The legacy left by Johan Cruyff in modern football

As a manager, Johan Cruyff wanted to express this way to understand football through his teams, and take it to the extreme.

The way the Johan Cruyff saw football

First he tried it at Ajax, and then he confirmed it at Barça. There, he established a 3-4-3 with a diamond in midfield, which will be the basis of the game for eight years. He even made all the teams in the youth academy to play like that. A sweeper who could start playing from the back; two fast, aggressive markers who didn’t attack much (until the arrival of Sergi); a centre midfielder – the number 4 – who would be the quintessence of the style, organizing the team on the ball, starting the play, and always setting the rhythm of the team; two inside midfielders with good feet and presence in the box; an attacking midfielder also with presence in the box, uncomplicated supporting passes and movement off the ball; a centre forward; and two very wide wingers. It was often heard that the wingers had chalk on their heels.

The system was quite permanent and orthodox during Cruyff’s first two seasons at Barça so that the team could assimilate it well, and then he started to introduce more variations. With the arrival of Laudrup, the position of classic centre forward disappeared – until Romário joined the team – and the Dane would remind of Johan himself more and more over time with his tactical moves. In later years Cruyff introduced additional variations, such as playing with only one winger and adding a fifth midfielder very wide on the other side.

Johan Cruyf was one step ahead

Yet another variation he introduced in the later stages of the 93-94 season was having Nadal as a centre back next to Koeman, keeping Txapi Ferrer and Sergi Barjuan as full backs. Being “accused” of giving up his 3-man defense for a 4-man line, Cruyff replied: “I don’t mean to scare you, but we’re actually playing with two defenders. Most teams play with one forward against us, so why do we need more defenders?” And he was partly right. Adding a second centre back, the full backs played in midfield, and there were actually two defenders, not four.

You can see a large number of football matches of the Dream Team in our private library.

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What never changed was the playing philosophy. “If I have the ball, the opponent can’t score.” That sentence – which sounds like a truism – is actually the essence of the style. If you have the ball, you decide how the game will go. But it’s not about just keeping the ball. Position game, in a very simplistic way, is about always going forward by finding the free man. For more detailes, Dani Fernández explains it wonderfully on Martí Perarnau’s blog.

That philosophy penetrated Barça beyond the departure of its ideologist. With exceptions like Bobby Robson, since then Barça has always turned to this idea to find itself. In the meantime, the players at the academy have been training under this philosophy.

Managers like Louis van Gaal or Frank Rijkaard, each with their own distinctive features, kept the plan in place, and when Pep Guardiola arrived – the cornerstone of Cruyff’s idea as a player – to coach the first team, he encountered players like Xavi or Iniesta who were sons of the system, already mature players, and he added others like Piqué or Busquets.

Xavi and Iniesta, along with other players unconnected to Barça but with a similar philosophy like David Silva, were the basis of the 2008 European Champion Spanish National Team and the ones that would come after.

Today, without Xavi now, both Barça and Spain are trying to keep that style with other players, but with an idea that originated in the late 60s in a – until then – small Dutch team.

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