opinions | 2016-09-01
How can we measure Johan Cruyff's greatness as a footballer?
Trying to define where the Dutchman rank among the best ever players
Try to build a team that is as competitive as possible by using only one player and his clones for all ten outfield positions. Which player would you choose? Johan Cruyff is my choice. Does that mean Cruyff is the best player of all time? No, it doesn’t. I did not choose him because he is the best player of all time, but because he is the most complete. Johan Cruyff truly was the total footballer.
Most descriptions of Cruyff are about his understanding of the game and we will come to that. But first I want to talk about his physique for a bit. Cruyff was as close to having the perfect body for playing football as any player in the history of the game. Obviously different positions ask for different body types but Cruyff’s physique was at the intersection of most of them. First of all he had pace. And I mean lots of pace. He was easily among the fastest players of the decade. Then he was an extremely agile player. It was once said that he could have been a better dancer than Nureyev. That might be wrong but it gives you an idea about the level of agility we’re talking about. Have a look at some slow-motion recordings of Cruyff’s dribbling style. He shifts his weight in no time at all and his opponents have no chance to keep up with him. He has the agility of a player ten centimeters smaller than him. Usually pace and agility come at a price, and players that combine these traits lack strength. Not on Johan Cruyff's case. He was more than able to hold his own against bullish man-markers. He was also quite good at jumping, enough to beat players like Schwarzenbeck.
I can’t think of no other player who combines all these traits. Someone like Cristiano Ronaldo lacks the agility. Messi lacks height. To name just two examples. Maybe peak Pelé comes closest, although I think he wasn’t as agile as Cruyff.
Johan Cruyff was a football idealist. A lot of what made him great (and even some things that stop him from being the greatest) can be summarized this way. His game pushed the boundaries of what was thought to be possible on a football pitch. In some aspects he has not been bettered yet. He, just like the Ajax team he played in, strived for football utopia. Obviously, neither he nor his team reached it, but they produced some of the finest and most successful football ever seen along the way.
His idealistic streak is most obvious in his decision making. Like every other truly great player Cruyff made mostly good decisions and you can’t do that without a healthy dose of realism, but among the greats the Dutchman certainly made more idealistic decisions than most of them. Like Robert Kennedy, Cruyff, when confronted with a situation, seemed to ask himself “Why not?” rather than “Why?”. Why not try to dribble past four players and play two consecutive one-twos at breakneck speed? Why not advance towards the ball instead of retreat from the ball when you have just lost possession? Why not eschew traditional positions and simply play everywhere?– why not?
Cruyff’s idealism, coupled with his physique and his excellent technique, made him one of the best and a true revolutionary. But what made him great also stopped him from being the greatest, at least in my eyes. Given his potential, he could have been the best of the bunch. Better than Di Stéfano, Pelé, maybe even than Messi. I think he is in fact better than none of them. He’s a great and among the greatest, but not the one to stand above all.
Idealism comes at a price. When you’re trying what others don’t dare to try, when you’re pushing the boundaries and enter uncharted territory, you’re bound to make mistakes. There were some games when every other pass from Cruyff went astray, when he gave the ball away frequently, sometimes in very dangerous situations. When you watch a highlight video of his dribbling skills, you will see many great runs by the Dutchman. But there is really just one great solo goal by him on these videos and it comes very late in his career. Why not dribble past 4 players and play two consecutive one-twos at breakneck speed? Well, because there is usually a less risky, more rational way to play. Why not eschew traditional positions and simply play everywhere? Well, because it can create chaos not only for the opponent but for your own team, too.
It’s the old plight of the revolutionary, you will get lauded for your ideas but usually someone else will be more successful because he takes some of your ideas and adds a bit of pragmatism to them. Take Messi, for example. His playing style shares similarities with Cruyff’s and his Barcelona team is heavily influenced by the Dutchman, but he is a far more pragmatic and rational player. He, too, will occasionally dribble past four players but by and large he won’t overcomplicate things. Johan wasn’t exactly a top professional. He clearly loved playing football but was not as ambitious and determined as, for example, Alfredo Di Stéfano. His form was at times erratic and there were sub-par seasons.
To decide who was the best player in the seventies is a tough task, with the Barcelona legend and Beckenbauer as the obvious candidates. Ultimately Cruyff was even more influential for Ajax and the Dutch national team than Beckenbauer was for Bayern Munich and Germany. He was their mastermind, worth three or more players and at least half a manager. Beckenbauer himself said that Cruyff was the better player of them two and for this decade at least I tend to agree with him.
Johan Cruyff, the total footballer and one, but not the best player of all time. Here is the ultimate video for his fans.
Anything wrong? Send your correction.
This article is part of Team Of The Decade in the seventies, you can read it here.
WRITTEN BY: Lukas Tank
Student of philosophy and admirer of excellence & beauty in football. Especially fond of Guardiola's Barça and Sergio Busquets. Also has a blog: footballarguments.wordpress.com