Milestones and key moments in time are common for any football club; instances where the future and image of a side completely changes. It could be found through re-inventions, and it is often the result of adding the right person to lead a group at the right time. As a player, Johan Cruyff returned Barcelona to the top of La Liga. But as a manager, he gave them a sharp vision for what was ahead.
Born in Amsterdam, just a few miles from the Ajax grounds where he would become a legend, Cruyff was a genuine star when he arrived in Catalonia to play for the Blaugrana in 1973. It was at a unique point in Barcelona’s history, as success was not as common then as it is now. After leading the club to a La Liga crown and a Copa del Rey during his time as a player at the Camp Nou, Cruyff departed Spain in 1978.
After adventures in the United States and a return to the Netherlands, he transitioned into a coaching role, something not always guaranteed to bring positive results for talented footballers. Some of the games best have found translating their own skills on the pitch into a manager job to be an impossible task, but Cruyff showed promise immediately at Ajax. His leadership style had many layers, perhaps best summarised by one of his many famous football quotes: “Quality without results is pointless, results without quality is boring.”
With a driven and unflinching personality, Cruyff always brought tension with him as he amazed fans on the pitch. As a player, almost all his decisions seemed to be motivated by a clash with others, from coaches to executives. After team-mates voted Piet Keizer as Ajax team captain in 1973, Cruyff left for Barcelona. Even politics played a role, as a disdain for Francisco Franco – the Spanish dictator famously associated with Los Blancos – led him to choose Barcelona over Real Madrid.
It was that fighting spirit that first endeared him to the Catalan faithful, and made Cruyff immensely popular as both a player and as a manager. From wearing the number 14 for the Dutch, to naming his son Jordi against the wishes of the Franco regime, the footballing genius would not be told what to do. So when he was tasked with returning glory to Barcelona as their manager in the late 1980s, nobody was going to convince him that he could not succeed.
It all began with Cruyff’s philosophy, and how he approached football. Principles, morals, and motivation could be found in a list of 14 specific areas, and they would ultimately come to define his vision. From communication to personality, Cruyff’s rules applied to life just as much as they applied to football. La Masia, Barcelona’s academy, would benefit from these guidelines, and provide a foundation for generations of talented footballers.
There was quality present in Barcelona’s team from previous manager Terry Venables, who captured the 1985 La Liga title. Gary Lineker led the front-line, while Andoni Zubizarreta was a reliable presence at the goalkeeper position. But it was the players that Cruyff identified and introduced that would take Barcelona to a new level.
La Masia was only in its beginning stages, but one of the first graduates would make a significant impact in the midfield, and on football in later years as a manager himself. Pep Guardiola was exactly what Cruyff needed in the middle. A tough and talented player, Guardiola understood what his manager wanted to accomplish on the pitch, both in terms of tactics and philosophy. José Mari Bakero was another important piece of the midfield puzzle, with his abilities in the final third boosting the Barcelona attack.
More additions would follow in the coming years, as Cruyff was ready to build off his initial triumph. The Blaugrana made a run to the final of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, defeating Italian side Sampdoria 2-0 in 1989. Real Madrid were in the midst of a golden era domestically, dominating La Liga thanks to the talents of La Quinta del Buitre and Hugo Sánchez. But that would change thanks to Cruyff’s leadership at the Camp Nou.
Cruyff collected a group that came to be known as “The Dream Team”, and so many special footballers helped to make that dream a reality. Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman played a part, as did Romário and Hristo Stoichkov up front. Barcelona’s manager had the line-up to achieve his goals, and that became evident out on the pitch and in the trophy cabinet.
Cruyff’s system placed an emphasis on passing and adaptability, a natural byproduct of the Netherlands and “Total Football”. Perfected in the 1970s for the Dutch national team by Cruyff and manager Rinus Michels, the idea focused on all positions being interchangeable. While not as direct as what was seen with his national side as a player, Cruyff’s tactics as a manager utilised many similar elements as Barcelona rose to the top of the Spanish first division.
Each player understood their role, and what they needed to do in order for the squad to succeed. That involved flexibility, and moving forward as a true unit. Zonal passing triangles were seen, as was the common sight of defenders getting into the attack. In that way, one can see the direct correlation of Cruyff’s methods to the masterful work of Guardiola once he became Barcelona’s manager years later.
“The Dream Team” would capture four consecutive La Liga crowns from 1990 to 1994, showcasing a remarkable ability to improve as each year passed by. In total, Cruyff would finish his time as the most successful Barcelona manager ever, lifting 11 trophies, a haul only surpassed by Guardiola’s side years later. Arguably his greatest hour came in the 1992 European Cup final, once again defeating Sampdoria, this time featuring a Koeman wonder-goal as the difference in a 1-0 victory. A win unlike any other, and it was a momentous occasion in Catalonia when the squad and the European trophy returned home from Wembley Stadium.
One similarity that followed Cruyff to Barcelona from his playing days was a legendary result against their El Clásico rival, and a hand gesture is able to summarise the emotions simply and completely. A 5-0 victory for Cruyff as a player against Real Madrid was repeated as a manager by his squad in 1994, a display of pure dominance. When that result was seen again for Guardiola’s side in 2010, the Cules only had to raise five fingers in the air to remind Madrid fans of the scoreline’s history and meaning. Each 5-0 win had represented a shift during a specific decade, and nothing was quite the same after.
Cruyff’s influence for the future of Barcelona is seen even today, building a bridge from Ajax to La Masia. Both clubs share similar philosophies and practices as it pertains to development, and key individuals such as Louis van Gaal and Cruyff have been at the helm for Barcelona and Ajax.
His star pupil, Guardiola, revolutionised the club with “tiki-taka” football, and the approach literally took over the world. As Barcelona became a trophy-winning juggernaut in 2009 under Cruyff’s former midfielder, the Spanish national team saw many of the same players lead La Furia Roja to a FIFA World Cup victory and two European Championships. Zonal passing schemes were vital, and much of that can be traced back to Cruyff’s Dream Team.
Many of the same sequences were seen in the 1990s, and defenders such as Dani Alves wreaking havoc in the final third was something Cruyff liked to see as well. At a time when the financial status of Barcelona was not as secure as it is today, the successes that the Dutchman brought cannot be overstated in regards to importance. For the development of talent, his training methods still guide young footballers on their journeys in the present day.
Cruyff spent nine years during his second stay with Barcelona, and the ending to his time as a manager was a familiar story that would appear throughout his extraordinary life. As the silverware went missing in his final two campaigns, the patience of club chairman Josep Lluís Núñez began to fade. An eccentric and fiery personality clashed with the board, and Cruyff was sacked in 1996. Sir Bobby Robson would take over as Barcelona manager, with an assistant by the name of José Mourinho.
The events would put a strain on Cruyff’s relationship with the club moving forward, as these types of interactions tended to do for him. He was critical of Barcelona’s decision to add a shirt sponsor, and he even had great difficulties with different board members after new names entered chairman positions. Just like he did with his home nation, there were uneasy and emotional elements to the past.
In 2010, he was chosen as Barcelona’s honourary president, due to his immense contributions as a player and manager. However, only months later, new president Sandro Rosell would remove that title. Despite these occurrences, few would ever doubt the overall positives of Cruyff’s time at Barcelona.
Johan Cruyff’s final day would be in March of 2016, leaving a massive void in the hearts of football fans throughout the world. Tributes were seen on every continent, with perhaps the greatest scenes playing out at the Camp Nou. Cruyff completely altered the fortunes of Barcelona during two separate periods of time. As a manager, those fortunes are set to last for several lifetimes, thanks to a clear path in gaining the best out of life and football.
By Roy Emanuel