He was a beautiful, brilliant and inspirational player and that alone would have placed him firmly in the pantheon, but what he did as a coach is unparalleled. When he took over Barcelona in 1988, they had won two league titles in 28 years. Crisis had followed crisis. In the 27 years since, they have won 13 league titles and five Champions Leagues.
More than that, though, Cruyff's Barcelona gave the modern game its dominant philosophy.
It was Cruyff as a player at Barcelona who suggested the establishment of La Masia, the youth system that would be the bedrock of their success. It was he in the early nineties who re-established the philosophy he had practised as a player at the club under Rinus Michels, the philosophy of Total Football imported from Amsterdam.
The basic principles have remained the same ever since: control possession and you can’t concede. Press high when out of possession to make the pitch as small as possible when the opposition has the ball. Use the offside trap in a pro-active way, to force mistakes. Field a goalkeeper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet so he can sweep behind a high line and initiate attacks. Press and possess, press and possess.
Cruyff won four successive league titles as Barca coach and also picked up the 1992 European Cup, the club’s first. He changed the mentality absolutely. He left in 1996 to be replaced by Bobby Robson, but even the Englishman was, in a sense, a continuity candidate: he had played at West Bromwich Albion under Vic Buckingham, who had given Cruyff his debut at Ajax and had preceded Michels at Barcelona.
Robson soon yielded to Louis van Gaal, who had reinterpreted Total Football in leading Ajax to the Champions League in 1995. He and Cruyff famously disagreed, with Cruyff finding Van Gaal’s football overly mechanistic, but however profound and irreconcilable their differences were, they were arguing over details in the same philosophy. They may have read the text differently, but they were talking about the same book, and it was the book Cruyff had written with Michels.
On Robson’s recommendation, Van Gaal took on Jose Mourinho - who had become far more than a translator - to be his “third assistant”. In his midfield, he had Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.
A year later, Phillip Cocu joined the midfield and Ronald Koeman arrived as an assistant coach. Frank de Boer was signed the year after that. Laurent Blanc had been there for a year under Robson. Julen Lopetegui was a reserve goalkeeper at the club.
Half of last season’s Champions League quarter-finalists were managed by players who had been at Barcelona in the mid-to-late nineties. Or, to put it another way, between 1996 and 2000, the present managers of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris St-Germain, Manchester United, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Southampton were all either playing or working at the Camp Nou.
All of them were influenced by Cruyff. “Cruyff built the chapel,” Guardiola said during his time at Barcelona. “Our job is to maintain it.”
Johan Cruyff talks to Pep Guardiola during a training session
Image credit: Imago
Frank Rijkaard, who played under Cruyff and later Van Gaal at Ajax, began the establishment of Barcelona’s decade-long supremacy with the Champions League in of 2006. Guardiola, who was given his debut by Cruyff after he’d seen him playing for the reserves, continued that with two further Champions Leagues.
This season, Luis Enrique could become the first coach ever to retain the Champions League, giving Barcelona a fifth title in 11 years. All with the football of Cruyff.
Others reacted against Cruyff’s tenets. Mourinho, overlooked in favour of Guardiola for the Barcelona job in 2008, seems to have determined to turn himself into the anti-Barcelona. At Porto, he had pressed in the way Cruyff taught but later he came to insist that big games were best won without the ball, by waiting for the opposition to make a mistake. Yet in the very act of setting himself up in opposition to Barca, by pursuing a policy of radical non-possession as opposed to radical possession, Mourinho too was acknowledging the influence of Cruyff; the terms of the debate were set by what he had learned at Barcelona.
Mourinho y Louis Van Gaal en un entrenamiento del Barcelona
Image credit: Imago
And that’s just to speak of those who came under Cruyff’s direct influence. There were many others who watched in awe from afar. Arsene Wenger has always been clear that his model in football was the Total Football created by Michels and Cruyff.
Even those who seem harder-headed and less influenced by aesthetics speak of the influence of that side. “As a small boy,” said Arrigo Sacchi, the great Milan manager, “I was in love with Honved, then Real Madrid, then Brazil, all the great sides.
"But it was Holland in the 1970s that really took my breath away. It was a mystery to me. The television was too small; I felt like I need to see the whole pitch fully to understand what they were doing and fully to appreciate it.”
Arrigo Sacchi talks with Marco van Basten
Image credit: Imago
Cruyff the player was gloriously impudent, a slight and graceful genius who proved that brain could outmanoeuvre brawn. Watching his Netherlands dart and thrust their way around Uruguay or Argentina in 1974, or seeing his Ajax outwit Juventus in the European Cup final in 1973, was to see a devastating puppet-master toying with lumbering opponents.
Cruyff the coach, Cruyff the manager, was able to retain that sense of the joy of the game, the importance of beauty and, what’s harder, to convey that sense to his players.
There has never been such a great player who was also such a great manager. In that he stands utterly unique. For almost three decades he was the presiding genius of Barcelona and thus, as their pre-eminence has burgeoned, of football itself.
“Winning,” Cruyff once said, “is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.”
By his own terms, he could hardly have succeeded more emphatically. Nobody has ever been more influential: the whole of modern football is his legacy.