A King and his Prince: Rinus Michels, not Johan Cruyff, is the originator of Barcelona's style and must not be forgotten

Andy West 11:11 23/01/2020
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Rinus Michels

More than 1,000 passes; more than 80% of possession; a back three pressing high up the field; touchline-hugging wingers; the incorporation of a ball-playing youngster from the youth team; the team’s chief creative force given a free central role.

Quique Setien’s managerial debut with Barcelona certainly lived up to his earnest promises to bring back the club’s patented style of play, which has slowly but surely dissipated over the last few years.

It is far too early to draw any conclusions about how much success Setien will enjoy at the Camp Nou in the wake of his team’s 1-0 victory over Granada on Sunday night, but we have already seen exactly how the former Real Betis coach will approach his job. Functional 4-4-2 formations are out, jettisoned in favour of a hybrid 3-5-2/4-3-3 featuring Sergi Roberto as a central defender, Riqui Puig and Arthur in midfield, Ansu Fati and Jordi Alba as wing-backs, Lionel Messi as a false nine and Antoine Griezmann as a roaming, mobile centre forward.

We also know exactly where Setien’s ideas have come from. Ever since he became successful enough as a manager – during his time with tiny Galician club Lugo, who climbed to their highest ever position under his tutelage – Setien has never been shy to hide his identification with the ideas of Johan Cruyff, going so far to claim that he only started to understand football after he played against the Dutchman’s Barca team.

All of this fits in nicely with the predominant ideas at his new home. As far as many Barca fans are concerned, Cruyff is quite simply The King. The man who gave the club its philosophy. The greatest progenitor and protector of football’s most sacred ideals.

Except he isn’t. Cruyff was not the king, but the prince, inheriting and improving upon the ideas of somebody else. Another Dutchman, who brought Cruyff to Catalunya in the first place and who was responsible more than anyone for implementing the style of play now recognised all over the world as ‘Barca football’; yet a man, strangely, whose legacy appears to be in danger of disappearing: Rinus Michels.

THE KING AND THE PRINCE

The story is a familiar and famous one: Johan Cruyff moved to Barcelona in 1973 and immediately became a folk hero by inspiring the team to their first Spanish league title since 1960, masterminding a 5-0 victory at Real Madrid just a few months after his arrival and further endearing himself to the locals by naming his son Jordi, the most common Catalan first name.

Cruyff later returned to the club as manager and greater glories soon followed as he moulded the original Dream Team, a magnificent set of players such as Romario, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup, Ronald Koeman and skinny young midfielder Pep Guardiola. Together, they set a new benchmark for excellence by winning three league titles and the club´s first ever European Cup in 1992, performing thrilling attacking football in the process.

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What’s more, Cruyff also left a long-term legacy at Barca by laying the foundations of a youth development system which later delivered another group of world-class players to usher in another golden era under his protégé Guardiola, who applied the lessons he learned under Cruyff to craft a dazzling team of superstars which won everything and did so in unforgettable fashion.

All of the above is perfectly true. Cruyff did this and much more, and his place as one of the greatest figures in the history of football cannot be questioned even for one second. Quique Setien could not choose a more appropriate role model as he sets about his new job.

It is often overlooked, though, that Cruyff only came to Barcelona in the first place to answer the summons from his mentor, Michels, who had coached him for six years at Ajax. Together they turned a previously moderate team into invincible superpowers, winning four league titles and then the European Cup in 1971 – at which point Michels decided to take up a new challenge by attempting to reawaken the sleeping giants of Barcelona.

Cruyff had spent years absorbing everything Michels taught him, and he continued to do so after their reunion at the Camp Nou – and also on the international stage, where they were denied the glory which most neutral observers felt they richly deserved as they suffered a 2-1 defeat in the 1974 World Cup Final against hosts West Germany.

And so, years later, when Cruyff took up the managerial reins himself, he was very much following in Michels’ footsteps. Yes, he tweaked Michels’ the system into an approach more suitable for the faster game that had developed in the meantime. Cruyff’s football was not an exact replica of his mentor’s and he had his own ideas. The basis of the system he employed, though, was not his own, but the one laid down by Michels two decades previously.

THE REST IS HISTORY

Born in Amsterdam in 1928, Michels was on Ajax´s books as a youngster before his career was rudely interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. When hostilities concluded, he moved up to Ajax’s first team squad and, at the age of 18, scored five goals on his debut.

He remained a mainstay of the Ajax team for more than a decade, averaging a goal every other game as a languidly creative forward and earning a handful of caps for the full Netherlands team. Chronic back injury forced his retirement at the age of 30, but Michels had always been a keen student of the game and soon launched his coaching career with local amateur club JOS Watergraafsmeer. He then took another modest Amsterdam team, AFC Door Wilskracht Sterk, to the 1965 European Cup quarter-final, at which point Ajax decided their former star player was worthy of recruiting as their new coach.

The rest is history. Really, truly. And not just a small part of football’s history books, but one of the most important chapters. The phrase ‘Total Football’, first applied to Michels’ all-conquering Ajax, has entered the sport’s everyday lexicon. Players such as Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol and Johnny Rep, gliding across the field in Michels’ carefully choreographed dance, changed conceptions of how football could be played. Years later, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten did the same when Michels, then 60, led the Netherlands to the 1988 European Championship title. The sport was changed forever, irrevocably guided down the path of controlled passing and organised interplay ahead of the rugged masculinity of English football or the individual flair of the Brazilians.

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A new dawn had broken, Michels was the architect, and aside from Ajax the first club to harvest the fruits of his revolutionary thinking was Barcelona. He spent six years at the Camp Nou over two separate spells, bringing his version of Total Football to Catalunya and allowing the club to finally escape from the clutches of their long-held inferiority complex to Real Madrid. Recruiting Cruyff was, of course, a key element of that strategy, ultimately ensuring that his work was carried into the next generation of talent when Cruyff returned as coach more than a decade later.

During his own lifetime, Michels’ legacy and place among football’s pantheon of greats seemed secure – most notably when he was named FIFA’s coach of the century in 1999. In the last decade or so, however, he has become increasingly overlooked, or even forgotten. Media coverage of Setien’s appointment, for example, was dripping with exhaustive detail of his Cruyff connections; of Michels, barely a word was spoken.

As great as Cruyff undoubtedly was, we should not allow his mentor to become marginalised.

EVOLUTION AND ADAPTION 

If you go back far enough, very few innovations are genuinely original: Albert Einstein was inspired by the ideas of David Hume when he developed his famous theory of relativity; Jimi Hendrix adopted and adapted the techniques of blues musicians Muddy Waters and Albert King when he reinvented rock guitar.

And so it was with Michels. Although his Total Football had never been seen before in such a sophisticated form, it was really an evolution of the strategies previously employed by English former Ajax coaches Jack Reynolds and Victor Buckingham (who preceded Michels at the Camp Nou), while also bearing striking similarities to the ‘Magnificent Magyars’ Hungarian team of the 1950s, who bewildered England by fielding centre forward Nandor Hidegkuti as a false nine during an iconic 6-3 victory at Wembley in 1953.

The line backwards – from Michels to Buckingham to Reynolds and beyond – also extended into the future after he exported his system from the Netherlands to Barcelona: from Michels to Cruyff to Louis van Gaal to Frank Rijkaard to Pep Guardiola. And now, after the more pragmatic and direct approaches employed by Luis Enrique and Ernesto Valverde, new boss Setien is reviving the old methods…ideally, if all goes well, serving as the perfect bridge to the next incumbent, Xavi.

After Michels died in 2005, Cruyff observed: “Both as a player and a coach, there is nobody who taught me as much as Rinus Michels.”

Now Quique Setien is reviving those lessons, and his team does not play Cruyffian football. They play Michelsian football.

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