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When Johan Cruyff signed for Barcelona in a world-record deal in 1973, the Catalan club hadn't won La Liga for 14 years. The Dutchman put that right in his first season.
But between Cruyff's first campaign at the Camp Nou as a player and his eventual return as coach in 1988, Barça only managed to add one more league title to their trophy cabinet, marking a spell of gross underachievement for one of the world's biggest clubs.
Not only did Cruyff once again make speedy amends, winning La Liga in the 1990/91 season after first clinching the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and the Copa del Rey, he set about building a dynasty and laying the foundations for three decades of future success.
The ‘Dream Team', as they became known, espoused a fresh kind of football, a unique twist on the ‘Total Football' created by Ajax and Holland in the 1970s, that saw them dazzle and devastate in equal measure.
Once Barça had regained their grip on La Liga, they clasped tight for four seasons, fending off the threat of a talent-rich Real Madrid side and emerging as the best team in Europe of their era. Although the Dream Team maintained a monopoly on the Spanish top flight for four years, they were not as dominant a force as the Barcelona of Pep Guardiola – a scrawny yet intelligent and technical midfielder at this time – would later be, three times relying on favourable results elsewhere to seal their title triumphs.
But that all played into Barça's charm; they were the team neutrals rooted for, drawn in by the mesmeric skills of Hristo Stoichkov, Romário, Michael Laudrup and Ronald Koeman. Never was a moniker more apt: this Barça side were the fantasists who played dream football on their way to very real success.
The best of the best
It's a testament to Laudrup's immense talent that amid a squad of world-class stars, he stood out, head and shoulder above those around him in terms of technique and intelligence.
Signed from Juventus in 1989, Laudrup, a key player in the iconic ‘Danish Dynamite' Denmark side of the '80s, had been undervalued in Turin and was keen to link up with Cruyff, his boyhood idol, at Barcelona.
In 302 games for Barça, Laudrup scored 70 goals. Throughout his period at the Camp Nou, the Dane was Europe's finest player, an eminently graceful dribbler capable of playing defence-splitting passes on the the run and with either foot.
“When Michael plays it is like a dream, a magic illusion, and no one in the world comes anywhere near his level,” Cruyff said of the former Brondby man, while Andrés Iniesta has gone on record to affirm his belief that Laudrup is the greatest footballer of all time.
Laudrup's versatility and adaptability made him perfect for Cruyff's system, at times occupying a midfield role within it while also pioneering a more advanced remit that would later foster immeasurable success for a certain Argentinian at the Camp Nou. As Jonathan Wilson points out in his superb book Inverting the Pyramid: The History of Football Tactics, Laudrup’s interpretation of the centre-forward role would act as pre-cursor to Guardiola’s usage of Lionel Messi when he became coach of the Blaugrana in 2008.
“In terms of his role,” Wilson writes, “Laudrup was perhaps the forerunner of Lionel Messi: the term ‘false nine’ wasn’t in common usage then but that was essentially what he was.”
During Laudrup's time at Barça, teams were restricted by a rule which dictated only three foreign players could be fielded at any one time. When Romário arrived from PSV Eindhoven in 1993, the Brazilian became Barcelona's fourth non-Spaniard, meaning Cruyff had to rotate between the newcomer, Koeman, Stoichkov and Laudrup.
When Barça reached the Champions League final in 1994, it was Laudrup who was left out, causing a rift between the player and Cruyff which led to the Dane's controversial departure to Real Madrid.
At the Bernabéu, Laudrup's arrival acted as the Catalyst for unseating Barcelona at the summit of La Liga, claiming his fifth title in a row and ending the Blaugrana‘s era of dominance. To rub further salt in Barcelona wounds, Laudrup starred in Madrid's 5-0 destruction of the Catalan side, the exact reverse of the Clásico drubbing he'd instigated for Barça the season before.
But the fact Laudrup is still held in such high esteem on both sides of Spain's bitterest football rivalry speaks volumes about the player. Twice voted the best player in Spain, Laudrup, criminally, never won the Ballon d'Or in his career – he wasn't ever even in the top three. Regardless of a lack of deserved individual recognition, few players have ever glided as gracefully and unpicked defences as effortlessly as the great Dane.
Cruyff's eternal legacy
After taking his first steps into management with boyhood team, Ajax, it seemed only natural that Cruyff would assume the dugout of the other club he is most associated with. A hero in Catalonia not only for his exploits on the pitch at the Camp Nou, but for his social consciousness and connection with the region, what Cruyff achieved at the club as a coach has left Barcelona supporters forever indebted to him.
The Barça Cruyff found in 1988 had become more accustomed to crisis and catastrophe than triumph, enduring long barren stretches while their arch rivals in the capital dominated the domestic scene.
But Cruyff brought with him a philosophy akin to that which he and manger Rinus Michels had implemented at the Camp Nou in the '70s but had long since been forgotten. He reintroduced a method of playing where possession was king, and pressing, teamwork and expression bonded to form an identifiable style that had crystallised within the mind of one of the game's greatest ever thinkers over his career; just as he had as a player, as a coach Cruyff thought about football differently; he had the courage of his convictions and was time and again proven right.
This was perfectly evidenced when he sat in the stands to take in a B team game early in his tenure. The Dutchman instructed the secondary side's coach to switch the team's right winger – who was lightweight, lacking in speed but looked to have a decent technique – into central midfield. The teenage Guardiola was a revelation in his new role, where his vision, intelligence and reliable passing saw him quickly assume the same position for the first team.
Tactically, in an era when 4-4-2 was prevalent, Cruyff saw 3-4-3 as the perfect set-up. Guardiola was the disciplined, organising pivot at the base of midfield; Koeman was the sweeper with license to advance; Txiki Begiristain and Stoichkov would attack from wide while a mobile and creative centre-forward, Laudrup or later Romário, would scheme in the spaces around the attacking midfield focal point.
Guiding Barça to their first European Cup win in 1992 – defeating Sampdoria 1-0 in the Wembley final thanks to a Koeman free-kick in extra time – and maintaining a dynastic domestic success were Cruyff's defining on-field achievements as Barcelona coach, but his legacy stretched far beyond that.
Dismayed at the way the club had neglected their academy, he convinced president José Luis Núñez to overhaul the system, implementing the kind of joined-up thinking that would see youngsters nurtured technically and tactically to prepare them for the senior side – La Masia was born, and has since birthed the likes of Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Iniesta and Messi.