Johann Cruyff The Dutch Master

It could refer to any team sport. Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, rugby. Space, movement, tracking back, pressing the opposition. Every man or woman in the jersey knowing his or her role. Able to fill a couple of positions. A good work ethic and high fitness.

In our own Gaelic Games we have numerous adherents to aspects of the ‘Total’ way of playing games. Eamon O’Shea with his emphasis on space and movement; Mickey Harte with his fit and skilled players who can join the attack and as an attacker filters back to cover and Brian Cody with his emphasis on forward workrate. Jim Galvin’s Dublin pressing the opposition with a high line and sweeping attacking moves with wide players coming in at pace. It’s the way these days.

This week the world of sport is a poorer place with the passing of the consummate Dutch master Johann Cruyff. An advocate of space, time, movement, pressing and the consummate team player. Demanding of his teammates to ensure they brought the best out of each other.  His Dutch team a group of players that sought to play the right way, and sometimes didn’t win as a result. Exhibit A – the 1974 World Cup Final.

Young kids everywhere may think of him ‘only’ as the man who introduced the Cruyff turn to football, but in truth his name and legacy transcends what he did on the pitch.

Dream Team

Cruyff was one of the most influential figures in football since the seventies. First as a player breaking into the Ajax team becoming three time European Cup winners, then with the Netherlands in the 1974 World Cup and Barcelona, and later as a coach with Barcelona. His views on football were always interesting; space, tactics, player positioning, all aspects of the game, on every aspect he spoke with insight.

In his days as a coach he repeatedly charged journalists for interviews. Not so he could make money, he had discovered that having to pay put off many of the lesser interviewers. His favourites he would accommodate for a few Guilders. But his interviews on YouTube are worth watching almost as much as the grainy footage of him tearing defences apart or orchestrating as Ajax and Holland moved the ball and players around the pitch with dizzy ease.

Pep Guardiola was converted from a winger to a midfielder by Cruyff when he managed Barcelona in the mid nineties and his influence on Guardiola and the Catalan club reverberated to this day.

His impact on players was profound. The Barcelona team he coached was a Dream Team - Stoichkov, Laudrup, Romario, Koeman, Guardiola – winning the club’s first European Cup and four La Liga titles in a row. He set in place the Barca way of playing and the philosophy that guides the famous La Masia Academy at the club. 

Total Football

Since his earliest days in Amsterdam, Cruyff along with his coach at Ajax Rinus Michels is eternally associated with the term Total Football. It is a term like tiki taka that is bandied about with little understanding of its true meaning. Many people assume Total Football means all out attack. It is about attack, but it is more subtle than that. Player positioning, swapping positions to let other players rest, using and creating space. It is all essential. And you must remember that when Michels took over at Ajax positional play was much more rigid in football. Defenders defended, forwards attacked. A central defender taking the ball out of defence or the careering flank defenders we see as commonplace today didn't exist. Total football changed that. And initially other teams didn’t know what to do. Ajax players, would often delay the ball to let another player shift into the right position. It was mesmerizing stuff.

Total football meant that a player in attack can play in defence and vice versa. But in order for a defender to go forward an attacking player would have to cover their position. Although this meant players had to understand the demands of playing different positions and were coached to play in those roles, the positional changes were only temporary, as soon as possible the defender would return to defend and the attacker to attack. However the position changing caused havoc in the opposition, teams didn't know who to mark or pick up with players popping up all over the pitch. 

Total football also demanded that players create space, they moved around, the left space to play in, if the ball didn't come they left it for another player. Their tactics also featured the pressing  game used now by so many teams. Ajax had the fitness and the guile and they also had Cruyff's international teammate Johann Neeskens who hunted down the opposition playmaker relentlessly forcing him back into his own half. As the Ajax defence pushed up to help they created a deadly offside trap with their high line.

In the middle of all this was Cruyff. Pointing, shifting teammates forward, advancing himself. Setting off on those slalom runs and scoring goals. View footage on YouTube or Holland playing Argentina in the 1974 World Cup. There is a video of the South Americans entire possession and for the entire half they were hunted, harried and chased into mistake after mistake repeatedly giving possession away to a Netherlands team that had the players to capitalise on any mistake.

With Cruyff gone we can marvel at his skills and movement on the pitch, and those wonderful goals. He was unique, a true Dutch master. Anyone who enjoys watching Barcelona or Bayern Munich in their pomp will mourn his passing. They are among the teams have inherited the characteristics that made Cruyff one of the greats.