Johan Cruyff: The Dutch Extraordinaire

Johan Cruyff is one of the most impactful icons of the soccer world; his creative playmaking on the field and incredible coaching vision off the field changed the game for decades to come and will forever be engraved in soccer’s history books.

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Excitement buzzed among the eager crowd as the referee blew his whistle, commencing the long-awaited 1974 FIFA World Cup Finals match between two football giants: Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands and Franz Beckenbauer’s West Germany. The Dutch started off with possession, circulating the ball throughout the field while carefully probing the Germans’ rigid defensive formation in search of any weaknesses. The clock had just passed the one-minute mark when Cruyff dropped all the way back to his center backs to collect the ball and released his team in a unique move where all of his teammates attacked together, leaving Cruyff to be the last man back. The Dutch advanced up the pitch but were stopped by West Germany’s solid defense. The ball was passed backward to Cruyff as the rest of the team fell back into shape, and he rapidly dribbled up the field on a solo run, breaking through the German defense line and penetrating into the box. A poor sliding challenge led to a penalty opportunity, which was averted successfully by midfielder Johan Neeskens. In the first two minutes of the Finals match, Netherlands had secured an early lead through a flawless blitz attack, all thanks to their unique playing style which had dominated the tournament thus far.

Cruyff, born in Amsterdam on April 25, 1947, grew up only five minutes away from Ajax’s stadium, home to the most successful club that plays in the Eredivisie, the Netherlands’s top professional soccer league. Soccer was an integral part of the young Dutchman’s life as he joined Ajax’s youth system, widely considered to be one of the best in the world, at the age of 10. His father sadly passed away due to heart complications when Cryuff was only 12, but he continued pursuing his passion for soccer, quickly climbing through the ranks at Ajax and training in a special playing style called Total Football. Total Football, initially invented by Dutch coach Rinus Michels, is a unique system emphasizing versatility. In this system, each player tries out all of the different positions on the field until settling into the one that suits them best, creating a balanced and well-rounded team. All of Ajax’s youth teams played in the same 3-4-3 formation that the senior team did, so their early training ensured that the eventual transition between levels would go smoothly. Cruyff’s overall talent and special affinity for the Total Football style was evident, and he made his senior debut for Ajax in 1964. Over the course of the next 20 years, Cruyff would impress the world with his imaginative playmaking, incredible understanding of the game, and superb skill with the ball.

Cruyff helped his team win the 1965-66 league championship, ending the season with an impressive 25 goals in 23 games. He continued his magic by leading Ajax to two more consecutive league titles in 1966-67 and 1967-68. Ajax’s domination throughout the years that followed can be credited to the Total Football playing style, which was such an unconventional system that no club was prepared to face at the time. Cryuff established his team as a true powerhouse in world soccer by helping them win multiple consecutive European Cups and league titles during his successful 16 year tenure there, which ultimately came to an end when he left for FC Barcelona in mid-1973. After arriving at his new team in 1974, Cruyff was made captain of the club and soon led them to win a Spanish League championship as well as a Copa Del Rey.

Cruyff certainly made a name for himself, and his talent did not go unnoticed, especially by his fans. He earned the nickname “The Flying Dutchman” in honor of his agile, swift movement on the pitch. When Cruyff dribbled the ball, it seemed like he was almost gliding across the pitch, and some even described him to be “flying.” The Dutchman’s creativity bloomed when he had the ball, and he is credited with inventing a new skill move called The Cruyff Turn, a 180 degree spin that involves gracefully guiding the ball with the inside of your feet. His prominence as a creative playmaker made him crucial to his team’s attacks and positional play.

The Netherlands national squad called up the Dutchman for the 1968 Euro, where he debuted in a qualifying match against Hungary and scored a 2-2 draw. Cruyff coined the number 14 jersey for Holland, the same number he wore for Ajax. Over time, he began to take leadership in the Dutch squad and was a big proponent of the Total Football playing style. By the 1974 World Cup, the team had become masters of Total Football and dominated the competition with their unorthodox and innovative playing style. The players on the team were so well-synced with each other that the Netherlands were nicknamed “The Clockwork Orange.” Under Cruyff’s captaincy, the Dutch made it all the way to the finals, knocking out Argentina (4-0), East Germany (2-0), and Brazil (2-0) along the way. Despite taking an early lead against West Germany in the final, the Dutch ultimately lost the game 2-1 after an incredible German comeback. Nevertheless, that World Cup truly showcased the potential and dominance of Total Football. Later, Cruyff was asked to return for the 1978 World Cup, but he refused to play after a kidnapping attempt targeting him and his family in their Barcelona home.

After retiring from his professional playing career in 1984, Cruyff returned to the soccer world as Ajax’s manager in 1985. He continued to coach the Dutch side under the Total Football playing style for the next couple of years, leading his team to consecutive victories in the 1985-86 and 1986-87 KNVB Cups. It was at this time that Cruyff began to experiment with his preferred formation. His ideal backline included three mobile defenders supported by an extra player responsible for covering space, who would essentially become a defensive midfielder. The midfield was made up of two central midfielders who could control the tempo of the game and feed the two wide midfielders to create attacking threats down the wings. The team was spearheaded by two players, an innovative second striker and one flexible center forward. The Dutchman coached in this method extensively during his time at Ajax and in the Netherlands before returning to coach Barcelona for the 1988-89 season. When Cryuff took over the reins for the Spanish club, the team was in a heavy crisis and deep in debt, but their new coach knew just how to turn it all around. By bringing in players such as Pep Guardiola, Ronald Koeman, and Albert Ferrer, Cruyff added to an already solidified defense and midfield, and also boosted the lackluster attacking force with talents such as Romario and Michael Laudrup. He introduced Ajax's Total Football playing style to his new team and created a Barca-Ajax school of football. Barcelona’s new passing-oriented play under Cruyff was nicknamed “Tiki-Taka.” Under the Dutchman’s management, the revitalized squad played in his favorite 3-4-3 system, a deviated form of the standard Barca 4-3-3 lineup. Barcelona won four straight La Liga titles, two European Cups, and two Champions Leagues under Cruyff’s management. With 11 trophies in total, he became the second most successful Barca coach in history, and his infamous squad earned the nickname “The Dream Team.”

Cruyff’s undeniable talent and remarkable accomplishments will forever be remembered, and his impact on soccer can be seen long after his retirement in 1996. His prominence under Total Football has set an example for many modern teams including Ajax, whose consistent performances in the Eredivisie can be credited to their continued play using this system. In addition, Cruyff’s introduction of the Tiki-Taka playing style has become an iconic part of FC Barcelona’s history. Barca’s dominance during the 2008-2020 era can be attributed to their consistent passing and explosive attacking under this style. Even to this day, Barca continues to operate with this system and has become an established and unique team thanks to Cruyff’s guidance many decades ago. The Dutch legend’s legacy as a player and coach has shaped modern day soccer into what we know today.