It is six years since Johan Cruyff died. His “way of playing”, as he used to say, has never been more alive, never more expensively assembled than in Manchester where City and United will this weekend present their version of total football to a global audience measured in hundreds of millions.
The cloth is City blue, United red. The derby dates back almost a century and a half. But the coaches, Pep Guardiola and Erik ten Hag are first-hand disciples of Cruyff. They played, in Barcelona and Amsterdam, versions of the Totaal Voetbal that Rinus Michels laid down in the Ajax team built around its playmaker, Hendrik Johannes Cruijff.
That was method applied to genius, training painstakingly instilled into good players to build the platform for a star player who, in his own words, had “an instinct to do the wrong things”. None of us who witnessed it has ever forgotten the “Cruyff turn” at the 1974 World Cup where the Dutchman dragged the ball backwards between his own legs to mesmerise the Swedish defender Jan Olsson.
Olsson, now 80, said years ago that he reruns that passage of play many times. “Every time,” he said, “I think I have got the ball. Every time he surprises me. Every time I love that moment.”
And I love that spirit of Olsson, that acknowledgement that it is OK to be beaten – bamboozled – by beauty. Now, in Manchester, there are men hard at work, trying to pass on Cruyff’s demanding standards of hard work and attention to detail that goes into his brand of football.
Both head coaches are in their early fifties. The difference, of course, is
that Guardiola has a six-year head start because City’s Abu Dhabi owners
employed him in 2016 and have spent whatever it takes for Pep to replicate
(surpass, if he can) what Cruyff passed on to him at FC Barcelona.
Ten Hag was recruited barely four months ago to the other side of Manchester where, post-Sir Alex Ferguson, the Yankee hire-and-fire
managerial circus has drained the club of its once omnipotent power. Ten
Hag’s first instinct is to throw more dollars at his former club Ajax where,
with the benefit of a world academy of football coaching and scouting, the
club maintains a delightful, distinctive, Cruyffesque attacking style many times above the pay scale of its budget.
The spirits of Cruyff and Michels would smile today. Long after they left Amsterdam to implant their Total brand, both initially in Barcelona, I had the privilege of listening to these men – the artist and the architect – in their own homes.
Yes, it dates me, dramatically. But it was an education that I wouldn’t swap for the world. Michels, the master, and Cruyff, more than the pupil, were
generous evangelists even then.
They were linguists, too, because the Dutch master language to trade and because Voetbal lent itself to Latin creativity, helping Ajax and Barça become embodiments of the greatest football show on earth.
The native language of City’s current team is heavily Hispanic and Portuguese because of the fluency which starts with the distribution of goalkeeper Ederson, and the strength with which Ruben Dias and Rodri defend, the guile of João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva going forward.
Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland are different, players of forceful invention and ruthless finishing – the likes of which even the Dutch masters would have had to reinvent and integrate into their style.
And United? Ten Hag, as noted, is just starting the rebuild. He inherited
Bruno Fernandes, a close equivalent to Bernardo Silva as playmaker, but
ten Hag has also brought in Christian Eriksen, whose passing skills he coached at Ajax. Defenders Lisandro Martínez and Tyrell Malacia are also
from Dutch football. Antony is a Brazilian winger the coach employed at Ajax and persuaded United to buy.
English players are in the minority at both clubs, as they are throughout
the Premier League. Harry Maguire has fallen from captain to the sidelines at Old Trafford, though the new coach is working on Marcus Rashford and Jason Sancho in attack. City have defenders Kyle Walker and John Stones, and Guardiola has personally developed Phil Foden, and spent big on Jack Grealish and Kalvin Phillips, who have yet to make the transition from being key players at Aston Villa and Leeds United respectively to the much greater demands at the Etihad.
The bar is set higher because of the worldly collections amassed in Manchester. But going back to Cruyff in his prime, the best insight a journalist could have came when I worked with Johan on a 16-week series of “A Cruyff’s-eye View of the 1974 World Cup.”
We were VERY young. Cruyff owned the first home video machine I saw. Week by week in his Amsterdam apartment he dissected the attributes he regarded as key players in each team.
He was then aged 27, and from his personal video library illustrated what
made Gerd Müller such a predatory striker, how Kazimierz Deyna guided
Poland, how Roberto Rivellino bent those free-kicks, how Billy Bremner
and Johan Neeskens breathed fire into the Scots and the Dutch.
Moving around the salt and pepper and Camel cigarettes – occasionally
directing his two infant daughters to adopt positions – he illustrated his
vision of play. Pep and Ten will do something similar in their dressing
rooms this weekend.