Jordi Cruyff driving Maccabi Tel-Aviv evolution as sporting director
Ahead of his club's Champions League game with Chelsea on Tuesday, Maccabi Tel-Aviv sporting director Jordi Cruyff revealed how the first time he took on an English champion changed the way he thinks about the game.
It was October 1994 and the 20-year-old La Masia graduate had just been given his debut at Barcelona by his father Johan. The Catalans were one of the best sides in the world, with Romario and Hristo Stoichkov leading a luscious forward line, but faced Sir Alex Ferguson's first great Manchester United team.
"I came from the Barcelona youth academy, so my eyes were not fully open," Cruyff told ESPN FC. "When I came to Old Trafford, for the 2-2 game, wow! That's when I saw that football could be played in a different way, amazing atmosphere. A very good experience. You start to understand, there's much more than what we know, [even] to the Barcelona way. That was an eye-opener."
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The Dutchman has had quite the learning curve, having studied at Barcelona under his own father and Ferguson, where he played from 1996-2000. "They were visionaries," he says of Cruyff Sr. and Ferguson. "They were always one step ahead."
Cruyff's career after leaving Old Trafford took in spells in Spain, Ukraine and Malta but, after retiring in 2010, he took up a director of football role at Cypriot side AEK Larnaca and led them to the Europa League group stages in 2011-12. His work was spotted by Maccabi's Canadian owner Mitchell Goldhar and now Cruyff's innovative way of thinking -- inspired largely by his father's lasting effect on the game -- is bringing similar reactions in Israel.
Cruyff has wedded the core football values he learned as a player at Barcelona and Manchester United with business principles learned from an academic course taken while living in England, all while utilising ever-changing technology to monitor his players.
A deep thinker, the attention to detail in the 41-year-old's work becomes evident when he describes the first steps required when he took the role.
"First of all, we brought in four or five foreign coaches," he explains. "That helped because we have more eyes. The more I see, the more it helps. You analyse what is needed.
"The owner wanted to have discipline, a professional environment and structure. So, the first thing we did was to put in a GPS system so every game and training session is followed. The players cannot cut corners any more.
"Then, for example, the food is amazing in this country. So you think, OK, wait a minute, there's too much temptation. We introduced a vegetable lunch at the club so at least we think we control 66 percent of their daily intake.
"A lot of these are small examples, small steps but, when everything gels together, in the end results are good. We reach the stage where players actually want to come to Maccabi now and use us to grow."
Cruyff is primarily concerned with making Maccabi "a consistent player in European football." Those around the club say the sporting director wants to make them Israel's Ajax or Basel -- teams which have a good reputation for developing players, sustain a secure financial footing through selling players at a profit, while also staying competitive in the Champions League.
Having finished seventh the season before his arrival in 2012, the club immediately ended a 10-year Israeli title drought and have won it three times back-to-back. Even more importantly, in Europe, they've been "progressing every year a little bit more" and in 2013-14 they reached the Europa League's round of 32 before being beaten 3-0 by Basel.
Evidence of the side's evolution under Cruyff comes from the fact that Maccabi actually beat Basel in this season's Champions League playoffs (on away goals after a 3-3 draw) to reach the group stage -- just the fifth time in history for an Israeli club. It was success that allowed them to sign Serbia's under-20 World Cup-winning goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic from under the noses of Paris Saint-Germain.
Cruyff's story is how you go about building a modern club; with every brick meticulously accounted for. It is the story of how you infuse an institution with a proper philosophy and structure, while always seeking to progress. It is also a sign of the growing importance of the sporting director as a role that gives a club a "vision" in a way head coaches can't outside England.
"A sporting director is somebody in a club who thinks middle- and long-term. Coaches and managers, they look short-term and medium-term," Cruyff adds.
"There is so much specialisation in football; the small details, especially the attacking lines, especially the defensive lines, especially the goalkeeper, video analysts. There are so many things that come together.
"There are so many small details that change the luck of a club that, in the end, one person cannot be responsible," he continues. "The managers, of course are the boss of the dressing room, they decide the tactics and systems, the changing room rules, that's all OK.
"There are so many games now so, all the time they're analysing mistakes of the previous game and you're really preparing the next game so you don't have time do everything any more. Basically, you make it easier for them."
Maccabi have actually had four different head coaches in Cruyff's time, with Watford's promotion-winning boss Slavisa Jokanovic the current incumbent after leaving England. Most have "gone on to bigger stages," though the one exception is Rafa Benitez's former assistant Pako Ayesteran, who was dismissed despite winning a domestic Treble because Cruyff felt he wasn't getting the maximum out of the players. It was a move that illustrated his desire to push the club forward.
"Of course, I need to try to find coaches that can work very well with their philosophy into what already we have here, our working method and the players we already have," Cruyff says.
"This club, for example, is obliged by the budget and by the players and by the name of this club. We have to play dominating and attacking football and every game with the idea you're going to win. So a counter-attacking coach could not fit at this club at this moment in time. That's what you have a sporting director for."
Cruyff has had to make tough decisions, but he has built the stability which has brought Maccabi to the Champions League. The Israeli side have suffered so far with four defeats in four Group G games, 11 goals conceded and only one scored -- including a 4-0 beating at Chelsea -- but Cruyff even sees that as a long-term positive.
"You learn the reality of this level," he says. "Everything is one step quicker, one step more aggressive, and a few steps in terms of ability. I wouldn't say nice but it's a nice learning curve and reality check of what we need to do better."
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.