Barcelona have made football look simple by mastering the complex. It has always fascinated me how many observers make the conclusion that their style of play, particularly under Pep Guardiola, is very simple. In my mind and in my experience of observing and studying Barcelona, I cannot comprehend how people can come to that particular conclusion.
They’re a team that has revolutionised modern football since I started to follow the sport and broken so many boundaries of what was considered the traditional norm. Surely they don’t play a simple brand of football. How can they achieve so much by playing so simply? Or perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye. The man who can fundamentally answer this question is a legend of Barcelona, or more appropriately, a legend of the game: Johan Cruyff.
Perhaps Pelé and Maradona can lay claim to being better players than Cruyff, but Cruyff has arguably had a bigger impact on the game itself. None more so than at Barcelona where he played and coached, but more importantly, whom he revolutionised the philosophy and structure of. The most important idea he introduced was a concept of ball-orientated football – to keep the ball when you have it and get it back quickly when you don’t. It was an evolution of the original Rinus Michels idea from the early ’70s when Cruyff played under the legendary Dutchman.
Cruyff often speaks about simplicity. To play with excess contradicts what passing was supposed to achieve: simplicity. Cruyff once criticised a goal that was scored because he claimed that it should have been scored earlier in the play. The extra passes were unnecessary and increased the chance that a mistake would occur. Simplicity increases efficiency and effectiveness.
Think of Arsenal over the past decade and how many times they over-elaborated a goalscoring opportunity. According to the Dutchman, a team should take a shot on goal at the earliest possible opportunity in order to increase the chances of scoring. To Cruyff, the perfect goal would be one which is scored with minimal effort, no unnecessary risks taken, and maximum efficiency.
• • “To play well, you need good players, but a good player almost always has the problem of a lack of efficiency. He always wants to do things prettier than strictly necessary.” Johan Cruyff • •
Simplicity is an intangible concept, which is falsely described by numbers and statistics. It is a concept invented by the human mind and is a quality which is hard to explain, much like creativity. However one defines simplicity, it ultimately reflects our perception of the concept and, more importantly, our understanding.
To a physicist the laws of physics make perfect sense because they follow defined paths. To a less learned person, it would make no sense whatsoever. The two differing perspectives do not change the reality. The laws of physics are defined until they evolve and are redefined. It remains the same no matter how we think of it.
In applying this to football, Barça’s football is what it is. It is the constant. The audience is the variable. This is why it’s hard to definitively judge the complexity of Barça’s style of play. To some it is an intricate web of movements and chain reactions – a systems version of football that is reliant upon every sub-system to function in order to make the whole team work and flourish. To others, tactics and details are overstated and that specific choreography has nothing to do with their style – it is the talent of the players and the way they simply pass the ball to the nearest teammate until someone can take advantage of an opposition defensive error.
Fundamentally, your opinion of what makes an entertaining game depends on three things: your knowledge of the game, the reason you are watching, and your expectation of the game. I believe that these three things also shape your view of the simplicity of Barça’s football. In a way, your personal philosophy shapes the way you view life, not just football.
You don’t need to be a coach to have a philosophy; your philosophy is simply an aggregate of your past experiences and your personality. This goes some way towards explaining why some people would describe Barça’s football as complex, and other people, simple.
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Read: Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion
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When Cruyff spoke about football he often mentioned the entertainment value of the game, that there is more to it than winning. He believed in a certain style of play, which has the power to put a smile on the people’s faces as he described it. As such, he was a believer in his own philosophy, of a beautiful way of playing.
• • “It’s better to go down with your own vision than with someone else’s.” Johan Cruyff • •
He would rather lose playing good football than win playing ugly. He said of the 1974 World Cup final against West Germany that losing the final made the Netherlands more famous than it otherwise would have. To say that it was better to lose than to win, because it left a longer legacy, speaks volumes about the mindset of Cruyff – romantic and idealist. It is therefore rather mysterious why Cruyff often spoke quite pragmatically.
In a video on Dutch television, Cruyff said that he never liked playing with two men in midfield because they could get exposed too easily. Instead, he always played with three in midfield, explaining: “I am much more defensive than people think.” Following on from this admission of pragmatism, he quoted this famous line: “If you can’t win, make sure you don’t lose.”
This evidence contradicts the common stereotype that Cruyff was the ultimate priest of tiki taka and Totaalvoetbal, hell-bent on entertaining the masses. He clearly loathed losing but wouldn’t settle for playing a rugged and prehistoric style of football. This paradox in mentality is reflected on the pitch.
The concept that simplicity is the best form of playing football is all well and fine – it makes sense, certainly on a theoretical level. Put in practice, however, it’s a different story. Stoke City under Tony Pulis played with simplicity in theory because they did not over-elaborate their build up play from the back.
Compared to most Champions League teams, they played the most direct football because of their comparatively physical style and attributes. Overall, it can be said that Stoke City played with simplicity. on the other hand, Barcelona has an opposing style of play compared to Stoke – a slower build up from back to front. It involves a greater amount of passes and more patience. What does this mean – is it an indication that Barça do not play simply enough?
Take the example from an El Clásico game in the league at the Bernabéu four years ago. At one stage of the match, Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta exchanged several passes between them in the absence of any defensive pressure from the Madrid midfield players. It got them nowhere and it achieved nothing – no progression and no objective accomplished. It was a display of excess and indulgence; we can pass the ball all day, you see.
It was akin to the analogy of the Arab sheikh living within his enormous mansion; living in it for show and prestige, but not for practicality. Have Barça become the Arab sheikh in a way? It seems as though tiki taka has outgrown its initial purpose – to control the game with minimal effort and exertion. It’s as if the club has become so entrenched in this way of playing to the point that passing has outgrown its existence as merely a mechanism to win football matches. It has instead become the objective itself, to keep the ball. In this case, possession is no longer merely a means to an end – but the end in itself. In this context, tiki taka possession football is no longer useful for Cruyff.
Perhaps it explains why Tata Martino was so determined to cutely alter the Blaugrana’s way of playing from the Guardiola era.
• • “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” Johan Cruyff • •
The system is one thing, but the players who play within it can corrupt the theory behind it. The 4-3-3 system is one that was designed to give maximum options to any player in possession of the ball. In this way, it is saying to the players when you have the ball, pass it to the nearest teammate and then move to receive again. Keep it simple, pass and move, pass and move. It reflects the Liverpool way of the ’70s and ’80s.
In theory, 4-3-3 optimises spacing of players in order to help them follow the short passing philosophy. In practice, the players became masters of this style after many years learning it during their youth. Over time, merely passing the ball in order to create chances to score goals became pointless in a way. It became too easy. If we can keep the ball, why must we give it away so easily?
The concept of passing started as an idea to score goals but it has since morphed into a total theory of football; of attack, defence and control. The cause of this metamorphosis is the talent of the current generation of players. No other team are as adept at rondos as Barcelona. No other team has the best player in the world.
How can a philosophy of simplicity be justified when simplicity is the enemy of extraordinary minds? Messi’s skills are too elaborate for such a dim-witted system of play, and Suárez, Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are too smart. It is in fact the very simplicity of the system that has allowed the foundation for layers of complexity to be added.
What started as simply another way of playing the game has grown and grown. Today it has become the philosophy of a whole club and is becoming it in many others. Who would have thought that the arrival of Cruyff to Barcelona as a player would mark the beginning of something so special and long-term? The supporters saw a glimpse of a whole team in one player. Years later, that one man gave his insight to a whole team.
The reason why Cruyff has been such an influential and celebrated figure in the game was that he was different. He gave the world something new and unique. No matter your opinion of the actual style of play, it is undeniable that it has left a legacy in modern football unlike any other.
By Feras Suwan. Follow @FerasSuwan