Johan Cruyff - Modern Football's Founding Father

In today's world, it's not often people are united. Religion, politics and wealth split viewpoints down the centre, ignite violence and create distance between us - even though we are far more similar than we like to admit.

Football, however, is something that can mitigate those differences, even if it's just for a small moment of time. I'm not saying it doesn't create violence or distance, because it does. Football is an undeniably tribal sport. But it's a tribal sport many adore. A brave tackle, a sublime piece of skill or a crucial goal can instantly be appreciated by the masses, but visionaries are treasured. Philosophies, remembered. Pioneers of the game, admired. 

Yesterday we lost Johan Cruyff, a man who was all of the above, a true revolutionary of football. And a time has come again in which people of difference and diversity have joined together to celebrate the life and achievements of a figure who shaped the game we all love today, so dramatically. 

"Someone who has juggled the ball in the air during a game, after which four defenders of the opponent get the time to run back, that’s the player people think is great. I say he has to go to a circus."

Unfortunately I wasn't fortunate to watch Cruyff play in the flesh, but I spent more hours than I should have last night scouring YouTube and other sources for anything I could on the man. Not many players have a swagger like he did, an aura like he did, let alone have the ability to make the other 21 players on the pitch seem peripheral. 

A conductor, a finisher, a showman, he could do things on the pitch which no other player could dream of doing. The Cruyff turn. It's not often that you innovate a piece of skill which is still as effective as it was the first time you did it - decades later. His trademark swivel resulted in Swedish defender Jan Olsson nearly turning his neck around 360 degrees, a moment he still chuckles at 42 years later after it happened. 

A fruitful playing career spanning 13 years saw him win nine Eredivisie titles, three European Cups, a Spanish league title, a World Cup runners-up medal and 48 international caps for his beloved Oranje. As a manager, too, his idealistic and philosophical mind saw him win a European Cup, two European Cup Winners’ Cups and four Spanish league titles. The insistence on playing his style, 'the right way', made him one of the most influential figures in the history of the game.

"Players today can only shoot with their laces. I could shoot with the inside, laces, and outside of both feet. In other words, I was six times better than today’s players."

Along with his turn, the phrase most associated with Cruyff is totaalvoetball, or 'total football' to you and I. A tactical approach in which no player occupies a fixed outfield role. Total football's success depends largely on the adaptability of each footballer within the team, in particular the ability to quickly switch positions depending on the on-field situation. The theory requires players to be comfortable in multiple positions; hence, it places high technical and physical demands on them. 

Despite Real Madrid, Santos and even Burnley testing out similar theories during the 1950s, it was announced to the world during the 1974 World Cup finals in West Germany. Holland were dramatically beaten in the final by the host nation but, with Cruyff at the forefront of it all, they were arguably the most exciting, memorable national side of their era. When Cruyff retired from playing and eventually moved to manage Barcelona, his revolutionary new style became the envy of the footballing world and has been replicated by many, globally, in the modern game. 

His life post-football led to the creation of the the Johan Cruyff Foundation, which has provided more than 200 pitches in 22 countries for children of all backgrounds to play together, his work earning him the Uefa Grassroots award in 2009. Simply put, he loved football. He lived it, he breathed it. He knew how he wanted to play it, he knew how we wanted others to play it, but most of all he just wanted to it to be played. 

"Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is."

Ajax. Barcelona. Feyenoord The Netherlands. His fingerprint has been left on each of these clubs, both as a figure on and off the pitch. But not only will these clubs and national sides feel great loss at his passing, the world of football will feel great loss. But, we can take solace in the fact that his genius, his vision, his influence are immortalised in the game that we love. Now that's a legacy. 

David Alaba - Der Komplette Fußballspieler

Der komplette Fußballspieler. The complete footballer, for those that aren’t fluent in German (Google translate) like me. It’s not often you can refer to a footballer as 'complete’ due to the word being simply defined as doing or being something to the greatest extent or degree. Total. But when you look at Bayern München’s David Alaba, exceptions can be made.

In the ever-changing climate of modern football, versatility is an increasingly important quality. Players are often asked to play in different positions, different roles and different systems on a weekly basis. Whilst in the past we have seen players ‘fill in’ elsewhere, we are now witnesses to the proper development of what some describe as ‘the universal player’, a player who has the ability to do most things required on a football pitch in a fashion that would be beneficial to both his team and himself.

In Pep Confidential (the inside story of Pep Guardiola’s first season at Bayern München) the former Barcelona manager gave us his insight on how he personally loves to build his squads. The Spaniard, in an ideal world, states a preference for not wanting any more than twenty players, but for each of those selected twenty players to have the ability to play in at least two or even three different positions. And after joining the German champions, it isn’t difficult to imagine Guardiola’s delight at having the likes of Phillipp Lahm, Mario Gotze, Javi Martinez, Thomas Muller more aptly, David Alaba providing the much desired versatility Guardiola craves as a coach.

But whilst the others are well known for their obvious quality, it’s the 23-year old Austrian that catches the eye.

During Guardiola’s first season in charge at Bayern, Alaba primarily featured at left-back in the 4-3-3 system. The second half of that season saw Pep change the role and positioning of his full-backs. Alaba on the left and Rafinha or Lahm on the right would start wide in the build-up. As Bayern moved further up the pitch, they would drift inside to play alongside the pivot. This helped Guardiola keep a lot of players central, thus allowing him to push his two attacking midfielders higher up the pitch to be more of a threat. Defensively, it meant the inverted full-backs could help cut off and stop opposition counters early. This role evidently suited Alaba perfectly, exploiting his comfort as a central player as well as a wide player.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Guardiola’s fixation on the Austrian didn’t end there. His second season in charge saw Alaba’s role at Bayern change dramatically. The signing of promising young defender Juan Bernat from Spanish outfit Valencia the previous summer saw a rise in the possibility of him playing centrally on a regular basis for the club. Guardiola predominantly used two systems that season: either a 3-4-3/3-3-4 system or his classic 4-3-3. Either way, Bernat was chosen to play left wing-back in both systems.

When using the 3-3-4/3-4-3, Alaba was used in the left sided centre-back position, with Jerome Boateng in the middle and Mehdi Benatia on the right. While centre-back perhaps isn’t where most managers put their creative players, Guardiola isn’t like most other managers, and Bayern aren’t like most teams. In the back three, Alaba was given permission to roam forward with somewhat of a free role. Still remaining disciplined in his defensive work, it wasn’t unusual to see him advance when Bayern were in possession of the ball, looking for areas where he could have an impact on the game high up the pitch. This role brought out the best in Alaba as he was constantly involved in the game. One minute creating chances with through balls for the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Muller, and the next, sprinting 40 metres forward to press the opposition right-back.

Now halfway through Guardiola’s third season at Bayern, their monopoly over the Bundesliga, in addition to their strength in Europe is frightening. The former Barcelona boss looks to have finally perfected his favourite system, with his players as drilled and diverse as those on a chess board yet still acting in unison. Their all action pressing style, combined with their flair and clinical finishing up front has proven too much to handle for any opponent, losing only two games this season in all competitions. You cannot pin them down to one formation, as they are constantly changing between a 4-1-4-1, a 3-4-3 and a more traditional 4-3-3. But what you can be certain of, is that Alaba has been a key component of their success yet again.

Situated next to the excellent Jerome Boateng, Alaba again is given a licence to roam. Again, whilst primarily sticking to his defensive duties, without the ball, Bayern look to squeeze the opposition as high up the pitch as possible which almost allows Alaba to become another central midfielder. He will often pick up the ball on the halfway line to recycle possession, or drive towards the opposition penalty box looking to cross or cut the ball back. Not your traditional centre back. 

He has the ability to read the game very well, is excellent in one-on-one situations and a reliable tackler. Alaba also knows when to make the tackle and when to just press, a quality that is rare. He has excellent passing capabilities, an incredible shot on him and it only takes a quick search on YouTube to realise how great he is at set pieces. 

Versatility courses through his veins. Born in Vienna, his mother emigrated from the Philippines to work as a nurse, while his Nigerian father is a prince from Ogere - who is also a rapper and works as a DJ. Taking these factors into account, it’s no surprise that Alaba as a footballer epitomises his family and his upbringing. A key component to the best club side in Europe, in addition to his captaincy of Austria who are potential dark horses for the European Championships this summer, Alaba has developed into and is a complete footballer. At still only 23 years of age, he is an extremely unique talent and we should be excited to see what the future holds for him, and for this elusive 'universal player'. 

 

Jesus & Barbosa: Brazil's Glistening Gabriels?

Of late, Brazil’s plush, exotic pool of attacking talent has become more of a grimy, rusty bathtub littered with the odd stray hair. For a country that has boasted the likes of Pele, Romario, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, the last few years, including the World Cup in their own backyard has seen the Seleção start with Jô, formerly of Manchester City and the 32 year-old Fred as their offensive focal point. With current options continuing to age, combined with undelivered potential in Alexandre Pato and the over reliance on Neymar, it’s time for the next generation of young talent to shine through.

But where is that next generation blossoming from? Scour the top five European leagues and you won’t find much. Head west to MLS and still nothing. Even China’s best efforts to nullify domestic football in Brazil by stealing all their players isn’t bringing out the next samba star. However, should they dare to look a little bit closer to home, to a league with a thirst for the mad and the spectacular, the Brasileirão seems to have birthed two more diamonds in the rough. Two Gabriel’s to be exact. No Angels, but Jesus and Barbosa.

Gabriel Jesus, the baby faced Paulista is already being dubbed as the ‘Palmeiras Neymar’ by the local and national press, and while these comparisons are understandably premature it’s difficult not to get excited by his prolific goalscoring feats at youth level. During his first year at the club, the forward netted 54 goals in 48 matches, before scoring 37 goals in 22 games in the Under-17 Campeonato Paulista in 2014.

With those impressive numbers, it wouldn’t be long before the teenager got his chance in the Verdão first team as they urgently searched for a spark, competing for their first division lives. The Palmeiras faithful would celebrate any Gabriel introduction as if it were a goal, cheering his every involvement. Not only is he a talent, but a fan favourite too, proving that there are few things more exciting in football than a young player with the world of opportunity at their feet.

Able to play anywhere along the forward line, Gabriel is a defenders nightmare due to his explosive pace. A tricky, jinky player who is comfortable taking players on with the ball at his feet, that also thrives on the shoulder of the last defender, ready to exploit large spaces in behind. The 18 year-old truly found his feet in 2015’s Copa do Brasil partnering ex-Dortmund man Lucas Barrios in a 4-4-2, scoring twice and assisting once in five games, aiding the Verdão to their third Copa do Brasil title.

Similarly to his namesake, Gabriel Barbosa, the not so baby faced Paulista has also received the Neymar treatment. The 19 year-old nicknamed ‘Gabigol’ joined Santos’ youth academy in 2004, aged just eight. As one of Brazil's most famous clubs, Santos are proud to match their vast success with a world-class production line. Familiar names such as Pele, Carlos Alberto and Dunga all played for O Peixe towards the end of the 20th century, and in recent years Robinho and Neymar have also progressed through the club’s ranks to excite the wider audiences of Europe.

Gabigol scored 21 goals for Santos throughout 2015, becoming the Copa do Brasil’s top scorer for the second year running as his side ended up losing to Palmeiras on penalties in the final. Like Gabriel Jesus, the left footed forward has played across the front line for Santos, but has found extra joy on the right hand side as a wide forward, with veteran striker Ricardo Oliveira leading the line as more of a poacher. Playing out wide has allowed him to remain a goal threat, but also improve his all round game simultaenously.

The silky teenager is capable of gliding past opponents with ease, his smart footwork and close control making him extremely difficult to stop. One of his biggest assets is his excellent finishing, rarely becoming flustered when chances come his way in and around the box. Not only ice cool in front of goal, Gabigol’s vastly improved work rate and selflessness have endeared him to the club's fans and confirmed he is far more than just a penalty-box poacher, with many believing that he may even eclipse Neymar, the man he is frequently compared to.

After both players enjoyed a successful 2015 for Palmeiras and Santos respectively, the next port of call is for them to go on and represent the Seleção. With another Copa America around the corner this summer, while unlikely, there is time for the talented teenage duo to make their mark on Dunga as they hope to make the 23 man squad. But the real goal is for the World Cup in 2018, where after two more years of regular football under their belt, they will be able to join the likes of Neymar, Willian, Douglas Costa, Oscar and Coutinho in what could be the most exciting Pentacampeões attack in a long time.

It would be naïve to expect fireworks straight away from these promising talents, but the ability is certainly there and should they carry on developing as they are right now, Brazil could have two more heroes hoping to lead them to glory again.