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What Koeman’s failure means for Total Football

Is the Cruyffian philosophy dead?

Johan Cruyff

I would argue that Johann Cruyff is the most important tactical figure in the history of the sport of football. His impact on the game is unquestionably being felt even though it has now been a year and a half since his death.

The man known for inspiring ‘total football’ in the Netherlands and ‘tiki taka’ in Spain saw many of his former players become prominent managers, and many others (like Vicente Del Bosque for the Spanish national team) adopt his ideas.

In the wake of Ronald Koeman’s firing, an article from the Guardian suggested that Cruyff’s philosophy has failed where it was not part of the culture in the way that it is in Ajax and Barcelona. As evidence of this, they pointed to the managerial careers of Frank de Boer and Frank Rijkaard, as well as Koeman.

The easy answer here would be to trot out Pep Guardiola as the example of this philosophy thriving at the highest level, after all, he left Barcelona and did just fine. However, Manchester City essentially prepared for his arrival for five years, with sojourning convert to the possession style game Manuel Pellegrini coaching and Barcelona man Txiki Begiristain pulling the strings in the front office.

West Bromwich Albion v Manchester City - Premier League Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images

Bayern, his other non-Barcelona destination, had such an abundance of talent compared to the rest of their league that it’s rather hard to tell anything from his results there. Another easy answer, Del Bosque and his positively dominant Spain team, was too largely composed of La Masia graduates to really disprove their thesis.

So, is there a case to be made about the failure of Cruyff’s philosophy? I do not think so, and here’s why. The Guardian article made only passing reference to what I consider to be the most important fact in understanding the Cruyff legacy, and that is the dual nature of it. The impact of Cruyff in the Netherlands is, I would argue, more muted in there than it is in Spain.

On the surface, this sounds preposterous, but understand the difference of his relationship to the two places. Cruyff was a product of Dutch football. What he did in Ajax was, in both his own mind and in reality, a continuation of the impact of Rinus Michels on Dutch football.

Arsene Wenger actually said as much:

I have a big respect in general for the Dutch school, and Johan Cruyff especially, because let's not forget he is the product of a school in Holland which was around before him. People like Rinus Michels, who influenced his players too, because this is not an isolated way of thinking. Johan Cruyff had it too - that personality, the character to say 'yes, I believe in this game, and I'm strong and brave enough to apply it on the pitch.' That's what I admired.

So the whole of the Netherlands was already teaching their footballers something akin to Cruyff’s idea’s when Cruyff came through, and in doing so produced something that was both very similar to Cruyff ,but also deeply influenced by non-Cruyffian values.

In short, Dutch football would still be based on the concepts of total football and their domestic league would still feature those classic Dutch 4-3-3s even if Johann Cruyff had never stepped into game management.

A perfect example of this is Louis Van Gaal. Van Gaal and Cruyff were nothing alike, deeply disliked each other, yet both were distinctly heirs to the Michels style of play in their own way.

Manchester United v Crystal Palace - The Emirates FA Cup Final Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images

In Spain we see something a bit different. The nation’s historic flair for attacking play made Cruyff a natural fit as both a player and a manager, but the impact that he left in coaches like Luis Enrique clearly has something distinct from the Dutch school. Enrique’s Barcelona squads had a blend of tiki taka possession and blistering counter-attacking that is unlike anything you’d see in the Dutch game.

A better example which also acts to counter the Guardian claim that Cruyffians need Cruyffian clubs can be seen in current Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde. Valverde spent two years playing at Barcelona for Johann Cruyff, but has made his mark at a wide variety of teams, most notably at his most recent stop (which is also the first club he managed for) Athletic Bilbao.

Bilbao has a club philosophy entirely distinct from Cruyffianism, everything is about their historic Basque identity there and they have been in the top flight for over 85 consecutive years by playing their own way. This did not stop Valverde from being very successful there.

As Pep Guardiola said: “Cruyff painted the chapel, and [we] must merely restore and improve it.”

This is the job of managers that step into places like Ajax and Barcelona. But Cruyff’s coaching legacy is much more than that. A wide variety of managers have continued his ideas in one form or another, and they have done so at a wide variety of clubs, but when we go to inspect that impact it is not as simple as simply saying “oh, this man played for Cruyff” or “this man is from the Dutch school so we will count him as a Cruyffian.”

We have to look deeper at the managers who took aspects of his ideas, and we have to look at what else they combined them with.

At Everton, we saw a distinct variety of this. Ronald Koeman once said “sometimes when I need to make decisions I go back and ask myself what [Cruyff] would do in that time or what kind of decision he would make, because he was a really big inspiration”.

However, Koeman also historically preferred strikers like Graziano Pellè who were absolutely nothing like the classic Cruyff 9. Cruyff deployed Bakero as a “9” and then had crashing wingers like Stoichov. The ‘9’ is a creator not a poacher. Watch him explain it below:

I would strongly contend that Koeman’s failures lie in his departures from Johann Cruyff.

For instance, one feature of Cruyff ball as mentioned above is that true wide player who is a finisher and a crashing winger. Koeman used just such a player in Sadio Mane while at Southampton to great success. Where is that player at Everton? Where is even the quote from Koeman saying he was looking for that player?

Everton v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images

The Toffees had so many problems with a lack of pace and true width this season and I put it directly on Koeman departing from Cruyff, not on him relying on Cruyff as the Guardian would have you to believe.

The bottom line is this. The Cruyff method is still having tremendous success in world football. I had hoped we could build something of that variety here under Ronald Koeman, but the Dutchman refused to do it. Ultimately, that failure is uniquely his and not a failure of the school his style is loosely based on.