Diego Maradona and Pele are the two often cited as the ultimate player to have played the game. Many Brazilians would actually say it is Garrincha, the incredibly talented and flexible winger who dazzled world football during the hey day of the great Brazil sides. Many modern day observers point to Leo Messi.
It is a debate that will run and run for as long as football is played. But there is another interesting debate which rarely is discussed. And that is possibly because there is only one winner. If Maradona or Pele are the greatest to have played the game, then Johan Cruyff is by far the most important and influential figure to have ever taken to the field of play.
Cruyff was a wonderful winger in his day for Ajax and the Holland teams of the 1970s. An integral part of the total football played by the Ajax sides of Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs, Cruyff then left after a dispute for Barcelona, eventually returning to Ajax and then to Feyenoord. He rejuvenated Barcelona and helped them win the league, as well as claim a 5-0 win at the Santiago Bernabeu. Cruyff has since managed both Ajax and Barcelona with great success – making him the greatest player to have become a top class manager.
It is not his simple successes and trophies which explain his importance. Cruyff may have won three European Cups with Ajax, reached the World Cup final for Holland, guided Barcelona to four La Liga titles in a row and won them the European Cup in 1992 for the first time in their history, but Cruyff’s influence is philosophical. Michels invented total football – but Cruyff was his greatest disciple and messenger.
Cruyff is an absolute believer that football is about attacking and entertaining the crowd. He rightly lambasts those who give awards to defenders. Cruyff rightly points out that defending is fundamentally easier than attacking. He is an intense critic of teams who play dour football, such as Chelsea, and he swiftly backs the entertainers in the game against the functionaries. The Dutchman has an incredible tactical outlook and ability to spot a player’s best position and role. As Barcelona coach he strolled into a youth game and after 45 minutes told the manager to switch a young player called Pep Guardiola into the middle of the pitch. Immediately Guardiola looked at home and became the key to Cruyff’s team. That is his genius. Believing in constantly rotating possession to find space as quickly as possible, making the pitch as big as possible with movement and then constricting the space through high and intense pressing without the ball, his is the template for how football is now played. He laid the foundations of La Masia’s philosophy, the one that has brought through Leo Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and so many others.
In terms of football coaches, Cruyff was a huge influence on Guardiola, who usurped his mentor as the greatest in the club’s coaching history between 2008 and 2012. Cruyff’s philosophy was also taken on by Arrigo Sacchi’s great AC Milan side. Although Sacchi also focused a lot on defensive discipline, going forward he utilised the pressing and movement of Cruyff’s total football and his side would go on to become the last to win back to back European Cups, as well as going through the season unbeaten in 1994. Arsene Wenger is another disciple, and he brought the ideas of total football to England with Arsenal in 1998. Like Cruyff, Wenger is not the greatest in his main field – there have been better managers. But Wenger has been without doubt the most influential manager in English football in the last 15 years. Sir Alex Ferguson may have won league after league, but he brought in no revolutionary change. Wenger forced his rivals to professionalise, adopt modern training and diet techniques, and play more attacking, possession based football. A decade ago Wenger’s Arsenal, who would go through a season unbeaten, were the only team playing the way they are. Now they are many, from Swansea to Southampton. Managers like Brendan Rodgers try to replicate what Wenger has done – and teams like Chelsea and Manchester City spend millions trying to play in the same style.
No where is Cruyff’s influence more important than in Barcelona though. And in Argentine football – he was the inspiration for Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa is possibly, after Cruyff and Wenger, the third most important influence among coaches today. His football is intense – extremely high pressing, playing in the opponent’s half, a back three, constant ball rotation at high pace.
Bielsa is the influence for managers such as Mauricio Pochettino, now with Southampton in England, but also Guardiola. Indeed Guardiola’s ideas are taken from Cruyff, Bielsa and Louis van Gaal. Bielsa is also the inspiration for Gerardo Martino, who has just been appointed Barcelona’s next coach to replace the stricken Tito Vilanova. And so the influence of Cruyff, through Bielsa and Wenger, goes on. We may never know the best player to have played the game, but Cruyff is without down the most important.