When club legends return to the team that started it all there is meant to be a fanfare. When these same mythical players arrive home having implemented arguably the single most effective tactical revolution the game has ever seen, there should be a national holiday declared. After two and a half decades of overseeing Barcelona’s evolution into the most prominent club in Europe, and seeing the system he implemented there win the European Championships and World Cup, Johan Cruyff has returned to Ajax to replicate his success. Why is there such caution amidst the enthusiasm?
As a player Cruyff, along with his mentor Rinus Michels and Romanian coach Stefan Kovacs, pioneered the Totaalvoetbal style that transformed Ajax in the late 60’s and early 70’s. In 1964/65 the Amsterdam club finished just three points above relegation to the Eerste Divisie, with the second worst defensive record in the division. A year later, they were champions, finishing seven points clear of Feyenoord and with the best defence and attack in the division.
They would go on to win the title in 66/67 as well, scoring 122 goals in 34 games – a league record that still stands today – 33 of which came from Cruyff himself. Ajax won four further titles in the next six years, and cemented their position as one of, if not the single greatest club sides of all time by winning three consecutive European Cup trophies between 1971-73.
A decade later and Cruyff returned to Ajax to mastermind their European Cup Winners Cup success, blooding the likes of Denis Bergkamp, Danny Blind, Aron Winter and the brothers Witschge, while laying the foundations for the team that would terrorise Europe in the mid 90’s. To paraphrase Jarvis Cocker, in Amsterdam he may not quite be Jesus, but he certainly has the same initials.
Cruyff moved then moved on to Barcelona, sculpting the Catalans in his own image; developing the “tiki-taka” upgrade on Total Football, overseeing the development of the fabled youth system and playing a pivotal part in the appointment and success of Pep Guardiola.
While Barca have been enjoying unprecedented successes in the past decade, times have been far leaner for Ajax. Devastated by the Bosman ruling in 1995, the titans of Dutch football are now in the midst of their longest title drought since the 1950’s, and look unlikely to end such a barren run this term. The financial hardships in the current Eredivisie have meant that they are perennially a selling club – Stekelenburg, van der Wiel, Vertonghen and Eriksen could all leave this summer – while the wealthier clubs in the Europe have continued harvesting the famous Jong Ajax graduates before they have had time to blossom.
Such desperate times should have provided a fertile ground for Cruyff’s return last summer. After a failed revolution in 2008 – mainly aborted out of respect for the then Ajax manager and Cruyff protégé Marco Van Basten – the Dutch master has returned in even more vitriolic form this year. Cruyff has recently launched a series of attacks on the board that have “no understanding of football”, and accused the directors of self protection. However, despite the best intentions, Cruyff himself has found that he is not immune from criticism.
In the wake of the great number 14’s revolutionary stance against the board, all of the directors of the club have tendered their resignations. While this has been seen by Cruyff as an inevitable step – stating on the 24th March that “if necessary, all of the board and directors will need to be replaced” – it has left the club rudderless and isolated a group of individuals who may not have delivered the successes of the past on the pitch, but who have continued the traditions off it.
There have also been questions around the backroom staff at the club. Cruyff has a history of showing binary logic over his acquaintances: you are with him or against him. One would stop short of saying Cruyff likes surrounding himself with “yes men”, but only just; there are usually more nodding heads in Cruyff’s entourage than at a Metallica concert. Such an attitude is likely to mean that assistant manager Danny Blind, chief of medical staff Edwin Goedhart, youth coach Jan Olde Riekerink and general manager David Endt are shown the exit, which in turn raises questions over the future of Daley Blind, son of Danny and regular in the first team.
Such an attitude might be forgiven were the foundations Cruyff plans on building tangible. So far he has revealed that he plans to revolutionise the youth system, bringing in Denis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk to oversee development and scouting, as well as changing the emphasis of training so as to prepare players better for the first team. Yet this would seem to be a solved problem; in the past decade Jong Ajax have produced at least as many top talents as previously, with no fewer than nine of the Netherlands side that finished runners up in the 2010 World Cup coming through the Ajax system. The problem for the Amsterdam side has been the unstable, unpredictable marketplace for these players, not the production line.
There are also those who see Cruyff as a disruptive influence, stepping either side of the line that divides blazing your own trail and appearing obstinate and self-important. The Dutch are known for their ability to implode in even the most serene of circumstances, and just as Cruyff is seen as the archetype for all that is good about the Oranje, the same could be said for his influence over the more fractious nature of Dutch football. Cruyff’s career on and off the field is littered with argument and incident. In 1973 he arranged a move to Barcelona mere hours after losing the Ajax captaincy to Piet Keizer, creating divisions in the camp that were never healed. A year later he insisted on a shirt personalised by sponsors, Puma, for the 1974 World Cup, while his team-mates wore the strips provided by Adidas.
In 1974 Cruyff exerted his influence to have his friend Jan Jongbloed installed as first choice goalkeeper in place of the more diplomatic Jan van Beveren, arguably the finest goalkeeper Holland has ever produced. Cruyff threatened to walk out on the national team unless van Beveren, who played for rivals PSV and had insisted all the players should be paid the same, was excluded. The decision almost certainly cost the Dutch the World Cup final, as Jongbloed made two critical errors.
During 1976 he again came to blows with the KNVB, when he and manager George Knobel insisted on the appointment of Cruyff’s business associate, Jack van Zanten, as assistant manager. When they didn’t get their way Knobel resigned, throwing the 1976 European Championships campaign into disarray. Subsequently Cruyff has had difficult relationships with the likes of Jose Mourinho, Michael Laudrup and Bert van Marwijk. His assertion that the physical Netherlands side played “anti-football” in the 2010 World Cup was criticised by many with longer memories than he, particularly those who remember Ronald Koeman, Jan Wouters, Willem van Hanegem and in particular Johan Neeskens, the steel to Cruyff’s silk.
Perhaps the biggest fear is that of Cruyff’s commitment. For as long as he is interested, placated and allowed free-reign then he has shown that he can transform sides from also-rans into European, nay global, conquerors. However, he has a history of walking away from any situation where he feels his principles are not being adhered to, whether that is at club or country. The fact that he looks unlikely to take any official position on the board, or sign any contract with Ajax, will do little to comfort those who feel he may wash his hands of the situation should he not get his way.
Cruyff comes with a track record of success, and there can be little doubt of the reverence he holds for Ajax, nor that his intentions are anything but noble. If his new regime is successful it is unlikely we will see the benefits of his influence for another decade, but if Cruyff’s latest turn fails the results, or lack of them, will be immediate and severe.