Saturday, 2 April 2011

El Salvador

Regular readers of the blog will know how highly I regard Johan Cruyff. Bar Steven Gerrard, I can't think of a player that I have written more about.

I believe that he is not only the best player to play the game but also the player, in the modern era at least, who has transformed the game most. On a technical level, there is very little difference between Maradona, Pele, and Cruyff. All were fantastic players with subtly different strengths. Cruyff did more, thought harder, and changed the game more obviously.

What I mean by changing the game is what they, as players, did. All were wonderful to watch. Pele and Maradona's individual accomplishment were enormous but I'm not certain that they changed the game. Cruyff reinvented football for the better. He could play in every position on the pitch. He was truly a total footballer and, therefore, ranks slightly higher for me.

That's the difference with Cruyff. You don't measure him by statistics, awards or trophies (though, if you did, you would be impressed). You measure him on artistic merit, on how he played the game, how he changed how we think about the game.

Do the statistics do him justice? Three times European Footballer of the Year; once voted the 2nd greatest player of all time, routinely regarded as the finest European player of the game, 33 goals in 48 games for the Netherlands, 371 goals in 663 games in his career. 
Stunning but he was much more beside that. In many ways, that famous Cruyff turn is a more useful way of evaluating his career than all those statistics.

Who was best out of Pele, Maradona and Cruyff is an enjoyable pub debate (and that's before someone throws in a hand-grenade of Laudrup, di Stefano or Puskas) but there is no credible debate when we look at the totality of their careers.

Maradona's managerial career, such as it has been, has been enjoyable but little more. Pele's work as an ambassador for various good causes and selling Viagra have changed the lives of millions but not in a footballing way.

It isn't just management. Compare the legacies and there is only one winner. Cruyff wasn't just a footballer, he was a general. He was absolutely fundamental to Total Football. If there was no Cruyff, there is no Ajax in the 1970s. There is no Dutch team of 1974.
 He was absolutely fundamental to the development of the theory.

His brand of football resonates down the ages - Ajax fans, and Dutch fans, expect a certain brand of football. He defined what Dutch football should be.

Not only that throughout his career he has innovated and always for the better of a football lover. 

It was Cruyff who changed Ajax's coaching structure whilst manager at the club in the late 1980s and it was Cruyff who decided that each age group should be playing the same system as the first team - so players could jump up grades quickly. Bergkamp's development was aided by Cruyff.

When we gasp over that great 1990s team - and we all gasped - we should remember that its development can be traced back to Cruyff's Ajax team. Indeed, the 1995 team played Cruyff's system  - 3-1-2-3-1. It was, as ever, simple football.

At Barcelona, it was Cruyff who turned Guardiola from a left-winger into one of the finest defensive midfielders in the game in the 1990s.  As well as that, he created two Barcelona Dream Teams - the European Cup winning team of 1990 built around Koeman, Guardiola, Stoichkov and Laudrup and then, a few years late, the same players but with Romario alongside Stoichkov.

It was h
is vision of remodelling La Masia (something he first suggested as a player in 1979), his influence on Barcelona and his long-term vision of merging tiki-taka and Total Football that has shaped the modern game. Guardiola has taken so much of Cruyff's influence into his own footballing style and many of the current graduates of La Masia can thank Cruyff for his thinking about how that academy should be contributed.

We already have a lot to thank Cruyff for and that's before we consider his current stint as manager of the Catalonia team. However,
 His next, and possibly last, move in the game may be his biggest challenge: resurrecting the team his name is synonymous with.

Those youngsters lucky enough to be 13-18 right now will grow up loving Barcelona. They are the best team in the world and play the best football. Those who are growing to love football - at that age where they realise that the game they play each night after school can be so much more - will cherish the current Barcelona team and will forever link today's team with the idea of Barcelona. This is how football fans work - look at the way Sir Alex Ferguson talks about Real Madrid. He remembers how they played that evening in Glasgow when they destroyed Eintracht Frankfurt.

When I was that age, the most beautiful team in the world was Ajax and I have been besotted ever since.  The idea of Ajax appeals to me, the style of Ajax appeals to me but, increasingly, the actuality of Ajax depresses me.

It clearly depresses Cruyff as well. Ajax are still one of those evocative names of European football that even non-football lovers know about. In reality they haven't won the Eredivisie title since 2003-04 nor have they reached the quarter-finals of a European competition since the season before that.

Ajax, like many big clubs in smaller leagues, have not been helped by the changes to the Champions League format (which helps entrench power structures) nor have they been helped by the Bosman Ruling. The cumulative effect of these, and other changes, has meant that Ajax's stock has diminished.

All that said, Cruyff believes they should be a real European player again. 

In recent weeks, Cruyff has resurrected his attacks on the management of the club (a move he attempted in 2008). The plans he has put forward seem sensible. If his plans do work, it will be another success in a career of success.

The famed Ajax youth academy still does produce fine players. The Dutch team that reached the World Cup Final in 2010 contained eight graduates (Sneijder, Babel, van der Wiel, van der Vaart, Stekelenburg, Heitinga, Huntelaar, de Jong). Many more graduates fill the Ajax team and wider squad itself but Cruyff isn't worried about the quantity of graduates but rather the quality.

Other Dutch clubs have caught up in the youth development stakes. van Persie, Afellay and Robben were all developed elsewhere.

It is fair to say that since van der Vaart and Sneijder graduated between 8 and 10 years ago there hasn't been a truly great attacking talent to come through the ranks. Cruyff wants to readjust the academy's focus - focusing, as it used to do more obviously, on preparing the young players for life in the first team rather than winning an endless stream of youth titles.

Equally, Ajax's scouting has been caught up by many clubs around Holland and around the world  and, in many instances, have surpassed the Amsterdam club. Of course, Ajax still do find the odd gem (Eriksen springs to mind) but for a club like Ajax to compete on a European level they need a truly world-class scouting and academy system.  The problem is they aren't really competing properly on a Dutch level. Until that occurs, Europe is la-la-land at worst and a long-term ambition at best.

With this in mind, Cruyff 
wants to change personnel. Dennis Bergkamp to take on the role of director of the academy and Wim Jonk to lead the club's global scouting activity. 

This has led to an internecine war. The current manager of Ajax, Frank de Boer, is both a protege and an ally of Cruyff. He is in favour of Cruyff's plans - if nothing else because he'll get a permanent job. A spanner in the works, one would imagine is, that Cruyff's plans also involve Danny Bling and Jan Olde Riekerink being made redundant.

The board of directors have resigned over Cruyff's attack although they are in post until successors are found. Although the CEO, technically, is in post, his future lies in the hands of people who are likely to support Cruyff's plans in the upcoming period.

Cruyff remains an enigma. His plans - for empowering the manager and cementing de Boer's position, restructuring and reconfiguring the academy, changing personnel - are likely to be implemented but he is unlikely to take a position on the board. It is probable that he will become an advisor. A powerful advisor at that.

If Ajax can start winning Dutch trophies again and begin to improve their European performances, this may well be the last great act of the most important player in the history of the  game. Even if not, I'd still contend that no other individual has done so much for beautiful football.


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