SPECTRES OF CRUYFF: THE LEGACY OF LA MASIA, TOTAALVOETBAL AND THE 3-4-3

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Through the diaphanous curtains, dancing ad libitum to the arrhythmic beat of the wind, radiated the afternoon sun. “A spectre is haunting Europe”. Marx’s opening words of The Communist Manifesto punctured the blanket of silence heretofore enveloping the room. Achingly, I sat up, forced by this impromptu narrative to abandon my supine slumber. It was the 24th of March 2016.

The audiobook, emanating from my mobile, had satiated my internal pleas for sanity the previous night, spent replenishing shelves at Sainsbury’s. Why, though, was it playing now?

I thought I had closed the application before falling asleep. Evidently not. But as I listlessly scrabbled at the bedside table, eventually locating the phone with embarrassing difficulty, its visible contents conferred upon Marx’s statement – still reverberating in my ear canals – a seemingly irrefutable facticity. Cast into sharp relief against the blue backdrop on which it shamelessly encroached, a red logo and its accompanying headline piqued my interest: “Tributes pour in for Johan Cruyff, who has sadly passed away, aged 68”. A spectre really was haunting Europe – the spectre of Johan Cruyff.

The intellectual grounds on which such ‘haunting’ is predicated, however, require clarification: a phantasmal Johan Cruyff does not literally traverse the earth cloaked at all points, cap-à-pie. Instead, the kernel of this ‘spectral’ proposition is markedly theoretical in configuration: if a phantom characteristically occupies the interstitial space between traditionally distinct categories, namely, life and death, presence and absence, being and non-being (à la Banquo’s ghost in Macbeth, for instance), then Cruyff can be considered spectral insofar as his legacy veritably lives on as a residual presence, or manifestation, of its absent, deceased subject.

From the venerable fount of Shakespearean wit scholars heartily drink; so the Cruyffian tactical archive, for footballers and managers alike, continually proves a rich vein worth mining.

Despite the world mourning the loss of one of its greatest ambassadors on the 24th March, 2016, El Flaco – ‘the skinny one’ – was therefore, and still is, very much alive: Cruyff’s ethereal fingerprints remain indelibly impressed on a present-day footballing milieu paradoxically beyond their reach. His managerial discourse may never have directly touched the ears of Lionel Messi, nor his hands the vitreous face of Barcelona’s recently relocated La Masia youth facility; both nonetheless stand as noteworthy corollaries of the Dutchman’s desire, upon being appointed manager by club president Josep Lluís Núñez in 1988, to overhaul Barça’s youth recruitment policy.

Prior to Cruyff’s accession, prospective candidates wishing to attend the original La Masia, a converted farmhouse first built in 1702, were required to undertake a prueba de la muneca, or ‘Doll’s Trial’, the outcome of which was disproportionately contingent on physical potential: those not expected to reach a height of 1.80m were invariably turned away.

But Cruyff’s philosophy was radically different, altogether eschewing the established model. Totaalvoetbal, a style of incessant defensive pressing, dominance of possession, and positional interchangeability (gleaned, incidentally, from the revered  Rinus Michels, his mentor at Ajax and Barcelona) favoured technical proficiency and intellect over brawn.

“For Johan,” former Barcelona and Chelsea right-back Albert Ferrer revealed in an interview with FourFourTwo, “it was more about staying tight, being quick and trying to go forward than being good in the air. He clearly knew what kind of players he needed, and he had no problem in selecting shorter players or bringing through youngsters.” La Masia could no longer therefore survive in its hitherto obsolescent, lacklustre state, that is, as a proving ground for the foolhardy and long-legged.

On the contrary, with Cruyff and his groundbreaking methodology issuing an inexorable gesture of trust firmly in the direction of home-grown talent, ‘the Farmhouse’ necessarily acquired renewed importance: as a developmental hub for technically adroit youngsters – irrespective of height or build – on the one hand; as a primary rhizome nourishing the Barcelona first team, on the other. Without this impervious infrastructure set in place, the burgeoning buds of Totaalvoetbal would doubtless struggle to fully blossom; La Masia could not afford to fail.


No revolution, save those of a less forcible nature, ever was bloodless. Abundant are the footballing annals with lost ideals – sweepers; Catenaccio; the 2-3-5; Zona Mista – jettisoned from erstwhile impregnable positions of power: an ever-evolving sport whose arbiters constantly respond to a prevailing philosophy, attempting to unpick opposing teams’ tactical orthodoxies in the spirit of progress.

Johan Cruyff’s La Masia project, however, was born of a distinctly unorthodox necessity. Prior to the Dutchman’s reign, the Barcelona squad, led by captain José Ramón Alexanco, staged a protest, recognised colloquially as the ‘Hesperia Mutiny’ in honour of the hotel at which it took place, against President Núñez’s parsimonious leaning: “Núñez doesn’t feel the colours of the club, nor does he love the fans”, came an impassioned declaration from midfielder Victor Muñoz. “He only loves himself”.

And money. Players had already been denied increased wages; now they were ostensibly under strict instruction from Blaugrana officials to cover additional fiscal payments demanded by the Spanish treasury. With internecine war afoot, and having finished sixth in La Liga, the club’s worst domestic campaign since 1941/42, Barcelona were steadily disintegrating into an international laughing stock: something had to give for this once palatial ship now sinking in tumultuous waters. Six days later, by the time Cruyff eventually assumed control, only Alexanco and goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta had survived the ignominious curtailment of duty suffered by their fellow mutineers. Núñez had won, again.

That El Flaco‘s own playing career had first been forged within the venerated system of De Toekomst – Ajax’s youth academy – therefore proved somewhat fortuitous. Diminished funds had ineluctably denied him a certain laxity in transfer dealings, so the outsourcing of Basque professionals José Maria Bakero, Txiki Begiristain, Julio Salinas and Andoni Goikoetxea notwithstanding, Cruyff’s reconstructed squad still lacked sufficient depth. La Masia therefore became an imperative, if welcome, point of recourse; the infrastructure Cruyff had heretofore so bravely espoused, a belief doubtless grounded some posteriori in his formative experiences at Ajax, finally had to yield fruit, and fast.

It did. Owing immeasurably to the much-misprized wisdom of Oriol Tort, Cruyff’s chief scout, through to the senior squad trickled steadily a rivulet of endogenously farmed players well-versed in the intricate precepts of Totaalvoetbal: first Guillermo Amor and eventual renegade Luis Milla, followed thereafter by Sergi Barjuán and Albert Ferrer. Their assimilation, however, signified more than a concerted effort to simply ‘make up the numbers’: the dexterity with which Cruyff had masterfully weaved his systemic web, his transfiguration of lifeless matter into an autarkic organism, would quickly turn out to present unto opposing managers an impenetrable Gordian knot.

During the Dutchman’s inaugural season, La Blaugrana toppled Sampdoria 2-0 to win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup; by June 1995, the club had obtained ten more trophies, a collection including four consecutive La Liga titles and, remarkably – in light of their recent dominance in the competition – an unprecedented European Cup.

Perhaps, then, life’s truest measure of greatness lies not just in that which has already been, but in that which is to be, to become known. If so, Cruyff sits deservedly atop the celestial hierarchy of footballing gods, sceptre and orb in hand. Most befitting a man persistently steps ahead of his contemporaries is the fact that his managerial vision has since proven similarly fatidic: Barça, replete with academy graduates Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets, have continued to enjoy copious domestic and European success, accompanying a certain Josep Guardiola – once the Dutchman’s protégé and first-choice regista – to fourteen trophies in just four years.

So the Cruyffian spectre continues to haunt; a numinous cloud, waltzing through the Kronoic flotsam washed up on our cosmic dance-floor. Indeed, as Guardiola himself so eloquently proposed, “Johan Cruyff painted the chapel; Barcelona coaches since merely restore or improve it”.

Of course, Cruyff’s development of La Masia was, perhaps, less a Michelangelian invocation of the divine, more an empirical endeavour to resolve pressing issues. Nevertheless, similarities between two of life’s fabled artists abound: while Cruyff’s chapel remains topographically rooted within the Catalonian border, it has nevertheless received, and engendered awe in, many foreign eyes.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘Class of ’92’ collectively rose to prominence soon after suffering a 4-0 away defeat at the hands of Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ in the 1994/95 Champions League; Mauricio Pochettino’s youth-orientated approach at Tottenham Hotspur, too, harbours spectral echoes of Cruyff, a connection further buttressed by the Argentine’s personal gesture of respect – changing his WhatsApp photo to a picture of them together – in the wake of El Flaco‘s passing.

Still the chapel stands, redoubtably resisting demolition. Still its influence continues to course through the ever-protuberant vessels of this beautiful game.


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“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” – Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

To be is not to be. Aye, there’s the paradox. For some, Oscar Wilde’s Weltanschauung may teeter all too precariously on the brink of relativism. No less insightful, though, is the philosophical sentiment with which it is delicately imbued: the self bears beneath its aesthetically ‘fixed’ carapace the necessity of its own unfixed Otherness, a spoor, or trace – a spectre – of that which it is not.

The avenues of life are paved with ghostly demarcations; originality is, in an alterable capacity, an unoriginal expression, the new an always-already manifestation of the old. Indeed, football traverses no different a phantomic path. Though intellectual ownership of Totaalvoetbal is a cachet historically vouchsafed Johan Cruyff, closer inspection of the concept evinces a somewhat alternative narrative.

Prior to Cruyff’s career had pursuance of this ultima Thule already commenced, a prescient quest for absolute formational fluidity during an era in which physical, rigid tactics received near-universal espousal. The post-war work of Gusztáv Sebes, for instance, employed an inchoate variant of such revolutionary thought, his Hungary side – branded ‘Magical Magyars’ – engendering the collapse of a once indomitable English footballing empire with a 6-3 victory atop the hallowed Wembley surface on 25th November 1953.

Pas à propos de Sebes, nor his ideological forefather, Jimmy Hogan, however, can even the most impassioned Totaalveotbal acolyte gaze into the sky and proclaim “mein Gott, mein Gott!” without exciting a Pyrrhonic gust intent on assaulting his unfurred brow. For the wind is an immanent whisper from beyond, behind, above, and below; an inarticulate cacophony, an organ-less body, insufflated with the (un)remembered and (un)forgotten – a reservoirbiter of becoming.

Instead, further back along Ariadne’s thread, to the career of a man typically afforded little space in our collective sporting consciousness, must one step in an attempt to escape this labyrinthine narrative, to locate a clearer (if unstable, labile, deterritorial) radix. His name? Jack Reynolds.

If popular perception considers tactical finesse commensurable with on-field ability – and the attendant experience thereby afforded – Reynolds’ example serves to deconstruct that narrative from within. Destitute of any arresting physical talent, the Mancunian’s career assumed a markedly peripatetic pattern: one brief term with two-time Football League champions, Sheffield Wednesday, he spent nine relatively jejune years traversing the flanks for seven separate English teams, eventually retiring in 1911 at the tender age of 30. To the syncopated beat of life’s drum Reynolds had hitherto danced without reward.

Were it by destiny, or aventure. By influence, perchance, or by nature. Fast forward twelve months: weathering the gelid sting of the season, Reynolds, revivified, teeming with unrealised ambition, had forced re-entry into the beautiful game, his footsteps once again bestriding a mud-swept sideline – this time, as manager, choreographer; Nestor. Not, incidentally, in England, but in climes yet unsurveyed: Switzerland, namely the northeastern canton of St. Gallen.

Exactly what impelled Reynolds to abandon the familiarity of Britain for FC St. Gallen, a club of relative insignificance, remains undocumented. Contentious, however, are the popular charges of caprice and whimsy: with anfractuous guile he wound his way down the wing; certain, unswerving was his managerial word.

Such rathe transformation of self, entwined with an immediate upswing in his new side’s performance, instead lends credence to the suggestion that Reynolds’ tactical blueprint had undergone fastidious revision over time. Yes, his settlement in Switzerland may have been opportunistic, impromptu; the central germ of Totaalvoetbal, in itself, though, owes not to an ephemeral flight of fancy.

Or maybe it does. Rome ne s’est pas faite en un jour [Rome wasn’t built in a day]. Yet, in a momentary reverie were notions of this great city first impressed upon, if inadequately fleshed out in, the mind of Vergil’s Aeneas. Reynolds’ non-disclosure of his philosophy’s finer details will forever leave the question of agency tantalisingly open-ended.

Given either interpretation, one thing is clear: the man was a managerial phenomenon. His contravention of tactical orthodoxy in favour of less restrictive, space-orientated mechanics – maakbarheid, as Dutch determinists would say – his inveterate martinetism, his steadfast endorsement of professional training methods during an age of amateur sport: if the axiom ‘invention born out of chaos’ aptly captures the zeitgeist of this conflict-ravaged theatre, Reynolds should stand centre stage as its footballing paragon.

Indeed, had the perfume of war not skulked in on a portentous easterly breeze (quite the counterfactual premise), greater gravity his name may carry in contemporary discourse. Bellicose Wilhelmian designs of European mastery, coupled with an inexorable Russian will to mobilisation, meant that the German FA’s managerial overtures to Reynolds – proffered in the July of 1914 – abruptly had to be reneged.

How seminal this Anglo-Germanic duet could have been. Instead, Reynolds was stranded, “all dressed up with nowhere to go”. Yet, what the modern disfigures, the mythic restores; what the mythic mistook does modernity mend. In Ajax Amsterdam, he located a welcome physic: fecund space ripe for a fecund mind.

Aiantos. No less medicinal was this shift in authorship for a club dispiritingly cast from a domain vertiginous. Erstwhile manager Jack Kirwan had exhibited an artistic flourish, orchestrating Ajax’s maiden ascent to the Dutch Eerste Klasse in 1911; three years later, his canvas had fallen into gross desuetude. Inspissated acrylics clung ignobly to a rotting palette. Relegation loomed – Kirwan’s creative flame had all but burned out.

To rebuild, then, was Reynolds’ rubric. To lay siege it soon became. Ruse de guerre. For eighteen months his Trojan horse dwelt in gestation, the players acculturating apace to an Achaean way of play: 2-3-5, the popular pyramidal configuration, but here harbouring a destructive secret – short, intricate passing. This was a violent jettisoning of the status quo, an unprecedented vision of a world beyond the arch of experience; genius incarnate. By the summer of 1917, Reynolds’ machinations had been fully borne out: de Godenzonen trounced V.S.V. Velsen 5-0 to secure an inaugural piece of silverware, the KNVB Cup. The tyranny of the old Dutch order had remorselessly been brought to its knees. The long ball was dead.

Eight domestic championship titles, spread across three discontinuous terms of management, followed thereafter, before Reynolds formally declared retirement in 1947. Inevitably, perhaps, the cessation of such a uniquely illustrious career saw an otherwise magnolious Amsterdam air suffused with dark ribbons of melancholy. Yet, in the breath of every goodbye lives a dormant hello. Reynolds may have bid adieu to the sport, but in his wake left a path well forged, extending deep into an anticipated future: a path readied for the Totaalvoetbal cavalcade soon to arrive.

So construction of this revolutionary road begat a bloodline inviolable: from Reynolds’ Academy sprang forth the affectionately named “Rinus” Michels; nurtured thereupon in Michels’ Lyceum, the nonpareil brilliance of Johan Cruyff; now reigns unconquerable Josep Guardiola, arguably the most bedazzling of many flowers whilom seeds sown by Cruyff throughout his Catalan garden. De Toekomst: The Future – a system so suitably named.

Not that these men’s respective achievements are reducible to a singular fons et origo. After all, would aetiological reason not render any impression of volition illusory? The ghost, instead, provides a more appropriate trope: Jack Reynolds conjured a spirit of protean football; Michels and Cruyff haunt this orb as perispirits thereof.

Alas, since the millennial ascent of our aureate kite above the yardarm of history, the former has fallen faint. Faintly falling from that blissful seat, murmurs of Michels as FIFA Coach of the Century fall fainter, each redolent remark an evacuated echo susurrating underfoot in forests faraway. Silently his soul swoons, falling still, as it is sublimated into a riverrun recent, still rising: these Cruyffian waters rolling through the world.

As the waterwheel of time keeps circling, shallower the reach of provenance grows; especial weight does this contradiction carry in sporting milieux. Football boasts a rich and variegated archive, but, such is the prism of the present through which we necessarily view this fast-flowing game, the names and notions contained within often yield, absently, to fresher forces without.

Importantly, however, this involute dynamic sits beyond reductive accusations of ignorance. Fan forums contest the merits of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi about the epithet ‘Greatest of All Time’ because they offer current bodies of recourse whose performances we are privy to via first-hand experience. It is not that old masters bygone, otherwise deserving of consideration, abruptly slip into irrelevance; rather, their genius can, for most supporters, only be qualified in an emptier, vicarious way: extracts of film, statistics, biographic literature – Johan Cruyff is no more a person than a legacy, mythologised through retrospective number and word.

Yet, therein lies the all-important countermelody: if modern times fashion fresher footballing paragons, even a partially excavated past reveals a pantheon of players, positions and tactics which, by virtue of their mythic absence, perennially complicate that standard. Much was written the season before last apropos of Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3, and its putatively original characteristics; Premier League chronicles, though, exhibit fractured traces of this formation as recently as 2014/15 – Brendan Rodgers’ slightly narrower 3-4-2-1 with Liverpool – and 2012/13: a deep-lying 5-2-3 implemented by Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic.

Subtle systemic alterations abound, of course, but the point remains: eidola of history can be staved off, but never truly exorcised. They see allways, but are not always seen.

Forty years beforehand, with reciprocal abandon both Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff set upon the 1970s, at their behest a mechanism, predicated on the tenets of Jack Reynolds, fit to flatten any Ajax (and, thereafter, Dutch and Barcelona) foe: a mutable 3-4-3 diamond, incorporating Cruyff himself as ‘False 9′, and superlative Serb Velibor Vasović as doughty sweeper.

How avant-garde this methodology was; how vatic it has since become. Indeed, in this irrepressible theatre of call and response, that three-man defences have attained critical currency over the past two years serves to reinforce the philosophy of these three men. Still their Clockwork Oranje ticks as it tocks, shadowing man’s every stride away from an etiolated past.

Why, then, just Cruyff? Why his name, and not Michels’ or Reynolds’, as the cynosure of this tripartite post? Why his name, now emblazoned across Ajax’s amphitheatre? Because Johan occupies a peculiar double space: the world-class foot soldier, on the one hand; the masterful (off)field marshal, on the other. Yes, as we have explored, he may not justifiably stand as the causal root of Totaalvoetbal, nor the Daedalian draughtsman of the 3-4-3, but his name, above all others, bears an inexhaustible reverence. Cruyff: now a byword in our lexicon for innovation, modernism, the unorthodox, on either side of the touchline – a term that carries itself, as much as the loins of its antecedents, boldly into the unknown.

Ein gespenst geht um in Europa das gespenst die Johan Cruyff [A spectre haunts Europe – the spectre of Johan Cruyff]. But he haunts as one within many, convoked, a mask of the masque. The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite. That never we were born to set it right.

Rust in vrede, Johan. Gràcies.

BY JACK PRETIOUS

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