Cruyff: no striker in the box!

H all, a personal note before I start this JC article… I will be traveling in the coming month as one of my dear family members in Europe will need support :-(. I will be posting less regularly, but will do my best to keep the good stuff coming.

May I ask you to have a look at the donation options on the site? Traveling to Europe is pretty expensive these days ;-).

JC: “You can only rotate when one position is not taken. That position needs to be the central striker.”

It was the time of Denis Law, the agile Scot who scored 237 goals for Man United. The times of the golden left of Gigi Riva, scoring one goal per match for the Italians or Der Bomber, Gerd Muller, scoring 500 goals for Bayern Munich! It was the early 70s, a great time for goal scorers. Strikers who only needed one or two touches to tap a ball in. The Dutch had a number of them: Dick van Dijk, Ruud Geels, Willy van der Kuylen, Dick Nanninga…

There were three types of strikers: the mercurial fast ones (Rene van de Kerkhof), the player with the thunder in the thighs (Willy van der Kuylen) and the tall lighthouse target man (Dick Nanninga). Ideally, you had one striker who had this all (Haaland).

And, a striker was always your most advanced man and he was judged on goals.

Cruyff came onto the field as a strange #9. He was never in the point. And he still scored goal after goal after goal. Between 1966 and 1972 he would never score less than 33 goals per season. But the real impact of JC was not as a goal getter of course. His biggest impact was the fact that as a #9, he was hardly ever to be found in that most advanced position.

Johan Cruyff led the line in a way that other players could flourish in the areas vacated by him. The two-footed dribble king was to be found everywhere else. As the playmaker, or as libero, or coming from the left. He called himself, the “playing central striker”. Cruyff’s ability to be that wandering striker made him crucial for the execution of Oranje’s Total Football. Oranje would play people off the pitch with any player able to play on any position. Right wingers became strikers, right full backs ended up as left winger and the central striker became the deep lying playmaker. It was all being done.

Finding the space was sacred. No one was playing on the position as laid out on the line up board in the dressing room! Cruyff would start in the #9 role but would immediately drift away. He went wherever he felt like it. “A little wander here, a little movement there, playing along a bit and then explode into action.”

Watching Feyenoord, Ajax and Oranje play in the early 70s is really fun. Opponents have no idea how to deal with it. Man markers would follow JC across the pitch and ended up leaving huge holes in their defence. Or they simply allowed JC the freedom of the pitch, which is never a good idea against someone with his dribbling skills.

Cruyff’s teams always dominated the ball. There were always ample players around the ball. Ajax and Oranje dominated in that middle zone, which is still sacred in football tactics. The maestro’s partnership with Rep, Rensenbrink and Neeskens in 1974 was phenomenal. These three could score at will helped by the open spaces left by Cruyff.

The legendary #14 explains it in 1977: “There are people who believe I should play in midfield. They don’t get it. The remarkable thing about our football is: everyone is on the move, always. And it starts with me. I start as a striker but leave that space, which starts the big rondo. The defenders of the opponent are now in trouble. Because we come at them from various angles. If they mark me, others will get more space. If they don’t mark me, well… bring it on. They end up always having one defender too few.”

The traditional #9 got replaced by the False 9. The traditional 9 was told: stay high up the pitch, hold on to the ball, go deep and mainly: score. The False 9 is a high playing playmaker, who is focused on the team rotation and performance.

When Cruyff quit his active career, it seemed the false 9 disappeared too. Strikers like Nanninga, of Kees Kist or Peter Houtman and later Wim Kieft brought Oranje back to the traditional 9. Only when Cruyff returned to Barcelona in 1988 was the False 9 back. The Dream Team.

In 1989, Michael Laudrup was seen as one of the most elegant players in football but it wouldn’t happen for him in Italy. He used to play left winger or #10. Stoichkov was Barca’s #9 but Cruyff put the explosive Romanian on the wing and placed Laudrup in the striker role.

Cruyff was obsessed with creating triangles, and we’re not talking about the musical version of it. With Ronald Koeman as libero, Guardiola as defensive mid, attacking midfielder Bakero and striker Laudrup he had a spine in his team which could pass themselves out of danger. Barca’s dream team resembles the Tiqui-Taca team of Guardiola decennia later.

It was Guardiola who used the best player ever ™ as the false striker in his team. The birth day of the Star of Superstar was May 9, 2009. In Pep’s first season, Barca was four points adrift from Real Madrid. On day 34, El Classico was on the program and the pressure on Guardiola was immense. Barca missed the title two seasons in a row now and the 2-2 at Valencia on the 33rd playing day added to the pressure. And so, Guardiola called Messi, the night before the game. Could Leo maybe drop in for a bit?

At 10.30 pm, the 21 year old Lionel Messi enters Pep’s office. Marti Perarnau, the author of “Pep Confidential” explains the situation as such: “The 21 year old enters and Pep shows him a video. He freezes the video and shows Messi the space on the pitch. He wants Messi to work in these spaces. He calls it “the Messi Zone”. And he tells Messi: “I want you to start from the wing, as per normal. But when I signal you, I want you to dart through the middle. And when Xavi or Iniesta have the ball, you go. Straight ahead, and you’ll be face to face with Casillas.”

Pep didn’t tell anyone about this. He only told his assistant Vilanova the day before the match. Xavi and Iniesta were told during the warming up. What followed was a master class of football, with a 2-6 win at the Bernabeu for Barca. Samuel Eto’o suddenly played on the right wing and Messi would drift in and out of the zone where the older and massive Madrid defence would be. Xavi would later comment: “Pep changed the whole plan. With Messi as false 9, with Henry and Eto’o in the half spaces, forcing the defenders to decide. Leo, Andres and I could dominate in this way. It was one of the best games in my career.”

Barca would win the the triple that year. In the CL finals v Man United, he used the same trick. Eto’o started centrally but after 10 minutes he switched with Messi, who would win the finals for Barca with a header!

For quite some time, the false 9 was ignored or even forgotten by the rest of the football world. Through the decennia we have seen amazing #9s, from Papin to Zlatan, from Van Nistelrooy to Benzema, from Lewandowski to Peter Crouch, from Raul to Shearer and from Berbatov to Henke Larsson… But in 2022, we do see shifts. The “playing central striker” would be a good moniker maybe? At Liverpool, their #9 ( Firmino) usually plays in service of the danger men on the wings (Salah and Mane). At Cheslea, Lukaku warms the bench often while wandering Havartz is often preferred. At City we see different false 9s all the time, from Phil Foden to Sterling to De Bruyne.

Cruyff was ahead of his time, as we all know. Every modern team these days, is looking for a type of Cruyff striker. A player who can let the team play better by being absent.

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  1. Great article Jan. I’m a big fan of the evolution of the game, and it does seem like the traditional number 9 role has been fading over the years (especially in Holland).

    On that note, our Provisional Squad came out today. Most people will be excited to see Karsdrop included, and likely absolutely baffled to see Vincent Janssen. Hateboer, Dumfries, Karsdrop, Teze at RB and Blind, Wijndal, Malacia at LB, it does look like LVG will be experimenting with his fullbacks a bit.

  2. Nice article Jan! And have a safe good trip to Europe !

    Btw , finally I’m glad to see Kardorp been selected. Now I do hope he can get enough chances and impress Van Gaal!

  3. Thank you guys. Yes, great news on Karsdorp. I can’t see Hateboer getting into the final squad.

    Vincent Janssen is a typical Van Gaal move. He likes that type of striker. The “Van Gaal type” he calls them. Players who will be able to play with their back to goal, using their body and having eye for runners around them. I can see a role for him. His mentality is amazing.

  4. Great article Jan. Teams with players capable of interchanging positions can be difficult to play against.

    Very happy just to see Karsdorp in the provisional squad, hope he makes it to the final cut-off. Can’t imagine Hateboer to be chosen ahead of him. I see Karsdorp as one of the two RB, the other Dumfries.

    As this point, I feel the below players are locked in for the final 23, barring any collapse in form or injuries.

    Danjuma, Gakpo, Depay
    Blind, FDJ, Teun, Dumfries

    VVD, de Vrij, De Ligt

    Noa Lang

  5. Gravenberch for me holds the key for this team to go very far or even win the WC,if he can bring his A game which we have seen in some of those CL games and be consistent both defensively and offensively.

    If van Gaal can bring the best out of him going forward with Nations league and then till the WC. I will say bring on any team.

    Also lets hope for Ihattaren as well to get back to his best. This is obivously going to be on the card with the upcoming training camps in the prep for new season.

    A midfield of ihattarren, Gravenberch and Frenkie would be top notch.

  6. Im suprised by Janssen selection though. His form in Mexico has been below average and instead van gaal should have gone for either Brobbery or Zirkzee.

    Brobbery is a very good impact player and even an upgrade to Luck de Jong. Just like Depay and his beastly built, Brobbery can bring the same threat even ariel to the team. I would have gone for him.

  7. Will be interesting to see what happens with Brobbey. By all accounts, he’s trying to move back to Ajax, but it’s rather unlikely they’ll continue to use two strikers, which would put him as backup striker to Haller, unless Haller leaves.

    1. I dont think Brobbery will develop any further in Eredivisie and he should focus on competing for spot at Leipziq. He will score those typical brobbery goals for fun as we have seen in erdivisie where he uses his giant physic to his advantage and pounce onto through balls, ariel balls including tap ins. if he satys at Ahax , he will simply get accustomed to the average competitive environment of eredivsie and will continue to play catch up when he moves to more competitive league.

  8. Philippe clement has done a very good job at Monaco since taking over from Club Brugge . they have climbed to 2nd spot and if they win their last which is vs Lens they qualify for champions league. Moanco were lying mid table when Clement took over from Niko Kovac. they beat PSG,lyon, Marseille, Rennes, Nice, Lille who all were above them. also in his Fold boadu has seen some considerable minutes and has hit the ground running (4 goals) mostly coming of the bench to replace Ben Yedder.

    If Monaco pips Marseillie to the second spot and qualify for Cl , Clement is very likely to bring Noa Lang to Moanco as he knows how to utilize him to his best ability like at Club Brugge when under him, Lang showed his lethal form .

  9. Hamburg are just 90 minutes away from getting promoted back to Bundasliga. Ludovit Reis scored the winner in the first leg vs hertha and go into the second leg with a home game and 1 goal cushion advantage. Fingers crossed they dont collapsed. Reis is a versatile midfielder and can be good addition in NT if his development continues in Bundasliga too flight . In my projection for 2024-2026 dream team

  10. Ihattaren

    This will the dream midfield combo if things fall into its places and all get the nod at some point.

  11. A look at Ligue and how it finished for the dutch contingent there.

    Boadu and Monaco finished second and qualify for CL. As Mentioned earlier a big round of applause to philippe clement who did an exceptional job there since taking over. The future for boadu looks bright there and next season with CL football, he should get more minutes and continue with his development. 6 goals and 1 assists in all competitions which was mostly of the bench.

    At Nice, kluivert, stengs and Rosairo finish 6th and qualify for the Conference league. Kluivert has been the standout of the three and it remains to be seen whether Roma decides to cash on him or keeps him. A very good season for him by his standards. 31 games in all competitions 6 goals and 5 assists.

    For Stengs, this would be the season he will wanna forget and move on. Pretty much couldnt fit in coach Gailter’s 4-4-2 style of play. His defensive deficiency and workrate was a major contributor of him falling back in pecking order. He will really need to work hard next season or if not should find a team where he can gets to play in a formation where he can thrive better.

    Rosario may not have being standout but was instrumental as ever in the midfield like during the PSV days. Doing the dirty work.

    Remis finished mid table and both Matusiwa and Van Bergen were heavily involved in the team. Matusiwa being extensively used of the two and must say he had a very debut season especially when you look at his stats which standouts. Another season or so he will attract big clubs.was a powerhouse in the midfield for Remis.

    Botman and Lille also finished mid table and it was evident it all collapsed for them when when Christopher Galtier departed for Nice. Good news for him though, he is on his way out from the club with Milan and Newcastle both battling to sign him. Milan have said to have agreed personal term with him.

    Bizot at Brest considered 57 goals and though its has to be seen from an over all team point of view, it sums up his his debut season.

    For Simons – N/A

    Lastly Dilrosun on loan from hertha were relegated after Bordeaux finished last but I have to say he was one of the standout players in the team and had a good season from his development point of perspective. Hertha are also locked in relegation battle and his future looks uncertain at the moment. He needs to continue on this trajectory and looking at his performance this season you can tell when this guy reaches his prime and on track he will become a lethal winger.

  12. In promotion and relegation battle, Excelsior emphatically beat Hearcles in both legs 3-0 and 3-1 to seal the move back to eredivisie. Emotions ran high after the final whistle after Heracles fans threw smoke pots on the field showing their dismay. They get relegated after 17 years. For Excelsior, if I recall correctly they were in the driving seat of eerste divisie towards the end of second half of the season but a run of poor form show them drop out of the top 3. Their star man Thijs Dallinga ended the season with 35 goals and 9 assists and also scored in both legs and certainly will be the man to watch next season. He was also crowned the best player of the season which was awarded to him by Van Gaal.

  13. My poor AZ was able to pass Heerenveen in the battle for the ticket towards the Conference League qualification. Jordy Classie was phenomenal in the last game. His passes were beautiful, and he was able to orchestrate and control the game as Teun Koopmeiners did in the past. AZ will meet Vitesse in the final. The stadium was semi-full. I do not blame fans as AZ have been very poor in the last two months. They are tried to see their team’s conceding goals in the last final five minutes….

  14. Managed to catch the highlights of the game and must say clasie rolled back the years with those trademark over the head pinpoint passes

    If he was little bit more robust or aggressive, he would have made it big. sometimes he easily gets bullied off the ball and he nearly gave away ball in dangerous position to heerenveen after getting bundled out in a tackle. Luckily for him heereveen couldnt capitalize on it.

    That Hungarian LB for AZ also looked good.

  15. Hard luck for Hamburg as they collapse at home losing 2-0 ( Agre 2-1). This is the fourth season in row they have bombed their chances of to sealing a move back to Bundasliga.

  16. Just a correction. excelsior is still in playoffs and the winners of vs ADO Hag will get promoted to eredivisie. not surre if the format somewhat changed. the winners of the playoffs usually plays the third last team in the eredivisie which was heracles.

  17. The 6 Eerste Divisie Teams play for 3 semi-final spots, and are joined by the 16th placed team from the Eredivisie in the semi’s. Excelsior beat Heracles this year.

  18. Thanks Wilson and others for the updates. Clasie was indeed on top form. He is definitely value for Oranje in this form. Van Gaal trusts him. Excelsior has surprised me with neat and technically astute football. I’d like to see them in the Eredivisie.

    Bayern has increased their bid on Ajax’ Gravenberch. PSV is flirting with Luuk de Jong, just like PSG is courting Frenkie de Jong.

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