Legend is a term that is so often levied far too easily. The literal definition of what it means to be legendary is greater than its colloquially-dubbed utilization that has become commonplace in the football sphere.
True legends...undeniable greats that have spanned generations of supporters across countless decades...are few. Johan Cruijff is undeniably among them.
Born in Amsterdam to a working-class family, Hendrik Johannes “Johan” Cruijff would become the face of Dutch football, a level of status he will likely forever maintain despite his passing seven years ago after a battle with serious illness. Previously voted as the sixth-greatest Dutchman in the history of the Netherlands, Cruijff’s image has helped define an entire national legacy both on and off the pitch.
He has enriched and personified our football. He was an icon of the Netherlands. Johan Cruijff belonged to all of us.— King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands; in tribute to Johan Cruijff upon his passing
But from humble beginnings in the shadow of Akkerstraat Stadium where he would imagine himself after Faas Wilkes while constantly playing among friends along with his brother Henny, few could have imagined that Cruijff’s origins were on a collision course with an influence across the beautiful game that has yet to be equaled.
As a player, the supremely gifted forward remains largely viewed as one of the best players of all time, while some still hold the opinion that his seemingly unnatural level of ability eclipsed both Pelé and Diego Maradona.
A three-time Ballon d’Or winner, Cruijff helped Ajax Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Feyenoord Rotterdam to a combined twenty-two major honors across four stints that spanned a total of eighteen years, with brief stints in the NASL and Spanish second division in between. In Dutch colors, Cruijff failed to lead his country to international success, losing to rivals West Germany in the final of the 1974 World Cup, while only managing to reach a third-place finish in the European Championship two years later. Without question, he is the greatest player to never win a major international honor.
After retiring at the end of the 1983-84 Eredivisie season, Cruijff did not wait long before returning to football a year later as a manager and going right back where it all started, his hometown club Ajax. Right from the start he would pick up on the touchline where he left off on the pitch, leading De Godenzonen to consecutive league titles in his first two seasons in charge as well as bagging a Cup Winners’ Cup, before eventually making another return after his third season; this time to Barcelona.
It was there, in Catalunya, that Cruijff’s influence on the modern game truly began to take shape; an influence that remains to this day, far beyond the reaches of the Spanish sphere of influence. Between 1988 and 1996, the iconic Dutchman orchestrated a brand of football that is now at the very heart of the biggest success stories in the Premier League and one that likely will influence others further still.
If Rinus Michels is Philip II of Macedon, then Cruijff is certainly Alexander the Great. Like Alexander, who perfected a fighting system first instituted by his father Philip in order to conquer much of the known world and become one of the greatest generals in the history of warfare, Cruijff was very much a proponent of Michels well-known system of Total Football during his time at Barça.
Building on Michels’ principles that were a guiding light for the Netherlands’ footballing identity, Cruijff guided Barcelona to four consecutive La Liga titles from 1990-94, while also winning the Supercopa de España on three occasions, the Cup Winners’ Cup in his first season in charge, the European Cup in 1991-92, and the resulting European Super Cup.
Despite his managerial success in terms of trophies, the legacy he instilled as Barça’s manager is so much more than trophies won; but a way of life on a football pitch. This way of playing...existing, even...both on and off the pitch, are principles that will sound familiar to millions of fans just by reading quotes from the man himself.
Every trainer talks about movement, about running a lot. I say don’t run so much. Football is a game you play with your brain. You have to be in the right place at the right moment, not too early, not too late.
In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender.
Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.
Playing football is very simple but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is— A list of Cruijffiaans; popular quotes remembered by readers of Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool
Sound familiar? They should. Each of those principles can be seen at the core of some of the biggest success stories in recent memory. From Barcelona’s otherwordly period of hegemony on both the domestic and continental front, Spain’s period of international dominance, the full breadth of Pep Guardiola’s managerial body of work. Ongoing journeys undertaken by the likes of Erik ten Hag, Mikel Arteta, and Vincent Kompany also tap into Cruijff’s legacy and influence, which has not only remained ingrained in an entire country (Spain) but has fully taken hold of the English game.
In Guardiola, a La Masia graduate that played under Cruijff and whose managerial principles are intrinsically linked to the Dutchman, we have the prime example of another cycle of football evolution on the back of a motivating factor that came before; much like with Michels and Cruijff.
The same can be said for Luis Enrique, who as a player and as a manager, is one of many to tap into what was ingested from Cruijff’s mind due to the ever-present theories behind Barcelona’s academy ranks and subsequent rise of Spain’s vaunted La Roja, who largely keep faith in those same principles today.
But when it comes to the Premier League, it is perhaps no surprise that Arteta is at the helm of an impressive Arsenal side on a possible collision course with their first league title in nearly twenty years while operating in a manner akin to City due to Arteta’s tenure as Guardiola’s assistant, while not forgetting that Arteta was himself a La Masia graduate.
Ten Hag too, who arrived at a United side on the cusp of turmoil, has reshaped the Red Devils into a side that many pundits will once again tip to be a favorite for a title push in 2023-24 after being under Guardiola’s influence at Bayern Munich before cutting his teeth with FC Utrecht and Ajax on his way to emerging as the latest Red Devils boss.
Further still, the aforementioned Enrique is now one of the leading candidates for the managerial vacancy at Stamford Bridge, while former Belgian international center-back Vincent Kompany, a player who had a glistening club career under Pep at City, is now one of the hottest managerial properties due to his revolutionizing efforts at Turf Moor.
There is now a real chance that no less than five students - either direct or indirect - of Cruijff could be heading up managerial posts in the Premier League at the beginning of the 2023-24 season. And though he is no longer with us, his legacy has endured in a manner that has eclipsed his playing achievements.
This is not just a simple discussion surrounding the success of those mentioned, but more so, an understanding of what has evolved in England is taking hold in the European giants in such a way that the top clubs in the Premier League are instilling values on and off the pitch that are beyond the measuring stick of winning major honors.
From youth development, transfer requirements that fit player profiles capable of shinning in systems that are rooted in Total Football, the technical and tactical standard in the Premier League - and in England at large - in the post-Fergie & Wenger era necessitate teams to try their best to emulate Cruijff, or one of his greatest proponents in Guardiola, in order to not just get by, but excel.
Much of this is the reason why Arsenal’s project under Arteta has already hit high gear, and why Chelsea is viewing Enrique as a prime candidate. The same can be said regarding Kompany’s stint with Burnley, with the Belgian morphing the club from the tactical cretaceous period and seemingly overnight changing them into a beacon of modernity that now sees the former City defender linked with interest from top Premier League clubs.
Many will claim that football played to such a precise tactical degree, with principles that cannot be sacrificed, has at times been the worst enemy of managers that champion them, but it is hard to argue with the overall success that Cruijff’s - and Michels’ - vision has led to, and to that end, it deserves immeasurable credit.
Johan Cruijff will forever be so much more than a brilliant player. Truly, football across the continent, and indeed in England, would not be the same without him.