Few individuals have had such an enduring impact upon what we think constitutes beautiful football than Johan Cruyff.
As a playmaking forward in the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s, Cruyff oozed inimitable style as he bent games to his will and thrilled the world with his eponymous turn.
An icon of his era and arguably the greatest European footballer ever to play the game, Cruyff’s impact as a coach was somehow even more profound.
The irresistible approach of his Barcelona “Dream Team” in the early 1990s brought a maiden European trophy to Camp Nou along with four consecutive LaLiga titles. It is a legacy that sets the standard for the Catalan giants to this day
Beyond that, he switched on a generation of fans to the frictionless wonder of Barca’s positional play, not to mention a host of tacticians whose deeds continued to burnish his considerable reputation.
On the fifth anniversary of his death, we look at five of Cruyff’s most notable disciples.
— Johan Cruyff (@JohanCruyff) March 24, 2021
“He is like the Godfather of Dutch football,” Frank Rijkaard said of the man who coached him at Ajax in the mid-1980s before his tactical reputation was firmly established at Barcelona, while Cruyff’s great mentor Rinus Michels also coached Rijkaard with the national team
Even though Rijkaard was not associated with Cruyff’s most famous team, he followed in his old boss’ footsteps by taking over as Barcelona head coach following a relative fallow period in 2003.
The arrival of Ronaldinho revitalised the ailing Blaugrana and Rijkaard enjoyed the fruits of La Masia’s finest generation, as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi came to the fore.
Back-to-back LaLiga titles and the 2005-06 Champions League were the highlights of a 273-game reign. Only Cruyff (421) has led Barca more often in all competitions.
After the Rijkaard era ambled to a bloated end, Barca turned to the man who has done more than any other to keep Cruyff’s vision at the forefront of world football.
“Cruyff painted the chapel, and Barcelona coaches since merely restore and improve it,” said Pep Guardiola, whose restoration sparkled beyond all reasonable expectations.
Barca won three consecutive LaLiga crowns and two Champions Leagues – the first as part of a 2008-09 treble.
Unlike Cruyff, who never coached again after leaving Barca, and Rijkaard, who maybe should have followed suit and not endured underwhelming stints with Galatasaray and Saudi Arabia, Guardiola spread the gospel far and wide.
His Bayern Munich won three out of three Bundesligas, while Manchester City have set a record 100-points margin in the Premier League and are closing in on the third top-flight title of Guardiola’s trophy-laden tenure.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona_cat) March 24, 2021
One of Guardiola’s legacies after leaving Barcelona was any potential successors would have a stronger chance of getting the job if they had a link to Cruyff, La Masia or both. Luis Enrique followed Guardiola’s path from Barca B to first team and even emulated the treble.
As a back-up forward at Camp Nou between 1988 and 1990, Valverde was an unflashy squad member of Cruyff went about empire building, a description that could also be applied to a strong coaching career as he earned respect during spells in charge of Espanyol, Olympiacos and Athletic Bilbao.
His Cruyff association, as much as those efforts in the dugout was a factor in him being appointed to replace Luis Enrique in 2017.
Despite inheriting the saga of Neymar’s departure and an increasingly muddled sporting policy, Valverde won back-to-back LaLiga titles and helmed a record 43-match unbeaten run in LaLiga between April 2017 and May 2018 that began under his predecessor.
The shambles that followed under Quique Setien, culminating in a shambolic 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League quarter-finals, spoke well of the tight ship Valverde ran. After that failed experiment, Barca reverted to a familiar type.
Ronald Koeman became the club’s fifth Dutch head coach after Michels, Cruyff, Louis van Gaal and Rijkaard.
Despite outstripping Mauricio Pochettino’s win percentage at Southampton by 47.4 to 35.2, Koeman’s work in the Premier League did not have other elite clubs beating down his door – much less his spell at Valencia.
His first season in the job he craved has not been without considerable turbulence, but a recent switch to a particularly Cruyffian 3-4-3 (hello, Frenkie de Jong in the middle of the back three!) and the apparent backing of recently elected president Joan Laporta suggests brighter days ahead.
— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) March 24, 2021
Even less prominent than Valverde as a Cruyff player, Julen Lopetegui was Barcelona’s reserve goalkeeper between 1994 and 1997. But again, an unshakeable impression was made.
“As soon as I had the first training session with Johan I thought ‘this is different to all other coaches’, he was brilliant,” he told BBC Sport in 2019.
“He planted the seed for other coaches to take on his ideas and develop those ideas. He was one step ahead of the rest.”
The same could not be said for Lopetegui as he exited two dream jobs with Spain and Real Madrid in the space of a nightmare six months, but a cathartic Europa League triumph with Sevilla last season showed a coach impressively rebuilding his reputation.
Among coaches to have managed at least 40 Sevilla games in LaLiga, none can better Lopetegui’s 54.5 per cent win percentage.