Cruyff's romantic footballing philosophy burns strong
Johan Cruyff begins in typically strident fashion, but finishes with something of a romantic flourish. The 66-year-old is asked about the style of football that he helped to define, and whether he thinks there has ever been a tactic created to trump the passing-pressing game that Ajax, Barcelona, Spain and now Bayern Munich have gone on to dominate the sport with.
"Well, I don’t think so," Cruyff shrugs -- but his reasoning isn’t totally expected, nor is it completely to do with just finding out the best way to win.
"I think the way Barcelona played, it’s a pleasure for everybody who likes football, because the technical qualities are the highest standard and every little child can try to do the technical qualities. It’s not like somebody runs 100 yards in nine seconds [and] if you can’t do it, you don’t count. You always count because you can always get better. If you want to play basketball you’ve got to be two metres. Otherwise you can’t play. Here, everyone can play and everyone can develop. That’s the nicest thing about the game of football."
The way Cruyff thinks remains almost as enthralling as the way he used to play or manage. He has become one of football’s sages, arguably the most influential figure in its history. That becomes clear when he starts to elaborate on the Total Football approach first instilled on Ajax in the late ‘60s, and how it all remains so recognisable.
"We said, 'OK, where are the best players?'" Cruyff says of the pressing aspect of their game that suddenly changed the very perceptions of a pitch. "'There'. Technically, yeah, in the positions very good but also with the ball -- so attack them there. What’s the difference between a good player and bad player? It’s the speed of [control], so if you’ve got to speed them up, it's to provoke mistakes. And the main thing is that the quicker you can change your mentality, offensive [to] defensive, the first defender is the centre-forward. He's the nearest by, so the quickest he can put the pressure on, start defending.
"And you run less. You don’t run more. You run less ... of course, you've got to do possession. It's a way of thinking and it's the way you can re-organise the whole thing."
"Because, who’s got the ball, who scores the goal?"
It was when Cruyff returned to Barcelona as manager in 1988, making the same move from Ajax he did as a player in 1973, that the philosophy was properly put in place in modern terms. That transformation set the path to Wednesday night and the magnificent manner in which Pep Guardiola’s Bayern toyed with Manchester City. It is all the more remarkable when you consider that Barca were so crisis-ridden for most of the 28 years leading up to Cruyff’s appointment, and an example no-one would choose to follow. He talks about such a quantum leap as if it was elementary.
“When I came in, [Barcelona] were bad. We had to change. There was no sense to continue something that goes wrong.
"I had a big advantage that I played there. You know the mentality, you know what they do, what they think, so it was quite easy to make some rules.
"The players were there, they were good players. You had to put in some character. We brought some players from the Basque country that you know for sure will give it. So it’s a question of compensation in the things you need."
Cruyff has essentially become the figurehead of one of the game's two main opposing philosophies, a dichotomy that was brought to a head in the notorious 2010 World Cup final. Then, his native Netherlands took Jose Mourinho’s reactive approach at Internazionale to extreme levels, as they sought to interrupt the Spanish style initially set in place by Cruyff. The Dutchman himself ended up castigating his country for attempting "anti-football" and vocally announcing his support for Spain.
On the day of this interview, as he relaxes after a round of golf at the Alfred Dunhill Links in St Andrew’s to promote his charity, the Cruyff Foundation, he is a little less dogmatic.
"You can’t say this or that, or this is better than that. You’ve all kinds of different players. A lot of people make comparisons between [Leo] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo. They’re completely different. You can’t compare them. They’re both great in the things what they do, and they’re different.
"You can say who do you prefer as a way of playing. Do you prefer a [more] technical one or do you prefer somebody who is technical, who is physical and who can shoot very high. It's totally different and that’s why it's so good that the differences are there because you can see that a lot of people make a wrong decision in choosing the team where they go. It's if the team fits with the quality you have."
Cruyff still views the game from a truly unique perspective, and continues to feel so much of it it could be done differently.
"[Football] has always been narrow-minded because we say 'he's a football player' but in baseball we say he's a pitcher, he's a catcher, he's a third baseman ... but why is he a footballer? It's all different. But, as a coach to direct a team, you've got to look at the individual qualities. That's why I see the game totally different."
He offers the example of a specific European club’s transfer policy.
"I read in the paper that this team are watching this player, this player, this player. Well, they're idiots because they're so different that how can you look at three different players in the same position?
"There are too many different things in football. People who are buying, people who are selling or people accepting to go one place or another -- it's not like that. It's what the team needs.
"You can look at these three, or these three, but you can never look at these three. It's impossible. What are you looking for? Somebody who's called a defender or a type of defender?
"It’s a big difference, such a big difference.
"A lot of times people don’t see the quality of the individual, and this individual should function good in the team and the way the team plays ... in the end, the best player will never come out of a team who loses too much. It’s impossible."
This is the other enduring impression of Cruyff. For all that he represents the game at its most sophisticated and often speaks in contradictions, so much of what he says is applicable to any level of football.
"The main thing is, a lot of people think that making a mistake is a problem. No, I don’t think so. Making a mistake is to make you better, as long you learn from your mistake. So I think making a mistake for me is never a problem. It's a perfect thing, as long as you learn from it and don't make the same mistake again. The only way you can learn is from your mistakes. You can never learn from the things you did well. It's impossible.
"That's what we learned [at Ajax]. You tried something, that didn’t work for that [reason] and that. Do it again. Do something different.
"Football is a game of mistakes and, if you analyse a mistake, you can say OK. If I put somebody where the mistakes come from, with his quality, you’re going to make less mistakes and if you make less mistakes you've got more possibilities.
"So it's a different way of thinking. It's not like we think this pass is good or bad. If this was the best pass why didn't he do it? Did he see or didn't he see it or wasn’t he capable of executing it.
"So it's not a lot of times that you're going to discuss or analyse what he did. Most of the time you’ve got to analyse why he didn't do the other thing.
"That's where it all starts, how you see totally different the game. If you analyse it, you can train on it."
This idea of the individual fitting into the collective, of the truly social aspect of football, is something that still engages him. It is the guiding principle of his charity, which is all about enriching lives through sport.
"What is sport, besides the physical education you do for yourself? It's playing together, trying things out, getting better every day, winning together, losing together, helping somebody out. It's life. It's totally life, 100 percent.”
For all the rigour, he remains something of a romantic.