Totaal Voetbal - How Michels and Cruyff Reinvented Football Part Two of TwoWritten by Johnny Proctor
All of this wasn’t too clever for Nunez as was falling on re election year and given the very public and very ironic vote of no confidence from the first team squad added to the worst performance of a Barcelona team in almost half a century, he didn’t appear to have any chance of receiving enough votes for another term as head honcho at the club. Nunez needed a marquee signing or big name manager to replace Aragones who was predictably on his way. May 1988 and El Flaco was back at the Camp Nou and in the exact same situation as it was back in 1973. The club was in the shit, needed some direction, needed galvanised. They got a lot more, as it turned out.
In an instant revolution, upon Cruyff taking over. 15 players went out - 12 came in, and Barca’s prodigal son got to work. First came the process of transferring his ideas and philosophies over to a foreign set of player unused to the concept of playing football the Cruyff way. In early July, 88 during a team meeting where the new coach would spell out what was expected for the new season ahead. Eusebio, defensive midfielder signed by Cruyff during the pre season -
‘He got a blackboard and drew three defenders, four midfielders, two out and out wingers, and a centre forward. We looked at each other and said ‘what the hell is this?!’ This was the era of 442 or 352. We couldn’t believe how many attackers were in the team, and how few defenders.’ Cruyff single handedly, as well as near instantly, introduced a new way of playing football in Spain. 343 was officially a thing. Still, paying more than a slice of homage towards Michels’ system . Cruyff’s Barca was that little more daring, more assured. A tweak on an idea from years ago and a completely alternative era of football that could and would work in modern day in 1988 if placed in the hands of the correct group of players. The ever so cantankerous and belligerent Cruyff when found having to defend his leftfield 343 formation to the Spanish press and public through such an unorthodox formation -
‘If you have four men defending two strikers, you only have six against eight in the middle of the field: there’s no way you can win that battle. We had to put a defender further forward. I was criticised for playing three at the back but that’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. What we needed was to fill the middle of the pitch with players where we needed it the most. I much prefer to win 5-4 than 1-0.’
Indeed, Johan Cruyff didn’t really care too much for defending, you see. Then again, with players like Guardiola, Laudrup, Stoichkov, Figo and Romario putting in appearances over Cruyff’s term for La Blaugrana. You wouldn’t though would you? The Barca coach famously answering goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizaretta’s request for guidance with a shrug on how the Barcelona defence should deal with set pieces from their opponents. ‘How should I know?’ Replied Cruyff. ‘You’re more interested in how to defend a corner than me, sort it yourselves.’
Despite being viewed as unorthodox in some quarters, the key to the iconic Dutchman’s formation began and ended with ball retention. A philosophy that is as relevant today at the Camp Nou as it was back in 1988 when Cruyff was putting his stamp on the side.
‘It’s a basic concept: When you dominate the ball, you move well,’ he stated. ‘You have what the opposition don’t and therefore they can’t score. The person that moves decides where the ball goes, and if you move well, you can change opponents pressure into your advantage. The ball goes where you want it. Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.’
Another thing that he found hard, initially at least, was finding the ideal players to suit the system. It highlights how much faith he had in total football that when finding it difficult to use the system with the players he had he didn’t knee jerk and change formation to suit the players he had. Instead, he had the script for Barca’s famous La Masia academy ripped up and restructured with a fresh canvas and a heavy focus on all age groups playing the same formation and employing the same tactics. In next to no time the sporting ethos of the club had changed. The under 8’s were being taught the same as the first team squad. A kind of tactical harmony spread through the different age groups of the clubs youth sides and ultimately when it was time to step up from the B side, the player would already know the system like the back of their hand. It wasn’t just the formation and tactics that would change around La Masia. Incredibly for a team like Barca as we have known them over recent times. Prior to Cruyff taking over as coach, Youth players who were offered contracts were not offered their deal specifically through the ability that they had shown during their trials but instead was based on physicality. Players who at a young age showed signs that they would grow as tall as 5’9, based on their existing height and age, would be given a deal, anyone considered small for their age didn’t stand a chance. Cruyff didn’t need tall well built machines. Just technically gifted players who were comfortable with the ball.
That one act alone from Cruyff would change the face of world football years later when the fruits of the La Masia graduates started to bear gifts. Notably the trio of Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi who went on to be a staple part of what many consider as the best football team the world has ever seen. Pep Guardiola’s serial Champions League and La Liga winning Barca side, all three of them, 5’7! It’s a frightening thought though that if Johan Cruyff hadn’t changed policy on the height of players who would be selected for the first team all three would possibly not have made the grade as youth players. La Masia tweaked, Cruyff got down to business of making Barca great again. He’d saved them in the 70’s as a player and here he was, in the 80’s about to save them again. He almost lost the chance before it all came together for him and the squad. With no league titles to show for his first 2 seasons in charge. The Barca board passed a vote of no confidence in him continuing as manager. This needed President Nunez to sign off on, instead, he gave Cruyff another season. The rest quite literally is history. He won 4 La Liga titles in a row, Barca, despite their sheer size of a footballing institution, had only won two titles in the previous two decades up until his arrival, and one of them he was there as a player! He created a squad of players that were so supremely talented, full of stellar names in the game like Hristo Stoitchkov, Michael Laudrup, Guardiola and Romario, they were soon given the title “Cruyff’s Dream Team” with the media paying homage to America’s Olympic basketball side of Magic Johnson, Micheal Jordan, Larry Bird and so on. It would not be the only basketball team that Barca would be likened to, both Pep Guardiola and current coach, Luis Enrique’s sides have often been compared in some quarters to The Harlem Globetrotters such has been the level of technical entertainment they’ve given the world.
It was the 91/92 season where the monicker Dream Team was given to the side. 4 years into Cruyff’s return as manager and everything started to fall into place. La Ligas were being won, suitable graduates from La Masia were coming through, and the clubs obsession of winning The European Cup was realised. After Real Madrid losing the unlikeliest of final matches of the season against minnows, Tenerife (Something that would inexplicably happen the following season, again on the last day) which gifted the league title to Barca. La Blaugrana were then off to Wembley for their next attempt at finally winning Europes biggest cup competition against Italian champions, Sampdoria. A Ronald Koeman trademark free kick, with the clubs into extra time, was enough to bring the much vaunted, big ears, to Catalonia for the first time. And through the legacy that Cruyff had put in place, it would not be the last time the trophy would be paraded at the Camp Nou.
Eventually, as it generally does for managers of the biggest clubs on the continent, things turned sour. It is only a big name with a just as big reputation as a John Cruyff who could survive as many years as 8 at a top level club like a Barcelona but even El Flaco could not be bombproof to the politics of such an institution and the effects that a few sticky seasons could bring. The cantankerous, impossible personality that Cruyff had, up against a megalomaniac of a President in Nunez was never going to carry on indefinitely without it ending in tears at some point. After the persistent rumours that had been building where Barca had already lined up Sir Bobby Robson as Cruyff’s replacement, things came to a head when Vice President, Joan Gaspart met with the Dutchman the day before the final home game of the 95/96 season. With Cruyff and Gaspart coming to blows after the vice chairman being branded a Judus by his manager. Cruyff was ordered to leave the stadium with immediate effect and a threat that the police would be called if he never. There was no way back from that. It would be his last day as, not just FC Barcelona manager, but with anyone. Club or country.
The Barca Cules and Socio’s were as sick as the parrots who sit in the trees behind the main stand of the Camp Nou but Cruyff hadn’t just won 11 trophies for them in what was the most successful they’d ever been in such a short period. His importance and influence ran far deeper than just the silverware. He’d altered the fabric of the club forever with his renovation of La Masia and the attitude to development and footballing philosiphies it now had moving forward. In less than a decade, he’d overhauled both Ajax and Barca youth academies while winning trophies, domestic and European for both first teams. He fell out with countless players along the way, driving some into the eager hands of rival teams. His formula for success however was, while evidently anything but foolproof, had brought lots of success and in the wider sense had sown the seeds for something much greater that Barcelona would only discover years later. His stamp has always been there at the club since he left in 1996, with a touch of history repeating itself through a Cruyff disciple from the dream team days. Like Cruyff had learned from Rinus Michels in the 60’s and 70’s, Pep Guardiola, midfield maestro of the team from the 90’s, was a willing student of Cruyff’s school of soccer and despite an evolvement of ideologies towards how his team should play, Guardiola is the man who has taken the torch passed to him and become an even more legendary coach than his mentor, Cruyff. Regardless of winning 14 cups and league titles inside a ridiculous 4 seasons, following an initial one season as B coach, “Pep” was comfortable in recognising who was behind how Barcelona as a team functioned.
‘Johan Cruyff painted the chapel and Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it’
Studying under Cruyff, Pep has since went on to become one of the true great managers of world soccer. Winning an obscene amount of silverware inside 4 years at the Camp Nou he has since enhanced his reputation by winning titles with Bayern Munich and this season makes his debut in England with Manchester City. Some of his innovative ideas and philosophies he has introduced has reeked of Johan Cruyff in what has clearly been an example of the apple not falling far from the tree. Regardless of what Guardiola achieves in the game. The concept of total football will forever be linked with what Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, the sorcerer and the apprentice, introduced to football over the 60’s and 70’s, their ideals on how football could and should be played and the legacies they left behind and the riches they provided.
Part One Here