When City walk out at the Estádio do Dragão this evening, the influence and ideology of a man that many believe changed the way football is played will be evident from the first minute of the game to the last.
To Pep Guardiola, Johan Cruyff represented everything he wanted to be as a coach and a manager and he would become a devoted student of Cruyff’s, eventually graduating with honours.
First it was Ajax, then Barcelona and now, it is Manchester City that are benefitting from that vision and the beliefs the Dutch master promoted from his days as a player through to transforming Barcelona into the club they are today as their head coach.
He was, quite simply, a visionary. A brilliant footballer who became a brilliant coach – a rarity indeed - and somebody who spotted the spark of genius in Pep from the first moment he saw him play – ironically at the La Masia academy he had first suggested needed be created when he was a Barca player back in ‘79.
As a player, Cruyff was without doubt one of the finest to ever grace the game. His stats for Ajax and Barcelona over a 15-year period are phenomenal and added in with spells in the North American Soccer League, his 402 goals in 702 games speaks for itself and his playing career stretched for 20 years.
During the 1970s, there was Brazilian legend Pele, with his energy, goals, and brilliance. There was Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer with his leadership and exemplary reading of the game. And there was Holland’s Johan Cruyff with his grace and artistry that was balletic and beautiful. It all came so easily for him.
His move into management was as smooth as the delightful drag-back he performed in the 1974 World Cup that became known as ‘The Cruyff Turn’ and, of course, it began with his first love, Ajax, where totaalvoetbal - Total Football – the theory that all players in the team could play each other’s role comfortably – was first employed.
Even as a youngster, he had very strong and definite views on how football should be played.
“Winning is just one day, a reputation can last a lifetime,” said Cruyff. “Winning is an important thing, but to have your own style, to have people copy you, to admire you, that is the greatest gift.”
After winning the Dutch Cup twice and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Ajax during a three-year stay in the hot-seat, Barcelona, with just two La Liga titles in 30 years, turned to Cruyff to revive their fortunes.
The rest, as they say, is history.
He returned to the Nou Camp to manage the club in 1988 with a plan to change the way the club played their football, from grass roots upwards and to in effect, build a dynasty that could be continued by those who came later.
“After he coached Ajax he came to Barcelona,” said Pep. “It was a big club but it didn’t have a specific football culture. We had one Argentina coach who played an Argentinian style, then came a German coach who played a German style. But then Johan arrived and he said: ‘Guys, now we play this way.’
“When I was there you see seven‑year-old kids doing the same training session, with the same patterns, as the first team. He created something from nothing and you have to have a lot of charisma and personality.
"Everybody knows about football but you need the charisma to say: ‘You must go in that way,’ and everybody follows. That’s so difficult to find.”
In his first few days back at the Nou Camp, Cruyff made an impromptu visit to the Mini Estadi to watch Barcelona B play, observing the game and those on the pitch and as half-time approached, he walked over to ask coach Charly Rexach the name of the boy playing in right midfield
“Guardiola – a good lad,” came the reply.
Cruyff then told Rexach to play the 17 year-old as a holding midfielder in the second half and pivot the midfield – even though it was an unusual role in Spanish football at the time. Rexach nodded and made the switch - and the teenage Guardiola seamlessly made the transition without question.
From there, he began to learn the role and excel as time went on.
Cruyff kept a watchful eye on Guardiola’s progress and it wasn’t long before he was promoted to the senior squad. But his first appearance for Cruyff’s Barcelona in May 1989 didn’t go the way Pep had hoped – in fact, he was convinced his career at the Nou Camp was over before it had begun. At half-time during a friendly against lower league side Banyoles, Cruyff accused Pep of being ‘slower than my grandmother.’
“I was in a bad way because it was my first friendly in the first team,” recalled Pep. ”It was in the summer against a team in the third division. I wanted to play the second half and Cruyff said: ‘No.’ Just like that. I sat there and thought: ‘Never again will I play for the first team at Barcelona. It’s over.’ “
Of course, Cruyff was far from finished with the teenager and instead would carefully ease him into the side over time as he continued to learn his trade, and 18 months later, when holding midfielder Guillermo Amor was suspended, Pep finally made his La Liga debut for Barca. He would make just four appearances in his debut campaign, and during that period, he began to understand how Cruyff was moulding him and those around him into better players.
“At 18 you are a student, you are a child, not just in terms of the tactics and the mental approach but how they teach you every single day,” said Pep. “Johan was part of our training sessions and of course, he was much better than us. He was not sitting there. Johan loved formations and he played alongside us in the boxes, in the games. It was a masterclass every single training session, every single game, analysing why we play good or bad. It was like going to university every day.
“We all feel that hunger in football, but this was not the same as being hungry to make it. With Cruyff it was different. He deepened and changed the hunger so you became conscious of why you are getting better. It was often simple. He would shout at me: ‘Control with the left, control with the left!’ because in the beginning I only used my right foot. He made me use both feet. Even now I use this with my players.
“But he had such vision. That’s why I called him many times to get his thoughts when I had the idea of moving into coaching.
“I thought I knew about football but when I started to work with him a new world appeared in front of me. Not just me – but a whole generation of players. Johan helped us understand the game. Football is the most difficult game in the world because it is open and every situation is completely different and you have to make decisions minute by minute. But I was a lucky guy. I am sitting here now because I met him. If not for him, it would not have been possible.”
The 1991-92 season would see Pep take make the holding role in Cruyff’s side his own – it was a collection of players that would be nicknamed the ‘Dream Team’, as the Catalonians enjoyed an unprecedented period of success as they won 11 trophies including four successive La Liga titles and the European Cup during Cruyff’s tenure – also reaching the European Cup Winners’ Cup and another European Cup final – and all playing the beautiful football that would become synonymous with Barcelona over the past 30 years.
“He was the most influential person in football history,” said Pep during an interview in The Guardian in 2016. “He changed not one club. He changed two clubs – as a player and a coach. It’s impossible to find another guy like this. After he was a coach at Ajax and then he came to Barcelona. It was a big club but it didn’t have a specific football culture.
"In terms of football, he was my father. He was God for me. It was something unique. The influence of his vision is so huge (for me). It is maybe 80 per cent of it. "
Guardiola enjoyed every minute of Cruyff’s time at the Nou Camp, but he admits that he had to work incredibly hard to be part of a Dream Team that included Txiki Begiristain, Michael Laudrup, Romario, Ronald Koeman and Hristo Stoichkov.
“Cruyff is, by a long way, the manager who taught me the most, the coach from whom I learnt the most, and now so that nobody doubts it, Cruyff is also the manager who made me suffer the most,” said Pep.
“With a mere glance he gave you goose bumps and made your blood run cold.
“When you looked at him you had the feeling that he was always a step ahead. Few men dominate every aspect of football as Cruyff did. He was a genius.
“Before he came we didn’t have a cathedral of football, this beautiful church, at Barcelona. We needed something new. And now it is something that has lasted. It was built by one man, by Johan Cruyff, stone by stone. That’s why he was special.”
“As a player he turned football into an art form,” added former Barcelona president Joan Laporta. “Johan came along and revolutionised everything. The modern-day Barca started with him, he is the expression of our identity, he brought us a style of football we love.”
Pep spent 11 years as a first team player with Barcelona, playing close to 400 games and winning 15 trophies. After five years of travelling around the world with various clubs, absorbing as much as he could from as many great coaches along the way, before returning to Catalonia where he was appointed manager of Barcelona B in June 2007.
A year later, he replaced Frank Rijkaard as Barcelona’s new manager and in his first season he won an unprecedented treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League – becoming the youngest manager to win it at that stage
“I would not be able to do what he did. You hear all these people saying: ‘Oh Pep, what a good manager he is.’ Forget about it. Cruyff was the best, by far. Creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing. That’s why, when I was Barcelona manager, I went to see Johan many times. I made especially sure I went a lot in my first year when we won everything, absolutely everything.
“I always went that season to see Johan to try to make him feel how grateful I was to him. Of course I wanted to talk to him about new ideas, but the main feeling I always had when I said goodbye was that he might feel how pleased I am and see how deep my gratitude goes.”
“He didn't have preparation methods and he trusted others to take decide how to train, but he did have a playing method. He didn't move onto plan B, as he instead made plan A stronger.”
“He was the most influential person in football history. He changed not one club. He changed two clubs – as a player and a coach. It’s impossible to find another guy like this.
“He was the most courageous coach and manager I ever met. When he smells the talent it doesn’t matter if the age is 16 or 17 because he believed in, what in Spain we call, the efecto mariposa [butterfly effect]. For him one good pass at the beginning could create absolutely everything.
“People always talk about the best managers, talking about prizes, how many titles, but that’s a huge mistake. The best managers win lots of titles because we are at big clubs with big players. But it is about how they influence the new generation, how they influence their players. The influence on all of us was, wow, outstanding, amazing, huge. It’s not comparable to anyone because he was special.”
And ahead of the biggest game in City’s long and proud history, Pep is channelling everything he learned from his great friend and mentor…
“I need my team to have possession,” he said. “You can lose with possession, but more likely you will lose with less possession. We must do what we believe. I believe in possession. I know everyone wants to copy the winner – but in football and sport no one wins for ever.
“I learned from Johan Cruyff that when you arrive at these stages, there is only one thing you can do and that's enjoy the game. Enjoy the responsibility and the pressure.
Enjoy the fact that you have not lived more of these situations. That is elite. Top players enjoy this situation because they take the responsibility.
“That's why the greatest win this competition and the greatest clubs win this competition because they play it as a friendly game. We know how tough it is to be here, that's why Cruyff had the idea - 'guys, once we arrive in the Champions League final, there's no reason to be worried, sad or concerned about what's going to happen - if we lose, we're going to try again next season'.
“Once you arrive at this stage, you're nervous because you're thinking of the consequences, not the joy of playing the game and the pleasure of beating them. You have to face them and say 'you're good, we're good too, so let's go'. This is the mindset that the greatest teams and athletes in all sports have. If we want to take this step, like we have done in many years, we have to do it.
“Of course, my teams play football the way I believe it should be played but the basis comes from before, from my mentor, from Cruyff.”
Perhaps we should leave the final words to Johan's son, Jordi...
"If my father could choose one person to sit beside him, I am quite sure it would be Pep," he said. "I can assure you my father was a big fan of Barcelona but also of Bayern Munich and in these last years, if he could still watch football, I think he’s probably going to be a big Manchester City fan."
With thanks to Gordon McRae of The Guardian.