Johan Cruyff’s five biggest contributions to football

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Updated: April 25, 2016

As we come to the first season finale of the post-Johan Cruyff era, both Ajax and FC Barcelona sit proudly – if precariously – atop of their respective league tables. It would be fitting if both managed to win in honour of one of the very best there ever will be, but football doesn’t always work like that.

There’s no sentimentality in a game that seems to encompass all that is good and bad in human life. It’s the ultimate state of nature, the very definition of the survival of the fittest.

Being able to ‘civilise’ that savagery is what makes legends. Men who gave the game some new way to deal with the hard life around them. Football, like life, starts with a dystopian wilderness, and the pioneers who gave us the tools to make life comfortable are the ones we lionise. One of those men is Johan Cruyff, football’s answer to William Shakespeare or Thomas Edison, a man who carved out something new that brought football into a fresh era. He created progression.

So as we stop mourning a hero departed, we turn to celebrate his heroic contribution on his birthday. And here are FIVE ways in which Johan Cruyff tamed the game, leaving a lasting contribution to the world of football.

Beauty in simplicity

“As long as you look to a certain way of playing, everyone can play” – Cruyff on his footballing philosophy

First and foremost, football is a simple game. Sure, it has sophisticated elements, but at heart, kicking a ball into a net shouldn’t be so hard. That’s what taming the game is all about. You can make football as sophisticated as you like, but in the end, it’s a team game. And if you have a simple message, everyone can get behind it.

But even in the most individual moments, he showed simplicity isn’t a vice. The ‘Cruyff Turn’ is the obvious example. It is such a simple turn that everyone can do it, though perhaps not everyone can do it well! The simple things can be the most difficult, but when they’re done well they can be the very greatest.

Holland as a footballing nation

“A Dutch team beating an English team. This does not happen” – Cruyff on Ajax beating Arsenal in 1972 European Cup quarter final.

A small nation in northern Europe shouldn’t really be a footballing powerhouse, but that’s what we think when we think of the Netherlands. It’s because of men like Cruyff and manager Rinus Michels that Ajax were able to turn themselves from a footballing outpost into one that would produce European Cup winning teams and get to World Cup finals.

Sure, there’s more to Dutch football that Cruyff and his 1970s Ajax side – Feyenoord even won the European Cup before Ajax – but no one can doubt Cruyff’s impact on Dutch football, and the philosophy he instilled in the game has dissipated into the grassroots and become one of the things that children are taught from an early age.

FC Barcelona as we know it

“When there are doubts, people tend to seek safety in numbers… Not Cruyff. His first solution was always to be more attacking” – Txiki Begiristain on Johan Cruyff’s approach to the game at Barcelona

Before Cruyff, Barcelona didn’t really have an identity beyond a Catalonian one. Cruyff gave Barcelona its identity as a team who play a certain style of football, just as he gave Dutch football a very similar style.

It’s easy to buy into the myth that Barcelona were always a team formed through culture and one with a self-imposed obligation to play beautiful, passing football. That means it’s easy to forget that Barcelona were managed to one of their most successful periods in their mid 20th Century history by Helenio Herrera, the man who won two European Cups with Inter Milan, pioneered catenaccio and counter attacking – the 1960s answer to Jose Mourinho.

Cruyff’s sense for how to play the game transformed Barcelona as a player, and transformed them again as a manager.

Possession football in Europe

“Did you bring another ball? This one belongs to us” – Eduardo Galeano quoting Uruguayan team Penarol’s taunts to their opposition in the 1950s.

Ok, so he didn’t invent keeping possession, but the 1960s saw quite a few ‘good versus evil’ moments where the purist, passing teams met the destroyers who only wanted to break up the game, keep clean sheets and win by scoring on the break.

The video above of Celtic’s 1974 European Cup defeat to Atletico Madrid is a perfect example of Jimmy Johnstone’s ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ of the team that kicked him off the pitch.

Cruyff’s vision, his way of seeing a game that made everything simpler and easier, meant keeping possession and making the ball do the work. It wasn’t just the Netherlands, Ajax and Barcelona that bought into it.

Pragmatism

“We played for a 0-0 draw away from home… it was important that we could do that [defend well]” – Ruud Krol on Ajax’s 1-0 aggregate win over Benfica in the 1972 European Cup semi-final.

Perhaps the least likely, but possibly the most important contribution that Cruyff made to football. Sometimes you can’t win every game 6-0 and attain 70% of the ball possession. In fact, you can rarely do that.

The game is about beauty and simplicity, sure, but it’s also about making sure you don’t wander into a bad neighbourhood and get mugged. Don’t lose the ball in a bad area. It’s simple, but it’s effective… it’s pragmatic too – if you’re going to play a beautiful passing game, you’re going to lose the ball. Just make sure you don’t do it somewhere they can score.

Pep Guardiola’s teams play on this principle. It’s why the wide players stay wide and the full backs push on. That’s an attacking philosophy at its core, but there’s a pragmatic edge too – if you’re in trouble, play the ball to the wingers. If they lose it, it’s ok because it’s hard to score when you have the ball in your own corner flag.

Louis van Gaal and Cruyff are two men who didn’t really get along, but Cruyff’s pragmatism applies to Van Gaal, too. Pressing the opposition is one thing, but keeping a high line, trying to squeeze the opposition into their own half and making the pitch too small to start attacks easily are all ideas employed by Cruyff at Barcelona that Van Gaal has subscribed to as well.

Although Van Gaal’s last few years in charge of Manchester United show his conservative side, Cruyff too wanted to make sure that his side didn’t lose possession in the wrong place – though Cruyff certainly placed a greater emphasis on risk. They certainly agreed on more than they argued about.