff bequeathed to the club and which current players like Luis Suarez and Neymar, who learned the game elsewhere, have worked hard to assimilate.

Cruyff’s tragedy is that he died too young; his glory is this: that every time we marvel at Barcelona’s peerless capacity to ease the ball into space out of the tightest defensive spots, to weave triangles – or quadrangles or pentagons – in midfield with a speed and precision no other team can match, to rack up more passes consistently than any of their rivals before the ball ends up in the back of the net, always, always the spectacle to which we thrill is the legacy of Johan Cruyff, his enduring gift to the world, his spirit made flesh.