Johan Cruyff: Football’s Greatest Revolutionary
Think about everything that we love about watching modern football and pretty much all of it can be attributed back to one man, one idealistic radical with a penchant for innovation and a superb head of hair. The man, of course, is the late, great Johan Cruyff (or Cruijff, to give him his proper, Dutch surname). The chain smoking, waifish rebel with a cause.
Kevin de Bruyne gliding across Premier League pitches, pinging 40-yard passes effortlessly onto the toes of his teammates? Cruyff, that.
Lionel Messi dribbling past an entire defence and chipping the ball over a despairing, onrushing goalkeeper before dropping back into midfield to slot a through ball into Luis Suarez’s path? Cruyff, that.
Full-backs such as Marcelo, Dani Alves, Joshua Kimmich and Kyle Walker bombing forward on overlapping runs, stretching opposition defences and then averting danger in their own 18-yard box? Cruyff, that.
You get the idea. You’ve heard the innumerable philosophical musings attributed to the Dutchman who revolutionised not only Ajax and the Dutch national team, but the Beautiful Game as a whole. Yes it’s easy to roll your eyes dismissively at oft trotted out snippets such as ‘before I make a mistake, I don’t make that mistake’ and ‘I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal’, but crucially, and often infuriatingly so for his detractors, Cruyff was always right.
Want proof? OK, how about taking a quick look at how Cruyff, alongside manager and fellow visionary Rinus Michels, transformed Ajax from a semi-professional minnow from the Amsterdam-East neighbourhood in the mid-1960s to the all conquering, three-time champions of Europe in 1973. It’s akin to Salford City lifting three Champions Leagues on the bounce between 2025-2027.
As a coach, Cruyff binned the rulebook and decided to implement his 60s blueprint on his Ajax and Barcelona teams, first lifting the 1987 Cup Winner’s Cup with Ajax before moving back to Catalonia, creating the Dream Team and hauling four consecutive La Liga titles and the 1992 European Cup back to the Camp Nou.
The fulcrum of the Dream Team’s midfield? Josep Guardiola. Y’know, the delightfully handsome Catalonian who won everything about a dozen times over with Barcelona, stockpiled a few more trophies at Bayern Munich and is now shattering records with newly minted Premier League champions Manchester City.
Pep’s brand of football is indebted to his Dutch master, as the City manager has freely admitted in several interviews over the last few years, since his Barcelona team of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Puyol, Pique and Messi turned modern football on its head, in 2008.
A decade on and Guardiola is still merely ‘restoring the chapel that Cruyff first painted’. During a 2016 interview with The Guardian, shortly after Cruyff’s passing, the former Barca and Bayern boss spoke of how much he owes and admires his late mentor.
I would not be able to do what he did. You hear all these people saying: ‘Oh Pep, what a good manager he is.’ Forget about it. Cruyff was the best, by far. Creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing. That’s why, when I was Barcelona manager, I went to see Johan many times. I made especially sure I went a lot in my first year when we won everything, absolutely everything.
The fluidity that is so evident in Pep’s teams has bled into so many others, such as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool (and his Dortmund team before them), the Spanish national team and even Zinedine Zidane’s Champions League hoarding Real Madrid.
Watching Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane torment Roma at Anfield last night, with a supporting cast of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson wasn’t dissimilar from witnessing Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and David Silva doing likewise on any given weekend in the Premier League, this season or any combination of Messi, Eto’o, Henry, Villa, Iniesta and Alves for Barcelona between 2008-2011.
This is the brand of football that is lusted over so much in the modern era. Fair play, it may have given rise to a new breed of have-a-go stattos, who are only too happy to bore you to tears with their knowledge of pass completion rates and their fucking heat maps and, OK, no one is actually ready to admit that they have no idea what an inverted f*cking wing-back is, but there is no denying that it’s a brand of football that breeds results.
And most importantly, it breeds memories.
Everyone knows Jose Mourinho’s teams dominated the club football landscape between 2004 and 2006 and, of course, everyone also knows that Greece somehow won the 2004 European Championships, but no neutrals really remember those teams fondly for their scintillating performances like they do Cruyff’s Netherlands team of 1974 or his Barcelona Dream Team of Guardiola, Koeman, Romario, Stoichkov etc in the early ’90s.
Occasionally, a pragmatist can come along and shithouse their way to a few trophies just to watch the world burn, but those successes don’t inspire further success. Cruyff’s success with Michels in the 60s and 70s reinvented Ajax and gave Dutch football an identity which has, up until very recently, existed ever since. Cruyff’s overhaul of Ajax’s academy and his insistence on every youth team playing the same formation and system as the first team was an innovation that can also be found at Barcelona’s famed La Masia, today.
It is no coincidence that the Netherlands’ only international success – the 1988 European Championships – came under the stewardship of Michels, with a group of players who, for the most part, had either played with or under Cruyff. Three of those players; Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, would soon move onto AC Milan, in the throes of their Silvio Berlusconi funded revolution and help the Rossoneri dominate the European landscape in the late 80s and early 90s. Yet again, Cruyff’s influence bred a seminal level of success which is still remembered 30 years on.
Cruyff would have been 71 today, the same age that Sir Alex Ferguson retired at. It was Cruyff’s Barcelona who so handily dismantled Ferguson’s Premier League winning Manchester United 4-0 at the Camp Nou in 1994 and made the legendary Scotsman realise how far away his charges were from European football’s top table.
The Dutch master also served as an inspiration for Arsene Wenger, who’s double-winning Arsenal team of the 97/98 campaign forced Ferguson into changing how his team approached their game, leading to a historic treble the following season and a further slew of trophies over his remaining 14 years as United manager. Cruyff, that.
Both Ferguson and Wenger were also huge proponents of promoting youth team players into their first teams, just like Guardiola did at Barca and Bayern (although, admittedly, not so much yet at City) and just like Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino have done, to much fanfare, at Liverpool and Tottenham. Cruyff, that.
We can debate until we’re bored senseless over who The Greatest Of All Time is, whether it be Pele, Maradona, Messi, Ronaldo or whoever, but there can be no doubt that the most Important Of All Time is the mouthy lad from Amsterdam-East. The three time Ballon d’Or winning orchestrator of modern football, Hendrik Johannes Cruijff.