1997–2000: Louis van Gaal and the ‘Dutchification’ of Barcelona

To many modern football fans, the fact that FC Barcelona – now one of the world’s most decorated football clubs – enjoyed only moderate success until 1990 may seem absurd. And yet, this is the case.

Between 1960 and 1990 the club won just two La Liga titles. During the same period, Real Madrid won 20. Atletico Madrid were considered to be Los Blanco’s predominant domestic rivals and any tension during El Clasico was primarily political; representing the ideological conflict between separatists in Catalonia and the Madrid monarchy. While Barcelona were wealthy throughout this era, they invested ineffectively. The club’s transfer policy was akin to their current haphazard transfer strategy as the club focussed on securing big-name signings who could inspire the Catalan club to both domestic and European success.

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1973-1978: Cruyff and Michels’ ‘Total Football’

Despite Barcelona’s sparse trophy cabinet, in 1973 the Catalan’s wealthy backers financed a bid for the current Balon D’Or holder, Johan Cruyff. Before departing Amsterdam for Catalonia, Cruyff had inspired Ajax to their third successive European Cup. While there was certainly a monetary motive, Cruyff also moved to play under legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels. Michels had coached Cruyff at Ajax between 1965 and 1971, leading the club to their first European Cup in 1971. When Michels took over at Ajax, the Dutchman implemented his brand of ‘Total Football’; granting the team total freedom in possession and encouraging players to interchange positions. Michels executing these methods after arriving at the Catalan club in 1973; however, he and Cruyff enjoyed only moderate domestic success, winning a solitary La Liga and Copa del Rey before both men departed the club in 1978.

1982-1984: Maradona’s madness

Four years after the Dutchmen had departed, Barcelona once again signed the world’s most sought after player. After the 1982 World Cup, Diego Armando Maradona arrived at Barcelona for a world record fee of £7.2 million. During the Argentine’s tempestuous two-year stint, he led the Catalan club to another Copa Del Rey title in 1983 but failed to contribute more than fleeting moments of individual brilliance. As was to become customary throughout Maradona’s career, his fiery personality led to a hasty and controversial exit from Catalonia. During 1984 Copa Del Rey final, Maradona was continually racially abused by Athletic Bilbao players and supporters. He retaliated by head-butting Bilbao midfielder Miguel Sola and elbowing a further Bilbao player; knocking him unconscious. A mass brawl ensued, involving players and coaches from both sides. Maradona was fiercely criticised by the media and various politicians, so when Barcelona received a £6.9 million offer from Napoli, the club were only too happy to accept.

1984-1987: Venables’ English approach

Following Maradona’s departure in 1984, Barcelona appointed former Queens Park Rangers manager, Terry Venables. The Englishman’s tactical approach was a far cry from Michels’ free-flowing ‘Total Football’. Instead, Venables implemented a typically British 4-4-2 system and signed fellow Brits; Steve Archibald, Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes during his spell at the club. During Venable’s first two seasons Barcelona’s style of play was functional at best, but it was certainly effective. The club won the La Liga title in his first season, with Archibald leading the club’s scoring charts, before reaching the 1986 European Cup final. This was the club’s first appearance in a European final since 1961. The game was held at the Camp Nou, against apparently inferior opposition in Steaua Bucharest. Despite their home advantage, after a drab 0-0 draw, Barcelona lost on penalties. A bemused ball-boy by the name of Pep Guardiola watched on, concluding that if Barcelona could not win the European Cup in these conditions, they never would. This shock upset undermined Venables success at the club. While he continued for a further season, he was sacked in late 1987 after failing to reclaim the La Liga title.

1987-1988: Aragones’s ‘La Furia Roja’

The Catalan club replaced Venables with a notoriously pragmatic coach, Luis Aragones. Aragones believed that Spanish coaches’ obsession with possession football had detracted from the national side’s footballing identity. Before he was appointed as Spain coach in 2004, Aragones often called for the national side to revert to their traditional ‘La Furia Roja’ (The Red Fury) approach. This phrase outlines the direct, aggressive style that Spain adopted during the post-war era. However, when Aragones was presented with a plethora of talented playmakers upon his appointment in 2004, the Spaniard decided to build his side around a number of subtle creative players, such as Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva. While Aragones’s Spain side were undoubtedly the most forward-thinking iteration of the nations all-conquering sides between 2008 and 2012, his decision to adopt this approach demonstrated that his pragmatic nature trumped any commitment to a style of play. Aragones’s appointment further outlined that Barcelona’s hierarchy prioritised success over an attractive style of play. The Spaniard led Barcelona to a 1-0 victory over Real Sociedad in the Copa Del Rey final but he could not halt their slide in La Liga. After Barcelona finished sixth in the league, Aragones was sacked.

1988-1996: Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’

Barcelona’s long-serving president, Josep Luis Nunez’s promptly replaced the club’s purely pragmatic manager, concerned with winning trophies rather than implementing an attractive style of play, with the antithesis of this philosophy – Johan Cruyff. Cruyff saw trophies as merely an inevitable outcome of a carefully thought out process and prescribed style for play. The former footballing icon arrived from Ajax, having led the club to the Cup Winners Cup in 1987; before leaving after disputes over the sale of Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten. The Dutchmen’s side lined-up in a variation of the 4-3-3 formation Michels had implemented throughout his time at Ajax, Barcelona and The Netherlands. Cruyff swore by countless principles which dictated his side’s style of play; but his tactical system was underpinned by two very simple rules: when in possession stretch the pitch as wide as possible and when out of possession, press the opposition to make the pitch as small as possible.

By applying these principles, Cruyff built Barcelona’s ‘Dream Team’. When he arrived, the club’s attendances had dwindled below 40,000, with fans unimpressed by the side’s direct style of play. The Dutchman’s tactical system, astute signings and promotion of graduates from the club’s infamous ‘La Masia’ academy awoke a sleeping giant. Cruyff led the Catalan’s to the Cup Winner’s Cup in 1989 and the Copa Del Rey the following season, before securing four consecutive La Liga titles. During Cruyff’s reign, the ‘Dream Team’ also reached two European Cup finals. In the first, Barcelona overcame Sampdoria to finally secure their first European Cup. While this success solidified the side’s legendary status, the second, a disastrous 4-0 thrashing by AC Milan in 1994, spelt the beginning of the end for Cruyff. The outspoken Dutchman told Michael Laudrup, Andoni Zubizarreta and Jon Andoni Goikoetea they would be sold on the bus trip home from the final and further departures followed. Troublesome Brazillian forward Romario and defensive leader Ronald Koeman were gone by 1995 and Cruyff by 1996, after finishing fourth in La Liga. The ‘Dream Team’ had died but their success had established Dutch football’s influence on the club’s identity. The Catalan fans now demanded that Cruyff’s progressive style of play be perpetuated going forward. Finally, after decades of expensive signings and a diverse range of styles, the club seemed to have settled on their footballing identity.

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1991-1997: Van Gaal’s young guns

While Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ was collapsing in Catalonia, his former understudy’s Ajax side were lifting the club’s first European Cup since 1973. Louis van Gaal had been a limited footballer. An Ajax academy graduate, the Dutchman was briefly Cruyff’s backup at the club, from 1972-73. The Eredivise’s limit of one substitution per-game, along with Cruyff’s imperious form throughout this season, meant that Van Gaal never played a first-team minute for the Amsterdam club. Instead, he was consigned to a handful of reserve team appearances. After departing Ajax in 1973, Van Gaal played for a selection of Dutch clubs before spending the majority of his career with Sparta Rotterdam. During his time in Rotterdam, the future coach was also working part-time as a PE teacher at a local secondary school. Van Gaal’s former profession perhaps explains his professorial approach to management. The Dutchman went on to implement strict disciplinary procedures and prescribe detailed tactical instructions throughout his career. After concluding his playing career with a short stint as a player-coach at AZ Alkmaar, Van Gaal returned to Ajax in 1987 as Leo Beenhakker’s assistant coach. When Beenhakker was relieved of his duties in 1991, Van Gaal replaced him as the club’s manager.

In Van Gaal’s first two seasons in charge, Ajax were inspired by the majestic Dennis Bergkamp. Ajax’s effortless deep-lying forward propelled the side to the 1992 UEFA Cup and starred in Ajax’s 6-2 victory over SC Heerenveen in the 1993 KNVB Cup final; before departing for Inter Milan that summer. After losing his most talented player, Van Gaal focussed on implementing a strict tactical system and building the side around a talented crop of young players, rather than nurturing any individual talent. Bergkamp was replaced with the industrious Finn, Jari Litmanen; while Edwin Van der Saar, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert were assimilated into the first-team squad. In subsequent three seasons, Van Gaal led Ajax to three Eredivisie titles – including an unbeaten 1994/95 league campaign – and reached two successive UEFA Champions League finals. In 1995, the Amsterdam club overcame AC Milan to win their first Champions League title, thanks to an 85th-minute strike from 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert. Eight of the thirteen players Van Gaal used during the final came through the Ajax academy. Ajax went on to lose the following season’s final to Juventus and Van Gaal left in 1997 after a trophyless campaign. On a shoestring budget, Van Gaal had delivered European success and brought through and immensely talented generation of youngsters. Barcelona’s hierarchy saw the Dutchman’s time with Ajax as the blueprint for their own future success.

Cruyff and Van Gaal

Having built on Cruyff’s success at Ajax, Van Gaal seemed his natural successor at Barcelona. Both coaches focussed on controlling possession and played variations of either a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 system. Furthermore, the Dutchmen were both commended for their commitment to integrating academy players into their first-team squads – a trait which was particularly attractive to the powers that be at Barcelona in 1997, with Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Carlos Puyol on the verge of emerging from La Masia. To most observers, Louis Van Gaal appeared the unrivalled candidate to replace Cruyff in Catalonia. However, despite the former Ajax coach’s credentials, Cruyff ardently disagreed. Over the previous five years, the two had been involved in a series of petty disagreements, both in private and through the media. The disputes allegedly stemmed back to an argument in 1989, when Van Gaal abruptly left Cruyff’s dinner party after his sister fell ill. Cruyff staunchly rejected this account but offered no alternative explanation for his incessant criticism of Van Gaal throughout his adversary’s early managerial career.

Cruyff regularly castigated Ajax and even wrote a column during the Amsterdam club’s legendary 1994/95 campaign, claiming that Van Gaal’s tactical system was littered with structural issues. These childish squabbles were built upon tangible stylistic differences between Cruyff’s Barcelona and Van Gaal’s Ajax side. Johann Cruyff was the poster boy for ‘Total Football’, an immensely gifted footballer, who operated out with any tactical system. In turn, he offered his forwards almost complete freedom when in possession. Conversely, Van Gaal was far more obsessed with his system and routinely coached pre-planned attacking moves. He believed that “Quality is the exclusion of coincidence”; and therefore, had little time for attackers demanding a free role in which to express themselves.

1996-1997: Ronaldo ft. Robson

Such were the troubles between the two Dutchmen, that Barcelona’s interim coach, Bobby Robson, felt that he was merely brought in to limit any inevitable criticism from Cruyff. Robson replaced Cruyff in 1996, accompanied by a familiar assistant manager – Jose Mourinho. The duo led Barcelona to victories in the 1997 Cup Winners Cup and Copa Del Rey finals but disappointed in the league, finishing second to Real, despite amassing 90 points. Following a relatively successful season, Robson was harshly relieved of his managerial duties, moving upstairs into an ambassadorial role to make way for the incoming Van Gaal. While Robson believed that his new role vindicated his opinion that he was merely a managerial placeholder, it is worth mentioning that his Barcelona side had been inspired by the world’s best player – Ronaldo Nazario. The 21-year-old enjoyed an unbelievable season, scoring 47 goals in all competitions and 9 more than anyone else in La Liga. The explosive Brazilian’s success detracted from Robson’s apparent influence on the team’s achievements. Furthermore, Barcelona’s players often questioned Robson’s relaxed nature, having grown accustomed to Cruyff’s obsessive tactical approach. The political environment at the Catalan club further bemused Robson. He was criticised vociferously after a 6-0 win over Rayo Vallecano by fans and the press, who felt his direct style of play betrayed Barcelona’s newfound Dutch identity. The club, along with its players and fans, were crying out for a return to the Dutch era.

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1997-1998: Initial teething problems

Turbulent contract negotiations meant that Ronaldo had swapped Catalonia for Inter Milan by the time Van Gaal arrived at Barcelona in 1997. As with Bergkamp’s departure at Ajax, the 1997 Balon D’Or winner’s departure ushered in a new era at Barcelona. Now, their only recognised superstar was Van Gaal’s system. Van Gaal may have arrived at a club without the world’s best player, but the squad he inherited was bursting with talented individuals. The squad consisted of two future Barcelona coaches in Josep Guardiola and Luis Enrique as well as elegant Portuguese winger, Luis Figo. Van Gaal soon added Rivaldo, Sonny Anderson and Michael Reiziger to the roster, assembling undoubtedly the most talented squad in Spain, which was set to be moulded into Van Gaal’s rigorous system.

The Barcelona that had employed Van Gaal in 1997 were no longer the perennial underachievers which Cruyff had returned to a decade earlier. As the Catalan club’s president, Josep Luis Nunez, was determined to oversee the continuation of the club’s recent European and domestic successes. The previous La Liga season was the first to offer a Champions League place for finishing second. As a result, Barcelona and Real Madrid would be in direct competition in Europe and domestically for the first time since the 1960s. In his first season, Van Gaal was challenged with delivering the club’s first Champions League title and prising the La Liga trophy from Madrid’s grasp.

Domestically, Van Gaal’s first season delivered the La Liga and Copa del Rey titles; their first domestic double in 39 years. However, these successes were far from convincing. Barcelona reached just 76 points in La Liga and scored 24 fewer goals than the previous season. Van Gaal had found enforcing his restrictive system challenging, with the squad’s senior players used to influencing Robson’s tactical approach and being offered attacking freedom under Cruyff. During the 1997 Copa Del Rey final, with the score tied at 1-1, Guardiola had encouraged Robson’s side to focus on attacking down Real Betis’s left-side. Robson and his player’s agreed and Barcelona went on to win 3-2. No such influence was afforded under Van Gaal, somewhat due to his substantial ego and partially due to his all-consuming belief in his system.

The Catalan club rarely impressed throughout Van Gaal’s first campaign, struggling to control games and keep clean sheets. Barcelona were outclassed in a 3-0 defeat away to second-placed Athletic Bilbao, which demonstrated the short-comings of Van Gaal’s meticulous approach. Van Gaal built his side around a deep-lying playmaker but with his first choice ‘number 4’, Guardiola, out injured for the majority of the season and Xavi deemed too inexperienced, the side often struggled to set the tempo of matches. This was evident as Bilbao dismantled Barcelona in November 1997, with the Catalans struggling to find their passing rhythm and succumbing to a series of fast breaks. Despite the squad’s inability to acclimatise to Van Gaal’s methods, Rivaldo enjoyed an excellent first campaign. Arriving from Deportivo La Coruna as Ronaldo’s replacement, he was the club’s top scorer with 19 league goals and was named La Liga’s best foreign player.
While Barcelona were inconsistent domestically, their Champions League campaign was an unmitigated disaster.

After scraping past Latvian side Skonto in the second qualifying round, the Catalans were drawn in a generous group with Newcastle, Dynamo Kyiv and PSV Eindhoven. Barcelona won just once in 6 games and lost 7-0 on aggregate to a rampant Dynamo Kyiv side. Not only had the club exited Europe at an unacceptably early stage but they had been utterly humiliated by seemingly inferior opposition. The club’s dismay at their disastrous continental campaign was confounded as Real Madrid overcame Juventus in the Champions League final to end their own European Cup drought. Barcelona’s premature European exit unquestionably contributed towards their domestic success, as Real Madrid performances in La Liga tailed off during the Champions League knockout phase. Despite the teething problems which were evident throughout his first season, Van Gaal convinced the board that with a few additions, his approach could deliver continental success. The Dutchman was granted a pass for his erratic first season but more was demanded in 1998/99. The Catalans were set to invest in their ‘Dutchification’.

1998-1999: Van Gaal’s flawed genius

Cruyff had ‘Hispanised’ the club in the late eighties; by integrating Catalonian youngsters from La Masia, such as Guardiola and Txiki Begiristan, into the starting XI. Conversely, Van Gaal felt that his fellow countrymen possessed a better understanding of his controlled system, which was now commonplace throughout the Eredivise. With Nunez convinced that Van Gaal’s vision could deliver European success, the Barcelona president backed his coach during the transfer market. The club’s investment allowed Van Gaal to continue his ‘Dutchification’ of the Catalan club. Hristo Stoichkov had returned to his native Bulgaria the previous January and he was joined by Christophe Dugarry and Ivan la Pena during the summer transfer window. The Catalan’s departing stars were replaced by an influx of Dutchmen; including Kluivert, Boudewijn Zeden and Phillip Cocu in July, before Frank and Ronald de Boer arrived from Ajax the following January.

While Van Gaal’s first season was blighted by the team’s stagnant possession-based approach, as the Dutchman struggled to implement his tactical system without a settled deep-lying playmaker; Barcelona’s style of play improved during the Dutchman’s second season, as Guardiola was fit for the majority of the campaign. Van Gaal’s Barcelona generally lined up in 3-4-3 formation with Guardiola at the base of a diamond in midfield. Guardiola would routinely drop into defence to transform the side’s shape into a 4-3-3, before carrying the ball into midfield. Van Gaal believed that the extra time and space afforded in deeper positions would allow the Spaniard to observe the flow of the match before starting attacks as a ‘regista’. The two men were football fanatics and routinely discussed Barcelona’s tactical approach. Guardiola understood Van Gaal’s obsession with control, and would later become captivated by preventing counter-attack during his stint managing Bayern Munich. Similarly, Van Gaal marvelled at Pep’s reading of the game and appreciation of space. The relationship between Barcelona’s coach and their captain gave Van Gaal a voice on the pitch and contributed to their improved domestic performances. The Catalan’s retained their La Liga crown; scoring more goals and conceding fewer than their previous campaign. In La Liga, Barcelona were displaying the combination of control and flair their fan’s had expected under Van Gaal.

Despite their domestic success, for the second successive season, the club’s season was marred by their failure in Europe. Barcelona were drawn in a tough Champions League group alongside Manchester United and Bayern Munich. The Catalans were remarkably consistent, defeating Brondby IF 2-0 home and away, twice drawing 3-3 with United and losing both encounters with Bayern by a single goal. Barcelona exited the Champions League at the group stage for the second successive season.

Furthermore, their draws against Manchester United had highlighted a persistent issue with Van Gaal’s system. During 1998/99 Barcelona often scored freely; led by a combination of their attacking quartet, Kluivert, Figo, Rivaldo and Ronald de Boer. However, their often top-heavy formation meant they were often susceptible to direct attacking moves. In the side’s stalemate at the Camp Nou, Manchester United were more than happy to play long balls towards Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke; bypassing Barcelona’s high press. While Manchester United’s wingers, Jesper Blomqvist and David Beckham, pushed forward to stretch Barcelona’s defence; Cole and York’s clever movement pulled their centre-backs apart, creating openings for all three of United’s goals. The club were beginning to question Van Gaal’s approach, despite their improved domestic performances, as he was brought in to deliver tangible European success.

Barcelona’s inability to control games was further illustrated in their defeat to Valencia in the first leg of their Copa del Rey quarter-final clash. Midway through the season Rivaldo, who generally played on the left, began demanding to play as a number 10. Van Gaal relented for his side’s meeting with Valencia and squeezed all four the side’s attacking quadrant into their starting XI. Barcelona dominated possession, before taking the lead through Kluivert early in the second half. As the Catalans pushed to kill the tie, Valencia sprung a series of quick breaks and turned the tie on its head. As the game became increasingly stretched, Rivaldo levelled the score before Gaizika Mendieta ensured Valencia took a lead back to the Mestalla. Barcelona were unable to overcome this deficit, losing the second leg 4-3. Valencia had lain out the blueprint for to defeating Van Gaal’s Barcelona. Pressing the side’s creative defenders disrupted their passing rhythm; while breaking quickly and in numbers often presented high-quality chances. Opponents had to gamble to trouble Van Gaal’s Barcelona but the odds of overcoming them seemed to have shortened.

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1999-2000: Cracks turn to craters

Van Gaal’s inconsistent stint in Catalonia came to a close after trophyless 1999/00 season. Barcelona had replaced the departing Sonny Anderson and Giovanni with Jari Litmanen from Ajax and Simao Sabrosa from Sporting Libson, but both arrivals struggled during their first season. Furthermore, Van Gaal was facing increasing criticism from the press due to his apparent failure to effectively integrate youngsters from La Masia. While Van Gaal is often retrospectively praised for giving debuts to both Xavi and Puyol, the two rarely excelled within the Dutchman’s system. Puyol struggled for first-team minutes and Xavi was generally a back-up to Guardiola as the sides deep-lying playmaker. While Van Gaal saw Xavi as Guardiola’s successor in the ‘regista’ role; it wasn’t until – ironically – Guardiola became Barcelona manager that the Spaniard began playing in the more advanced role, within which he excelled.

As Van Gaal’s intense personality and rigorous training demands began to grate the squad, the side’s domestic performances tailed off. Barcelona finished second behind Deportivo La Coruna in La Liga, amassing just 64 league points and losing 12 times. The Catalan club’s campaign was further disrupted by the increasingly volatile conflict between Van Gaal and Rivaldo. After winning the 1999 Balon D’Or, Rivaldo refused to continue playing on the left-side of Barcelona’s attack. Van Gaal responded by dropping the Brazilian to the reserves before the squad’s senior players requested that he was reinstated. Despite the evident issues with his temperament, Rivaldo was the sides primary source of goals and the squad were aware that his absence would significantly stifle their goal-scoring threat. Van Gaal reinstated Rivaldo to the starting XI but the chaos surrounding his selection further undermined his authority.

In spite of the persistent squabbling between Van Gaal and his players, the squad enjoyed their best Champions League campaign under the Dutchman. After breezing through a tricky first group stage, the side excelled in the second group phase, progressing with 16 points from a possible 18. Barcelona’s imperious form began to slip during their quarter-final clash with Chelsea. In the first-leg at Stamford Bridge, the Londoners adopted a similar approach to Valencia’s in the previous season’s Copa del Rey; with Tore Andre Flo and Gianfranco Zola breaking quickly and directly. Chelsea were 3-0 up at half-time before Figo kept Barcelona in the tie with an away goal in the second half. In an attempt to implement a more attractive style of play, Barcelona had sacrificed the security their cautious build-up play had provided in Van Gaal’s first campaign. While the Catalan’s ultimately progressed after a 5-1 victory at the Camp Nou, their first-leg performance further illustrated the fallibility of the Dutchman’s tactical system.

Van Gaal’s time in Catalonia all but ended after his side capitulated in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final against Valencia. Barcelona were outthought and outrun, losing 4-1 in the first leg and 5-3 on aggregate. Valencia’s Catalonian midfielder Gerard – released from Barcelona B by Van Gaal in 1997 – linked their defence and attack brilliantly. His clever movement and piercing through-balls allowed Valencia to rapidly transition from defence to attack and catch Barcelona on the counter-attack. Their performance was a carbon copy of the sides meeting in the previous year’s Copa del Rey; confirming that Valencia had cracked Van Gaal’s system. Barcelona’s European exit was the final nail in Van Gaal’s coffin. Real Madrid went on trash Valencia 3-0 in the Champions League final and secure Los Blanco’s second European title during Van Gaal’s reign. The contrast between Barcelona and their greatest rival’s European performances were simply too stark for him to survive.

The Dutchman announced his departure in typically brash fashion. “Friends of the press. I am leaving. Congratulations” Van Gaal proclaimed, believing that their insistent criticism of his system illustrated their misplaced support for Cruyff. While Van Gaal’s success pales in comparison to Cruyff before him or Rijkaard and Guardiola after, his spell in Catalonia set the president for the club’s future success. With the club’s hierarchy at a crossroad, having appointed another Englishman to replace Cruyff, they stuck by the club’s newfound Dutch identity and appointed Van Gaal. The Dutchman may have failed to deliver European success but the tactical system he implemented renewed the Netherlands’ influence on the Catalan club.

Fallout and legacy

Following Van Gaal’s departure, Barcelona’s subsequent two seasons were underwhelming. The Catalan club appointed director Lorenzo Serra Ferrer as head coach for the 2000/01 season but the former Real Betis boss’s tenure was undermined as the club sold Figo to Real Madrid. As a result, Barcelona slipped to fourth place in La Liga and exited the Champions’ League at the first group stage. Serra Ferrer was sacked in April 2001. Subsequently, the Catalans appointed club legend Carles Rexach and while he led Barcelona to the semi-finals of Champions League, he could not improve on the previous season’s fourth-place finish in La Liga. Van Gaal had also endured a challenging two years following his departure from the Camp Nou. The Dutchman failed to lead the Netherlands to the 2002 World Cup after finishing third in their qualifying group, behind Ireland and Portugal. After a mediocre spell for both parties, Barcelona and the Van Gaal reunited in 2002. The ensuing campaign was an unqualified disaster. Van Gaal was sacked in January 2003 as the side slumped to sixth place in La Liga. The Dutchman was never quite the same after his time in Catalonia. While he later enjoyed success with AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and the Dutch national side; after his Barcelona side’s struggled with game management, Van Gaal’s approach became far more defensive. His sides were often accused of ‘playing with the handbrake on’ and this culminated with his divisive spell as Manchester United coach. While Van Gaal secured the FA Cup and Champions League qualification for the club, his team’s sluggish build-up play meant they were often difficult to watch. The Dutchman’s sacking in 2016 spelt the end for his managerial career.

After enduring four trophyless campaigns, Barcelona’s newly elected president Enric Reyna brought back a familiar face to oversee the club’s road to recovery. In 2003 Johann Cruyff returned to the Catalan club in an advisory role, tasked with identifying Van Gaal’s replacement. Cruyff recommended yet another Dutchman: Frank Rijkaard. The former Dutch midfielder was a managerial novice; having reached the semi-finals of Euro 2000 with the Netherlands, he subsequently led Sparta Rotterdam to their first-ever relegation. While he was far from an obvious choice, Cruyff’s judgement again proved to be inspired. Rijkaard reinstated the club’s Dutch style of play and led Barcelona to successive La Liga titles, before eventually delivering their elusive Champions League trophy in 2006. Cruyff’s decision to appoint Rijkarrd continued the club’s Dutch philosophy, from Michels to Cruyff to Van Gaal to Rijkarrd; and then to Guardiola. While Guardiola is Catalonian, this arguably elevates him as the most significant name on this list. Guardiola’s appointment as first-team coach in 2008 signalled a seismic shift at the Catalan club. No longer were Barcelona forced to import Dutchmen to carry on their playing style, they could appoint from within. After Guardiola’s departure in 2012, Tito Vilanova, Guardiola’s assistant, was appointed as first-team coach before club legend Luis Enrique returned as manager in 2014. Both Spaniards implemented similar systems to Guardiola; demonstrating that Cruyff’s the integration of Dutch and Spanish ideals had succeeded. Barcelona’s ‘Dutchification’ was complete.

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