Johan Cruyff was one of the best players who ever set foot on the field and on the touchline.
From his signature move to the general, unbelievable footballing talent that catapulted him to status as one of the best in the world, Johan Cruyff the player revolutionized so much about the way the game was played.
And so did Johan Cruyff the coach. He was a man whose skill was not just at his feet but also in his mind, and the unparalleled intelligence he had about the game made him perfectly suited for moving into a managerial role just one year after he retired from play.
First, in 1985, he returned to Ajax. He immediately reinstated “total football” and his favorite formation: three defenders, a “roaming” defender who was essentially a central midfielder, two wingers, a traditional forward and a second striker. A goalkeeper, under this system, could often be found at the midfield line. He similarly transformed the youth system, instructing those coaches to structure their teams in a similar way and focus on developing players rather than winning instantaneously.
Ironically, this focus did also lead them to trophies. Two years later, Ajax won the European Cup Winners’ Cup. It came to be such a successful system — both within the club and internationally, as the Dutch national team’s style and team became heavily influenced by Cruyff and his Ajax wisdom — that when Ajax won the Champions League in 1995, seven years after Cruyff had left the club, they were still paying with his system.
Mirroring the trajectory of his playing career, Cruyff’s next coaching stop was Barcelona. There, he built the Dream Team.
Cruyff’s team — which included Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, and Michael Laudrup — won four La Liga titles in a row from 1991-1994, the club’s third European Cup Winners’ Cup, and their first European Cup — plus a smattering of other trophies.
But just as with Ajax, managing Barcelona was, for Cruyff, not just about filling the cabinet. It was about philosophy; it was, as Guardiola remembers, about “spirit.”
In 2016, Gabriele Marcotti said of Cruyff’s legacy: You can separate Barça’s history into BCE (Before Cruyff Era) and CE (Cruyff Era).” This is quite reminiscent of the New York Times declaring, after Cruyff (as a player) helped Barcelona to a 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid, that “Cruyff had done more for Catalonia in 90 minutes than politicians had managed to do in decades of struggle.”
What seems like hyperbole was, for Cruyff, simply consistent and amazing transformation.