This season has seen FC Barcelona reach what must surely be the pinnacle of the quite remarkable cycle of success that this team has enjoyed since the appointment of Pep Guardiola in 2008. Playing a style of football that is as effective as it is beautiful, Barcelona have mastered both patient passing when with the ball and relentlessly energetic pressing without, their beguiling proficiency seeing them repeatedly outclass the rest of Europe.
As much as Guardiola and his players deserve the high praise that they have received in recent months, what we are witnessing could be said to be the natural culmination of a footballing philosophy founded in Holland in the late 1960s and early 70s. Indeed, when watching Barcelona’s triumph over Manchester United in last night’s Champions League Final, I couldn’t help but turn my thoughts to Johan Cruyff and the remarkable influence he has held over stylistic principles within European football over the last forty years.
The intention of this article isn’t to take credit away from the current Barça squad – what they are doing of their own accord is quite phenomenal – but instead to recognise the roots of their approach and the ways in which they are, in my opinion, the third (and possibly final) phase of a very distinctive footballing doctrine.
If you accept (at least partially) my logic, the story begins with the Ajax team of Jack Reynolds and kicks more fully into life with the Amsterdam club’s appointment of Rinus Michels as manager in 1965. Michels – intent on playing a style reliant on slick passing, full-pitch pressing and positional interchange – formulated the tactical approach we now know as Total Football and took an Ajax team built around Cruyff and Piet Keizer to the very top of the European game.
As we’ve discussed on the blog relatively recently, Michels went on to manage the Dutch national team at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany; a tournament that arguably saw the zenith of Total Football despite Holland’s defeat to the hosts in the final. While Michels may have been the man who originated the theory of Total Football, it is widely recognised that it was Cruyff who breathed life into those most complex of plans at the highest of levels.
Confident in his abilities to the point of arrogance, Cruyff was the player who gave practical expression to the vision of Michels and allowed both Ajax and Holland to realise their grandiose aesthetic and philosophical dreams. There are anecdotes from the time which suggest that it was Cruyff – not Michels – who was the major ideological driving force behind Total Football, the man who imbued in his fellow professionals the essence and purpose of the style and vision which both Ajax and Holland pursued.
An idealist to his very core, Cruyff would continue to hold dear the principles of this approach as he brought an end to his playing days and embarked on a career in management. Having taken his first coaching role at Ajax and enjoyed a relatively successful three years there, Cruyff was given the opportunity to return to Camp Nou as manager of Barcelona in 1988.
Overhauling the squad, the Dutchman brought in stars such as Ronald Koeman, Michael Laudrup and Txiki Begiristain, supplementing their talents with some particularly gifted La Masia graduates, Guardiola amongst them. These would be the players that formed the core of what would come to be known as the ‘Dream Team’, a side fondly remembered the world over.
Between 1989 and 1994 the Dream Team won seven major titles including four La Liga crowns and one European Cup, Cruyff’s squad playing with a style that echoed various facets of Total Football while minimising some of the its more romantic elements to the point where the inherent risks present in over-idealising the game were largely removed. The Barcelona of the early 1990s were, if such a thing can be said, exponents of a more pragmatic form of Total Football. It had taken the best part of two decades, but Total Football had found a new expression in the approach of Cruyff’s famous Barça side.
As Cruyff learnt his craft under the tutelage of Michels, so Guardiola did at the feet of Cruyff. If you accept my theory, the conclusion we can draw is that Guardiola is the third (or fourth, if we count Reynolds) link in the rich ideological chain that started in post-war Holland and has lived on, albeit unevenly, to this day. In Guardiola’s Barcelona team the principles of Total Football have found a third prominent incarnation, although that is not to say that the current side adhere to all of its original tenets.
Clearly, the football that Barcelona play does not incorporate to the same extent the positional carousel that so characterised the Dutch team of ’74, but the level of passing and pressing they exhibit is in many ways more complete. Achieving the serial success that the Dutch team never quite managed, and arguably more comfortable with their system than the Dream Team, the argument can be made that the current Barcelona side are the best exponents of this liberally stylistic strand of footballing theory since the glory days of Michels’ Ajax.
Having struck a seemingly perfect balance between tactical intelligence and attacking fantasy, the Barcelona of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi can now be spoken of in the same terms as the other of football’s great sides throughout history. This is a group of players that represent the culmination of an ideological dream, and they’re providing indescribable joy to football fans around the world in the process.