Dutch seeds of Barcelona success
Barcelona squares off against Manchester United Saturday (FOX, 2 p.m. ET) in the biggest match of the year: the UEFA Champions League final at England's Wembley Stadium.
This is the first of a pair of pieces that looks back at each team's history, and the major influences on their playing style. Our companion piece examines the "Scottish connection," and how Sir Alex Ferguson revolutionized Manchester United.
Much has been written about Barcelona's brilliant youth development system, with good reason. Today's Barcelona is stocked with homegrown talent, and they have exported some of their most celebrated graduates to teams around the world (Arsenal captain Cesc Fabregas is one of the best known). That development system formed the backbone of Spain's European Championship and World Cup winning side, yet the "Barcelona way" - a style that places a premium on passing, technical excellence and a swarming offense - might not have ever come into being had it not been for a Dutch emigree.
Johan Cruyff was player, manager, and a philosopher for Barcelona. His brilliance on the field and his later insistence on a style of play called "total football" would remake the Catalan club in the 1970s into today's world-beaters.
As a player, he led Barcelona to their first title since 1960, and earned the fans' slavish devotion when he let slip that he chose Barcelona over Real Madrid because of his hatred for dictator Francisco Franco. As manager, he remains the most successful ever at the club, with a record 11 titles to show, and he was also the man who brought greats such as Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Romario, Michael Laudrup and current Barcelona manger, Pep Guardiola, to the forefront.
It is as a theoretician that Cruyff has had the greatest impact. When he helmed Barcelona, Cruyff expanded the work of coach Rinus Michels, taking the 4-3-3 formation that was just coming into vogue (with Manchester United's 1968 European Cup winning side under Matt Busby) and making it a system that afforded every player multiple options and outlets every time they received the ball. The closest American analogue would be Tex Winter's "triangle offense," which Phil Jackson used successfully to steer the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to multiple NBA titles.
It relies heavily on off the ball movement to draw defenders away from the man carrying the ball while allowing the expansion of passing lanes. Every time you see a cutting diagonal ball, thank Cruyff.
To understand how and why Cruyff became so important, you have to flash back to the the 1970s, a time when a football revolution was taking place in Holland. The Dutch came to world notice in two World Cups, first storming West Germany and then showing maturity four years later in Argentina. The common link was the Ajax side put together by Rinus Michels, one that featured Cruyff in his prime.
The style Michels and Cruyff perfected was a complete rethinking of the role of the player in a game that was about to be transformed from its varied nationalistic roots to a global approach. Remember, this was before the era of players moving across borders. Leagues consisted almost exclusively of teams using players from their own country. In Britain, that meant four "nations" contributed to First Division rosters. France, Italy and Spain had experimented loosely with importing players, but in general the "imports" were players who already fit the kind of game the countries' teams played.
Michels determined that the best way to play winning football was to develop generalists instead of position players. He was remarkably astute at recognizing the role pure athleticism could play in transforming the game, light years ahead of his contemporaries.
Cruyff was merely (if can we use such a word to describe a genius) the most essential part. His vision made the Ajax and Holland sides work, but it was the ability of a Johnny Rep or a Wim Van Hanegem or a Robbie Rensinbrink to be able to pop up anywhere on the field and handle not only the ball, but the defensive responsibility that came with that spot on the field which was the necessary accompaniment to Cruyff's ability.
Now, some would argue that Franz Beckenbauer, who emerged in the 1966 World Cup, pioneered this style of play. He was indeed the first true "libero" in football, but the Kaiser did not get his nickname because of his ability to fit into a system - he commanded the system and others had to play around him.
Cruyff, despite his well-reported arrogance, was a player able to slide around the field, find the place to influence the game, then take the cudgel to the opposition. Modern fans might wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, that's Michel Platini, or Diego Maradona, or Zinedine Zidane, or Lionel Messi, isn't it?
Yes, but there were none of those latter players until Ajax became versatile enough so that a player of real creativity could thrive in the system. At the same time that Cruyff and Co. were changing the game in Europe, British writers were lamenting the inability of players like Glenn Hoddle and Frank Worthington to get free reign in England.
The Ajax game, which Cruyff would export and expand upon at Barcelona, actually isn't all that complex. It simply demanded that a player be able to be the left back at one moment, the right back at another, and equally that the same player could function as a winger or an attacking midfielder. In short, everybody had to acquire the technical skills needed to defend and attack, and those skills had to be utilized under pressure.
Did it always work? Of course not. Some of the most memorable moments of Cruyff's Holland-Ajax days are those leaps he took to avoid scything tackles. The fact that he developed the ability to push the ball under the flying feet while simultaneously jumping over them merely was part of the definition of genius.
By the time of the Argentina World Cup (1978), even the most reluctant were willing to admit that Michels' way was the way of the future. By then, although Holland did not win either World Cup, Ajax had taken three European Cups (1971-73), and clever managers the world over were looking for the type of player produced in Amsterdam.
Barcelona did the smart thing. They signed Cruyff in 1973 and hired him as manager in 1988. The rest is history.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay's Premier League.