In a revealing interview, Michael Laudrup has spoken to Danish newspaper Politiken on the coaching style of the late Johan Cruyff.
Former playmaker Laudrup won the Spanish title four times under Cruyff at Barcelona, becoming an essential part of the Dream Team that captured the club’s first European Cup.
However, despite the romantic view of that side due to the beautiful football they, and the subsequent successful Barcelona teams, played – including today’s incarnation – Laudrup insists the style was born out of constant training drills and the simplification that Cruyff preached, over and over again.
When the football lovers of today sit in front of the TV screen and see Barcelona play, many are likely to believe that the club easily plays as well as they do because they have such good players. But it is an erroneous conclusion.
Behind the success in Barcelona, behind the style that still marks the club containing Messi and other prominent players, is training, training and training – repetitions. Conceived and shaped by Cruyff from 1988 when he joined the club.
Cruyff had no sentimental, romantic relationship to the game. For him it was important to win. He just felt that the style of the secure, rehearsed passes were the best way to get to victory.
According to the former Danish Number 10, in training the greatest asset Cruyff had in his armoury was his ability to simplify his instructions down to the most basic, succinct form, often adjusting otherwise long sentences and intellectual tactical talk to something that could be explained in 15 seconds or less, citing the following example:
Cruyff said that the best and most intelligent ball players would be used in midfield. He viewed they should have good defensive and attacking players, but it was the middle where one had to keep the ball and control the game. If not managed, both attack and defence was in trouble.
And whilst training was tough and demanding, especially for new recruits not accustomed to his methods, it always remained inspiring and never dull – something which stayed with Laudrup once he became a coach himself.
90 percent of the new players who came to Barcelona in the five years I was in the club needed three months to ‘learn’ to participate in training in a proper way. All our exercises had the element that we needed to win the ball, hold onto it and conquer it again. The ability to put yourself in advantageous positions all the time – to avoid running as much for the ball, but let it do the work.
I have tried to convey it in my training work to develop the players and their understanding of the game. The players I’ve taught have found it inspiring and instructive.
It’s this DNA which has remained at the core of the club, with elements refined and adapted by subsequent former player-turned-coaches, Guardiola and Luis Enrique; moving the ball sharply and effectively whilst making the opponents run and chase until they tire and eventually succumb to the inevitable – death by a thousand cuts passes. Laudrup asserts that winning, not looking good, was Cruyff’s major aim – but the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
When he came to Barcelona they were a great club in Spain, but were far from winning all competitions. Now look what’s happened since then – see how dominant the club is in Spain and Europe. It can thank Cruyff’s Barcelona for this – his imprint is colossal.
His concept of the game in Barcelona obviously took a long time to rehearse back in the 80s and 90s – and it took time for the audience to understand the need to pass back and forth, around and around. But today, all of it is a matter of course. It is the road to success. Now it’s honed – and the difference between then and now is the unique front three [Messi, Suarez and Neymar].
However Laudrup is quick to point out there was also an immeasurable, intangible quality enjoyed by Cruyff’s Barcelona, which no amount of training can bring about – luck. Or did they make their own?
If you have to get results, you must also search to be successful; and that is what we did. In the last three of the four league championships I won with Cruyff we lay in second place going into the final round of matches. Yet we won, because the leading team could not finish.
On his own more personal experiences with Cruyff and their relationship as player and manager – which included a fall-out leading to the Danish fantasista defecting to Real Madrid – Laudrup remains philosophical and leaves no doubt about the positive influence the Dutch legend had on his career; particularly at the point where he could have begun to stagnate, having played second-fiddle to Michel Platini at Juventus for so long.
Cruyff brought me to Barcelona at a time when I was up and down in my career, and when something new should happen in my development. It was a great time for me.
90 percent of my memories from my days with Cruyff are good. I had great respect for him and still think of him as ‘my coach’.
And the last 10 percent? Why make something out of that when the overall picture is very positive.
I’ve had many good coaches, but I learned most from Cruyff. He has given a lot to football – but he did it to win. And remember, it’s victories that are the biggest stories in football.