Johan Cruyff passed away on Thursday. Politicized debates on who "the greatest of all time" is aside, Cruyff undeniably left an impact on the world of soccer as great as anyone else, as a player, coach, and pundit.
He was the linchpin of Ajax's fabled team of the late 60's and early 70's, as well as the Dutch National Team of the same era, the teams that brought Total Football to the masses. He didn't invent the system, as some would later claim, but he personified it, embodied it. He was the conductor, the maestro, the cog that made the machine run. It wouldn't have happened without him, at least not in the way it ultimately did.
Cruyff would leave Ajax for Barcelona, and the rest (as they say) is history. Total Football did not follow him, at least not completely, but the roots he laid down there were strong. He would return, when his playing days were done, as manager, helping build the foundations of a new style, inspired by and descended from Total Football. A style that would go on to conquer the world. Tiki Taka.
His Barca team of the early 90's included such luminaries as Michael Laudrup, Txiki Begiristain, and the man who would later take Barcelona to perhaps its greatest heights, Pep Guardiola. His teams didn't play Total Football, not in the pure form that was played by the Dutch National team and Ajax, but it was built on the same foundations. His teams played the way Cruyff himself played, with vision, movement, and above all, Control.
"Without the ball you can't win." Cruyff famously said. Possession was the cornerstone of every team Cruyff as associated with, either as a player or a manager. He preferred to set his sides up with a focusing on the midfield, featuring creative players, always with a focus on ball recovery and possession, leading to chance creation.
As a player Cruyff was a master of space, finding it, exploiting it, and creating it. As a manager his sides worked by having mobile (but not fluid, like in Total Football) positioning, with wingers staying as wide as possible, allowing central playmakers freedom to create. This approach was not only aesthetically pleasing, but also incredibly fruitful. His time at Barcelona was among the club's most successful spells, winning eleven trophies in his time as manager. His influence continued to be felt long after his premature retirement, through the players and managers he inspired.
It is through these managers, and one in particular, that his influence can be most seen in today's game. Through Josep "Pep" Guardiola, Cruyff found a worthy successor. Under Guardiola Barcelona became one of, if not the single greatest club sides the world had ever seen, winning a ridiculous twelve trophies together, and inspiring the Spanish National Team to an unprecedented three straight international Championships, two EURO'S and a World Cup. In much the same way Cruyff, as a player, was a part of the Ajax side that made up most of the Dutch National Team of the 70's, playing the style they had perfected at club level.
Teams around the world have attempted to emulated the style Guardiola installed at Barcelona, all with varying degrees of success. Pep's system is not a direct emulation of Cruyff's, as the game had (and continues) to evolve. Pep's experiments with a less conventional center forward led to the cult of the false nine having its time in the sun, and his wingers often acted more as "inside forwards" than touchline huggers, cutting inside to create and take chances. But the foundations were Cruyffian: Possession, movement, creativity.
It is through this Barcelona side that Cruyff's influence comes close to home, for us as Crew SC fans. Head Coach and Sporting Director Gregg Berhalter has been vocal in his admiration of Barcelona's play under Guardiola, consciously emulating the possession based style that brought so many teams so much success. He has said many times he wants his Crew SC teams to "play their game, regardless of opposition", as Barcelona always did under Guardiola, sometimes to their detriment.
His variation features an emphasis on wide full-backs getting up the field to make crosses, enabled by wingers that cut inside. It features two solid center midfielders, and a floating playmaker in lieu of a second striker. Possession, movement, creativity. Inspired by Guardiola, descended from Cruyff, Crew SC's current system shows the reach of Cruyff's genius.
Gregg Berhalter spoke after Cruyff's passing: "Most teams that play the way we play, a lot of the inspiration has started from ideas of his and ideas of teams he's been on, whether that's Holland in the mid-70s to his foundation that he laid with Barcelona. I mean Barcelona, what they're doing now is a direct relation to him."
Without Cruyff the football Barcelona played under Guardiola would be impossible, inconceivable. Without the Barcelona of Guardiola the Crew SC of today would look dramatically different, perhaps unrecognizable.
So the next time you're at MAPFRE Stadium and you see Harrison Afful bombing down the right hand wing to cross the ball in to the box, the next time you see Federico Higuain float in to some small pocket of space no one else sees to make a killer pass, think of Johann Cruyff, the great Dutch Master. He is the grandfather, after a fashion, of the style this Crew SC team is trying to play.