Cruyff and the poetics of space

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Johan Cruyff, who died last week, was the most influential figure in the history of modern football. Nobody has had a comparable impact as both a player and manager.

During his long playing career from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s Cruyff was recognised as one of the all-time greats, in the elite company of Pelé, Maradona and (later) Messi, a midfielder combining outstanding technical skills with a supreme ability to read the game. Cruyff could change the course of a match in an instant through an acute pass, a sudden change of pace or a ghost-like shift in position. Rudolf Nureyev was among the many fascinated by Cruyff’s balletic atheleticism, his ability to wrongfoot opponents by lightning changes in direction executed with speed and perfect balance.

During his career with Ajax Cruyff won eight Dutch league titles, five domestic cups and three European Cups – today’s Champions League – in succession. He was the primary architect of the great Dutch national teams of the 1970s, including the 1974 side remembered as one of the best in football history. As a manager he again achieved success with Ajax before leading Barcelona to four successive Spanish league titles, the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the European Cup.

But Cruyff’s legacy goes well beyond the long list of titles and honours he accumulated as a player and a coach. His critical and lasting contribution to the sport was the development of an entirely new way of playing football, a system that some 50 years on continues to set the standard for game’s avant-garde. The Barcelona sides that have dominated European club football for the past 20 years; the Spanish teams that won three international championships within four years; the German side that won the 2014 World Cup: all of them play the game Cruyff’s way.

Navigating space

Cruyff brought a designer’s eye to the game. For him, as for any designer, the challenge was to make intelligent use of limited space, in this case, a football pitch.

A football field is a rather claustrophobic place. There isn’t much room to manoeuvre a ball in a space some 100 metres long and 50 metres wide into a goal about seven metres wide and 2.5 metres high, when there are 11 opposing players standing in the way. So the fundamental challenge for the intelligent footballing side is to devise methods to keep opening up fresh space into which the ball can be advanced. That is a challenge requiring speed of thought and movement rather than strength and physicality. The effective team can continually make new space out of nothing by forming quicksilver triangular patterns that allow the ball to be transferred swiftly from player to player, patterns that probe and locate paths through the opposition’s tangled defences.

The system requires players with the discipline and speed of thought necessary to carry out a set of simple tasks swiftly and reliably. Cruyff’s ideal player moves into space, receives the ball, passes it to a colleague, then moves into new space to start the process again, over and over, till the opposition goal comes into view. There’s no requirement here for flamboyant acts of individual expression, or for the shouldering of the other team out of the way through brute force: just a relentless focus on opening new space through an absolute submission to the system.

Cruyff worked out this new rigorous footballing methodology with coaching staff at Ajax, and took responsibility for ensuring its implementation on the pitch. The results were astounding. Ajax, led by their ‘Pythagaros in boots’, simply cut through opposing teams, achieving a complete domination of Dutch, then European club football.

The style was adopted by Holland’s national team, captained by Cruyff, and showcased unforgettably at the 1974 World Cup. The Dutch, till then one of the international game’s perennial losers, tore through established favourites such as Argentina and Brazil on their way to the final (see below). During the tournament the system came to be known as ‘Total Football‘, taking its name from the capacity of the Dutch players to move seamlessly from position to position as they wove their patterns around their bewildered opponents, defenders moving into the last third of the pitch to join attacks as necessary, forwards moving back into defensive positions to cover. Holland’s Total Football introduced a new fluidity to the game, requiring players to take up whatever position was necessary to maintain the sharp-edged triangular patterns cutting towards the opposing team’s goal.

The sheer style of the great Dutch teams Cruyff led, and those that over the years have tried to play in the same way, has earned them comparison with the most celebrated Brazilian sides. But, while Holland and Brazil have at their best shown that football can indeed be ‘the beautiful game’, the philosophies that have motivated their classic sides are quite different.

The most compelling Brazilian teams, those – say – of the 1970 and 1982 World Cups, employed a loose tactical frameworks that gave maximum scope for brilliant individual talents such as Carlos Alberto, Pelé, Gérson, Jairzinho, Rivellino and Tostão to shine. The team that ripped Italy apart in the 1970 final had a free-flowing, languid, elastic quality. But the appeal of the 1974 Dutch team was that of the beauty of the machine: sleek, efficient, each of its component parts working in harmony. The South Americans, great admirers of the Dutch way, have always noted the difference, referring to Holland as ‘The Clockwork Orange’.

Dutch Total Football manifests the qualities of design rather than art. It was developed to solve a problem – that of using space effectively to win football matches – rather than to entrance the armchair aesthete. But the rigorous application of that systematic logic elevates to the realm of the aesthetic: the subtle switches of position, the acutely angled passes, the sudden changes of pace, the weaving of intricate patterns, the patient, measured probing for an opening.

‘Total Football’ and ‘Tiki-Taka’

Despite Holland’s devastating display at the 74 World Cup the football world took some time to assimilate the new style. It was simply too new, requiring too much from an establishment invested in more traditional approaches: the Italian reliance on defence and counter-attack, the English emphasis on physicality, the South American reliance on individual flair. And though Total Football had an elegant simplicity, it was hard to implement, requiring players and coaches able to master the technical skills and mental discipline it demanded. It wasn’t until Cruyff became manager at Barcelona that he was able to develop an infrastructure capable of ensuring the system had the resources to flourish independently of his direct involvement.

At the Nou Camp Cruyff had the time and resources to refine his footballing philosophy further, developing an array of new techniques for ever more efficient exploitation of space. His Barcelona teams worked out new methods for shepherding the ball forwards through increasingly sophisticated passing patterns, evolving the ‘Tiki-Taka‘ techniques that took Total Football a stage further. Tiki-Taka places even greater emphasis on the wearing down of opposing teams by retaining possession at all costs. It draws the triangles used to transfer the ball from player to player ever more concise, allowing passes to be made at closer range, minimising the chance of the ball failing to find its target. The best Barcelona teams have have developed such robust patterns for keeping possession that they have been virtually able to pass the ball into the opponent’s net.

Cruyff established a footballing academy at Barcelona that has produced a generation of players with the spatial intelligence and technical skills necessary to play football his way. Nurtured by succeeding coaches – most notably Pep Guardiola – the academy schooled players such as Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta who formed the backbone of the Spanish side that achieved the unprecedented feat of winning three successive international championships: the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup. That side adhered closely to the Barcelona Tiki-Taka methodology, which has in turn been adopted – under Guardiola’s influence – by Bayern Munich and the German national side. It is likely that Guardiola will attempt to bring the style to England when he becomes manager of Manchester City next season.

Total Football and Dutch geography

It’s intriguing to speculate in passing where the idea for Total Football came from. How did Cruyff and his colleagues at Ajax during the 1960s conceive such a radical new way of playing the game, a system that propelled Holland from Europe’s footballing backwater to its spiritual centre?

I like the suggestion made by David Winner in his remarkable cultural history of Dutch football, Brilliant Orange, that Cruyff’s emphasis on the importance of space was inspired by the geography of the Netherlands itself. Winner – who touches on the same theme in a tribute to Cruyff written earlier this week – notes that Holland’s small size and perilous relationship with the sea makes the intelligent use of space a national imperative:

Space is an inordinately precious commodity, and for centuries the use of every square centimetre of every Dutch city, field and polder has been carefully considered and argued over. The land is controlled because as a matter of national survival it must be. The Dutch water system has to be regulated tightly because more than fifty per cent of the country is below sea level. In the west of the country the entire landscape is man-made.

More so than any other European country the Dutch landscape is a pure abstraction, a man-made construct designed to regulate the flow of water. Winner quotes architect Dirk Sijmons:

What is nature and what is artificial? You can’t say. The landscape is an abstraction in the sense that it is only points, lines and surfaces, like a painting by Mondrian. We live in a kind of inhabited mega-structure below sea level.

Winner readily concedes that there’s no record of Cruyff or his colleagues ever drawing an explicit connection between Total Football and the ongoing challenge of managing Holland’s unique geography, but – conscious or otherwise – the new footballing philosophy they pioneered was a systematic application of well-honed principles of spatial management to the limited area of the football field.

Losing the battle, winning the war

Though Cruyff transformed football he never won the biggest prize of all as a player or manager: the World Cup. Clashes with the Dutch footballing establishment prevented him from managing Holland, and his legendary 1974 team lost in the final to a determined West German side.

How they contrived to lose has always been one of football’s great mysteries. Holland scored in the first minute, then took such complete control of the game that for the first half-hour the Germans rarely touched the ball. But for whatever reason – complacency, German stubbornness – the Dutch were unable to convert their ascendancy into goals as they had done in their previous games. Germany snatched two goals and held out over the game’s closing stages against unrelenting Dutch pressure.

Dutch teams have come close in subsequent World Cups, impressing in the early stages of tournaments before losing – usually on penalties – in semi-finals. But they never came closer than in 2010 when, in a final rich in ironies, a prosaic, physical Dutch team was beaten by a Spanish team playing the Tiki-Taka style. Never one to shy from conflict or miss the opportunity for a pithy quote, Cruyff was unapolegetic in his support for Spain, saying of the Dutch team:

Sadly they played very dirty. This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style… If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they lost.

Sadly, Cruyff never lived to see Holland win the World Cup. But in a sense it was his team that won in 2010: a Spain playing the kind of football he pioneered. And though the great side he led in 1974 failed to win that tournament, its abiding reputation and ongoing impact on the game has proved the wisdom of another of Cruyff’s memorable comments:

Winning is just one day, a reputation can last a lifetime. To have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you. That’s the greatest gift.