Remembering Johan Cruyff, Total Football’s chief interpreter of space

 

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE ECONOMIST ON MARCH 25th 2016

“T

he present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space,” wrote Michel Foucault in 1967. Even while the French philosopher was composing “Of Other Spaces”, an exploration of human spatial awareness, his suspicions were being confirmed in the unlikeliest of ways.

Two years earlier, a young Dutchman had taken over as the head coach at the Netherlands’ most prestigious football club, Ajax Amsterdam. Rinus Michels’s Ajax quickly made their home at the top of the Eredivisie and soon became the team to beat in Europe. By the time Foucault was proclaiming his “epoch of space”, Michels’s team were playing a brand of totaalvoetbal (“Total Football”) in which space was everything. And right at the heart of this space was a player who would go on to change the world of football—Johan Cruyff, who died on March 24th, after a long battle with cancer.

Total football’s lineage can be traced to Jack Reynolds, an Englishman who coached Ajax sporadically throughout the first half of the 20th century. It was Michels, a product of Reynolds’s coaching, who refined the concept into what is now commonly described as Total Football. Fundamental to Michels’s more advanced form was the idea of space. In possession of the ball, his teams would look to create it. Out of possession, they would seek to reduce it for the opposition. As a result, the formation of the team became secondary to its ability to control the territory of a football pitch. Players would drift in and out of position in a bid to find space or break it down. Arrigo Sacchi, a great Italian coach, would later describe this method with a hushed reverence: “Holland in the 1970s…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.”

There can be little surprise that Johan Cruyff, the slight boy who grew up in the restricted enclosure of Betondorp (“concrete village”), would flourish in a system which sought to manipulate space. Although nominally a centre forward, Mr Cruyff was given a free role on the pitch to exploit gaps in the opposition’s formation. In more recent times, Thomas Müller (who plays for Bayern Munich and Germany) has labelled this role using the German portmanteau Raumdeuter—an interpreter of space. For the young Dutch striker pioneering the position in the 1960s, the use of space was paramount. As his team-mate, Barry Hulshoff, put it later: “We discussed space the whole time. Johan Cruyff always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move.”

As a player, Mr Cruyff was Total Football’s iconic exponent, enjoying enormous success: he won three consecutive European cups at Ajax, as well as eight league titles, before helping Barcelona to their first La Liga championship for more than a decade and picking up a final Dutch title with Feyenoord. One important trophy was missing from his collection: the World Cup, which eluded him in 1974 as West Germany stifled the Dutch in the final, winning 2-1. The title might have gone to Die Mannschaft, but the tournament belonged to Mr Cruyff, who graced it with two moments of genius. The first was in a pool match against Sweden: an outrageous feint, or “Cruyff turn”, with which the Dutchman evaded a defender, opening a pocket of space where there had been none. The second came at the beginning of the final, as he scythed through the German midfield to win a penalty after a string of 16 passes from the kick-off, a move which had probed each quarter of the field. The Netherlands scored before their opponents had even touched the ball.

After leaving the field of play for the final time in 1984, Mr Cruyff continued the tradition oftotaalvoetbal from the manager’s dugout. Beginning at his beloved Ajax, Mr Cruyff implemented the same values that had been instilled in him by Michels—finding space when in possession, denying the opposition space when out of it. It was on the foundations laid by Mr Cruyff that Ajax would go on to win the Champions League in 1995, playing Louis van Gaal’s more mechanistic form of Total Football. It was at Barcelona, though, that Mr Cruyff’s legacy was greatest. When he returned to Catalonia as manager in 1988, Barcelona had won two league titles in 28 years. In 27 seasons since, they have won 13, as well as five Champions Leagues; under his tutelage they topped La Liga four times in a row, and lifted the European Cup for the first time. From the point he took over, a line of continuity can be traced to this day. Each successive coach has been a disciple of Total Football. Though individual styles may have varied, the fundamentals remained the same: the game is about space—if you can control that, then you will win.

Mr Cruyff’s Barcelona heritage is not restricted to the club. Among the eight teams in the quarter-finals of last year’s Champions League last season, four had managers who were at Barcelona in the mid-to-late 1980s. Today’s bosses of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Paris St-Germain, Manchester United, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven all either played or worked at the Camp Nou between 1996 and 2000. With the European diaspora of coaches trained in the Barcelona way, Mr Cruyff’s ideas are still being taught across the world. As one of his prodigies, Pep Guardiola, once articulated it: “Cruyff built the cathedral; our job is to maintain and renovate it.”

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