The outstanding number 14, Johan Cruyff sadly passed away last Thursday morning and it is a great loss to both people who knew him personally and the greater football community, who have lost one of the best – a true genius with the ball at his feet and a footballing brain second to none.
You may be thinking what does Cruyff's tragic passing have to do with Rangers manager Mark Warburton? Well I would like to explain throughout this piece where I feel there is numerous clear comparisons and identical parts of their footballing ideology.
Firstly however, we should focus on the differences between the two. Clearly Johan Cruyff will be forever remembered for both his on field exploits and the incredible off field work he conducted as manager - along with the foundations he put in place specifically at Barcelona La Masia complex where they are reaping those rewards today.
Obviously the main difference is in regards to their playing careers: Mr Warburton started his off as a youth player at Leicester City under Rangers icon Jock Wallace before dropping down to non league club Enfield and then moving on to Boreham Wood; whilst Johan Cruyff would go on to become one of the best ever to grace the beautiful game.
Cruyff's playing days started with Ajax where he made a scoring début at the age of just 17 before becoming a cult hero and icon of Amsterdam winning the European Cup in 1971, 1972 and 1973. Under the innovative Ajax coach Rinus Michels an era of “Total Football” commenced and in Cruyff, Michels had the perfect player with excellent skill, first touch, pace and vision to put his ideas into devastating practice.
Cruyff subsequently moved on to Barcelona in 1973 after a very successful time at Ajax. The move to Barcelona was partly to spite an attempt to sell him to Real Madrid, and with Barcelona struggling, his arrival sparked a new found belief and confidence. Thrashing Real Madrid 5-0 at the Bernabeu, the team would go on to win the league title and Cruyff would also go on to win the Balon D'or three times in his illustrious football career.
Cruyff would then go on to America with the Los Angeles Aztecs before an uninspiring move to Levante, eventually returning to Ajax where he would famously pass that penalty before receiving the ball again for a tap in and help win two league titles in a row.
Cruyff finished his career with Feyenoord after Ajax never renewed his contract and he helped them win their first league title in a decade along with the KNVB Cup with Cruyff being voted Dutch footballer of the year for the fifth time in his career.
Clearly, in terms of playing career, both are absolutely miles apart with Warburton having a financial trading background before coming into football coaching. Indeed, Warburton, a very unique individual, going back to his time with Leicester he had this to say about training under Jock Wallace:
“We had runs on sand-dunes, running until we threw up. I learned a lot from that, never treating a player that way.”
On top of his playing successes, Cruyff will be remembered equally well for his off-field work, identifying Barcelona's modern footballing philosophy along with the work he put into restructuring the now revered La Masia set up.
Going back to Cruyff's scoring début for Ajax at just 17 he was later asked if he was nervous making his full first team appearance, his reply speaks volumes:
“No, I saw these players everyday I wasn't nervous, I was in and out of the dressing room all of the time.”
The gap between the Rangers first team and youth sides is now less obvious and various development players are regularly training with the first team. Meanwhile the introduction of the same tactical system throughout our age groups will be vital going forward in helping put the youngsters at ease. These factors are all in place at La Masia.
It seems obvious that Mark Warburton enjoys youth development having worked as a youth coach in different roles at Watford; then putting his faith in younger players as manager at Brentford and Rangers. Furthermore, the work he and Craig Mulholland have put in to restructure the youth department is also impressive despite being only 8 months into their long term vision.
Tactically speaking there is very clear footballing philosophies which I had spotted a while ago with particular similarities to the way Barcelona play. Please don't misquote me and say we play exactly like (or as well as) Barcelona but our ideology is similar - as we play short from the goalkeeper, short and quick passing at the right time with our complete wing backs often pushed on to create an extra man scenario. It is high risk, adventurous football.
Barcelona of today do that by pushing their wing backs high up and Cruyff's Barcelona did the same via either their left or right “side back” of his defensive three in a 3-4-3 as a marauding forward on the wing. With that the aim is to create openings via the spare man without losing the team shape - placing a massive importance on taking care of the ball before looking to overload an area via short, quick passing and shifting the ball,. By contrast, Rangers favour a 4-3-3 which earlier in the season was more of a (2-3-2-3).
Mark Warburton conducted an interview upon hearing of Cruyff's passing last week and you get the feeling that he is speaking of an idol and someone he bases his managerial career on:
“As a coach, you look at the work he did at Ajax and Barcelona, the principles he put into practice and the philosophies. When you speak to people at those huge clubs, they talk of that man in complete reverence. There is no doubt on the impact he had on the game, both on and off the field.”
Tactically Warburton's sides look to press opposition players heavily so they have no time on the ball and make mistakes. For me this out-of-possession work is also vital to Barca; they hunt in packs instantly, often winning the ball back high in threatening areas. It could be argued Rangers must be more consistent and aggressive in this approach as when doing this we completely dominate the opposition and create openings due to the opposition not having time to regroup defensively. However as the recent 3-2 defeat to Falkirk shows we also need to be far more clinical from dominant positions whilst maintaining 100% concentration for the full 90 minutes. Warburton's team and system is very good but if we slack off, we are open to being punished.
Moving on to supporter opinions, Graham Hunter wrote the following in a tribute piece about Barcelona fans attitudes to what Cruyff was looking to achieve at the start of his Barcelona managerial career via his total football philosophy:
“Initially, the pair had to fight against, to change, was a baying Camp Nou mob that wanted quick, direct, lowest-common-denominator football. Direct, aggressive and brusque like some of the stuff served up in England at its worst. When Cruyff taught patience, strategy, passing, possession, position and artfulness, large sections of the Camp Nou booed and jeered. "Lump it in the box" was a regular Catalan chant.”
Whilst there isn't a “baying mob” at Rangers game there may well be some similarities to how a minority of our support voice their concerns.
Warburton also had this to say in regards to Cruyff's Ajax legacy, within this statement it is clear the respect he has for what he achieved and the reliance on technical ability is very clear in his own Rangers side:
“His legacy is taking the game to a new level in terms of technical skill and execution. Look at all the Ajax players who came through the academy, so many great names, so many outstanding players, and he started a lot of that off.”
Warburton clearly rates Cruyff as one of the best to grace the pitch but more so looks up to him as an idol in terms of a coaching influence and what he looks to achieve himself. Here he left this excellent segment in terms of Cruyff's time at Barcelona and implementing certain structures and philosophies:
“The Barcelona we know and love today is down to Cruyff more than anyone else. Make no mistake about that. And then when he became Barcelona manager, the 4-3-3 system, Tiki-Taka philosophy, the idea this is how football should and would be played at the Camp Nou was all him. You simply cannot copy La Masia overnight. This is a place that keeps churning out players, and Cruyff had a huge part in implementing that. All credit to him, what a legacy to leave behind.”
Obviously, I'm not suggesting that Mark Warburton will have the same managerial success as Cruyff did. However it is fair to argue that the total football ideology that Cruyff played under and then implemented at Barcelona: the restructuring of their youth football department and the reliance on young, technical players within an attacking structure reliant on positioning, vision, passing and taking care of the ball are virtues that they both share - whether that be in a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 structure.
To conclude, Cruyff leaves behind a legacy that few in football will ever be able to come close to and he sums it up perfectly below:
"Winning is just one day. Reputation lasts a lifetime. To have your own style, to have people copy you, admire you. That's the greatest gift."
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