Grand master Cruyff unsure how Van Gaal and Manchester United will fare

‘It’s not a question about the quality of the players, or are they good enough . . . to make a mixture of good players is very difficult’

Dutch legend Johan Cruyff during the annual Open Day of the Johan Cruyff Foundation at the Olympic Stadium in AmsterdamPhotograph: Koen van Weel / EPA

Johan Cruyff has come home to Amsterdam and, on a cloudy day in the old city where he was born, grew up and made his professional debut for Ajax 50 years ago this November, he moves with good-humoured elegance through the crowds calling out his name and trying to touch him. At the Olympic Stadium, walking around an arena which has been taken over for the day by his Foundation, this is an exercise in the familiar art of being Johan Cruyff. The 67-year-old reacts to the adoration, and even being cuddled by a grown man dressed up as a "Cruyffie" mascot, with a wry smile. This is how it feels to have been a football icon for five decades.

Alongside his earliest hero Alfredo Di Stéfano, who died this summer, Pelé and Diego Maradona, Cruyff belongs to a giant quartet who illuminate football with their almost mythic reputations. Cruyff stands out in even sharper relief for, while Di Stéfano succeeded as a coach, only the Dutchman can claim a sustained impact on the game from the touchline during his years in charge of Barcelona. Di Stéfano once complained of football management that "apart from working with the young, it's the most horrible profession that could exist".

Cruyff has always thought differently. During his remarkable tenure at Barcelona, from 1988 to 1996, he used the speed, space and tactical fluidity of totaalvoetbal [Total Football], which he and Rinus Michels, his coach at Ajax, conjured up together, to transform a moribund team and build an enduring legacy.

Johan Cruyff (centre) signs autographs during the annual Open Day of the Johan Cruyff Foundation at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. Photograph: Koen van Weel / EPA

Barcelona's masters of tiki-taka, like Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, always stressed everything they did was based on the Cruyff template. From his creation of the youth academy at La Masia to the whirligig of training rondos (piggy-in-the-middle routines), which perfected their purity of possession, to the relentless pressing of the opposition, Barcelona and Spain used Cruyff's model to dominate European and world football. That era has faded, reaching its symbolic end on a World Cup night in June when Holland, coached by Louis van Gaal, with whom Cruyff shares a mutual antipathy, destroyed Spain 5-1.


Of course Van Gaal is now at Manchester United, struggling to overcome the problems of the post-Ferguson regime, while Cruyff is unshackled from the pressures of football. The life of Cruyff is still exhausting – and he explains wearily he has to fly back to Barcelona, his other "home", that night. Yet, right now, being Van Gaal is much more difficult.

We retreat to a secluded lounge overlooking a typical Amsterdam canal. Cruyff, who is friendly and animated but reluctant to start another war with Van Gaal, with whom he has admitted to “a bad chemistry”, can afford to take a laconic view of his fellow Dutchman’s travails. Asked if he expects Van Gaal to succeed at Old Trafford, Cruyff shrugs: “We hope so because it would be good for Dutch football and other Dutch managers. But how it will go? You never know. It will take time.”

In 2011 Cruyff, who was then on the board at Ajax, went to court to block the re-appointment of Van Gaal at the club they supported as boys. They were also part of the same Ajax squad in the early 1970s when, as his understudy, Van Gaal had no chance of replacing Cruyff as the star forward. Cruyff established himself as the finest player in Europe while Van Gaal laboured in relative obscurity at clubs such as Royal Antwerp and Sparta Rotterdam.

When Cruyff moved into coaching, at Ajax and Barcelona, Van Gaal eventually followed him to both clubs. The younger man, by four years, found his true self in management and he emerged as head coach at Ajax in 1991. Cruyff and Van Gaal were already rumoured to have become further estranged – apparently after a misunderstanding at a Christmas dinner in 1989. The rivalry resurfaced three years ago when the Ajax board appeared to wait until Cruyff was back in Barcelona to call a meeting which approved Van Gaal’s return. Cruyff resorted to legal means to challenge that decision. In the end, despite the court ruling against Cruyff, Van Gaal never made it back to Ajax. Instead, in 2012, he became Holland’s manager.

So Cruyff pauses when asked again for his gut feeling in regard to Van Gaal’s prospects with United. “I don’t know because they almost bought and created a new team. So now you have to fix it together – the team itself. It’s not a question anymore about the quality of the players, or are they good enough. But to make a mixture of good players is very difficult.”

Does he see any logic in United's transfer policy, which now has Van Gaal juggling the attacking talents of Radamel Falcao, Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney, Ángel di María, Adnan Januzaj and Juan Mata? "There should be a logic always but the big problem is to manage all these players. It's the same thing with Barcelona. They now have (Luis) Suarez, (Lionel)Messi, Neymar – how do you play them together? If you see them individually then, of course, they are great players. It's the same at Manchester United. Individually they are great but they have to play like a team.

“So then you get another problem. They are all famous. They earn a lot of money both on and off the field. How can you create a team and bring all these egos together? The main goal for Manchester United is for them to play well – and not have a player saying, ‘I play well, I scored two goals’. Because if I score two goals but three goals go into our net then we lose. They provide (Van Gaal) with a lot of good players but he has to turn them into a team. And you can’t arrange the chemistry of the team in two weeks. It needs time.”

Could it take Van Gaal a whole season to transform United’s seemingly scattergun transfer business into a coherent team? “No, no,” Cruyff says. “That’s too long. But it doesn’t mean they will win the league. But you can see a better performance every week and you can aim for a better fit as a team in the details. And (Van Gaal) is a person of details. So it could be possible that things work. But, once again, can these people develop their own game for the sake of the team? It’s not easy.”

Do he and Van Gaal share any similarities in their respective football philosophies? “No. Not much. Of course we’re both Dutch and that is always a (shared) basis. But I always think of being in charge of the speed and of the ball. Maybe he knows more than me but I always want control of the ball. When I don’t have control of the ball what do I do? I press to get it back. It’s a way of defending. But more important is that I like to have the ball.

Cruyff has said before: “Van Gaal has a good vision of football but it is not mine. He wants to gel winning teams and has a militaristic way of working with his tactics. I want individuals to think for themselves.” Does Van Gaal remain “militaristic” in his stress of “the collective”? Cruyff nods. “Yes. But I’ve always been an individual who likes to create something himself within a team performance. So I am happy if my players start thinking. (Pep)Guardiola is a good example. As a player he was tactically perfect but he can’t defend. That’s what he said. So I said: ‘I agree – in a limited way. You’re a bad defender if you have to cover this whole area. But if you have to defend this one small area then I think you’re the best. So take care that there are people there to help you cover the other areas. As long as you do that you can be a very good defender.’ And he did become very good.”

He has also criticised Van Gaal’s supposed reluctance to focus on training individual players – and he reiterates this point. “That’s why I so believe in individual coaching sessions to prepare players properly. You have to take care of the individual for the benefit of the team – as our work with Guardiola showed.”

Guardiola became one of Cruyff's disciples and eventual successors as Barcelona manager before he took a sabbatical and then moved to Bayern Munich last year. Cruyff admits his admiration for Bayern but, at the same time, "I still like Barça very much. I also like Madrid. It's totally different to my style but they fit things together. Now they are a team where you wait to see what will happen. In midfield they have three players who are touching the ball perfectly but they have three forwards who need space to play. So where will it go? We will see. Barça also went back a little because of the people they put as coaches. I'm not saying they're good or bad coaches but it's very difficult to control a Messi and a Neymar. If you don't control them it's a problem. It's the same thing with David Moyes and Manchester United. Some people can control certain players and you need that – otherwise it will not work. Moyes is a good coach – just not for Man United."

Cruyff shakes his head and moves on to a different tangent. “Football is now all about money. There are problems with the values within the game. And this is sad because football is the most beautiful game. We can play it in the street. We can play it everywhere. Everyone can play it but those values are being lost. We have to bring them back.”

Does he believe that the situation in England, where the Premier League swamps the development of the national game, in contrast to the Bundesliga and Germany, will change? "Hopefully," Cruyff says. "In the Premier League the money is a problem but I don't really know how to control it. If you look at England or even Spain you see the problems. How many England players are in the first four teams in the Premier League? How many Spanish forwards are playing for Barcelona or Real Madrid?"

We talk a couple days after Roy Hodgson's team impressed in a 2-0 defeat of Switzerland but Cruyff's wider point about the stymied development of young English players, and even their Spanish counterparts at the peak of La Liga, remain pertinent. And so it seems poignant that, back home in Amsterdam, Cruyff should mention the English coaches who helped him emerge at Ajax in the early 1960s.

"I think of Vic Buckingham who picked me [for Cruyff's Ajax debut in November 1964]. But even before Vic [who coached Cruyff at both Ajax and Barcelona] there was Keith Spurgeon. He's not famous but he was one of my first coaches. I learnt my English from Keith Spurgeon. He had some small children and I was young too and so we spoke the language together and it was fantastic."

English coaches are not usually known for their tactical innovations – so were Spurgeon and Buckingham more open-minded than their successors? “They were open-minded but, tactically, you have to see where we were at that time. Football in Holland then was good but it was not really professional. They gave us some professionalism because they were much further down the road. But the tactical thinking came later with Michels. It started then.”

Cruyff turned Michels’ vision into a practical reality, especially at Barcelona, but it is striking how he seems even more proud of his work with the foundation that bears his name. After a day in which he has devoted himself to the cause of helping disabled children develop through playing various sports, Cruyff says simply: “It’s beautiful. And the crazy thing is that it gives you more. Of course I am trying to help them but they are helping me too. The president of the Paralympics once told me the difference between able-bodied and disabled people. He said: ‘Disabled people don’t think about what they don’t have. They just think about what they do have.’ If only we could all learn to think like this.

“We have our institute with a lot of young people who can help out their federations and clubs and sports. It’s fantastic to see this happen because they always surprise me. If you see what they can do and how they can develop as a person you learn so many things.”

The old footballer appears to share Di Stéfano’s pleasures in the consolations of “working with the young”. And, with his own legacy as a player and coach enshrined, Cruyff can watch Van Gaal from a detached distance – and wonder whether his rival might still succumb, even fleetingly, to Di Stéfano’s more searing belief that football management is “the most horrible profession that could exist”.

Cruyff appears even more interested in how Guardiola will fare in his second season at Bayern. He steered the champions to a runaway defence of their Bundesliga title – but they could not retain the Champions League trophy which they had won under Jupp Heynckes in 2013. But Cruyff sees the best tenets of his philosophy within Guardiola. "Yes, he's got it," he says of Guardiola. "Normally I would say that the most important thing for a coach is that he [OVERCAME]difficulties when he was young. Look at Guardiola and myself. Like me he was very thin and so he had to take care of his technique. You see it with Iniesta and Messi too. They must do something quick otherwise they will never get there. It means that they are aware of all the details. You have to think quicker and see more things. And if you see more things you can help more people."

Cruyff looks across the old Olympic arena in Amsterdam and, with a familiar shrug, he says, finally: “It’s like everything in football – and life. You need to look, you need to think, you need to move, you need to find space, you need to help others. It’s very simple in the end.”

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