A guest contribution written by Jeffery Dalyop (@jeffrey_dalyop_)
“Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.’’ – Johan Cruyff.
EPISODE 1 OF 3. FOOTBALL IS CHANGED – FOREVER!
The year was 1988 when Johan Cruyff took over as Head Coach of Barcelona Football Club. The standout feature of this new Cruyff was the scent of a serial winner which he wore as cologne each morning. What he did as a player was well known but, there was something different about this man. He had a stern look in his eyes. His Aura could be felt on the pores of those who walked past him. The Wrinkled skin & tinges of grey hair that lined the edges of his now receding hairline, were his most prominent features.
Oh the days of a Slender looking Dutch Boy with shiny long hair – who won Barcelona its 1st La-Liga Title in 14 years were long gone. This new man was created within the Halls of Dutch Managerial Intelligencia. You see, everyone knew Johan followed the footsteps of his Mentor Michels at Ajax. Thus, Barcelona decided to take a chance on Johan after a few years of Contemplating the Decision.
(END OF EPISODE 1)
The club was in an insane amount of Debt. Things got so bad at the club that within the fractured board, accusations of assassination attempts reigned. The fans revolted because of the bad performances & skipped games. During matches, the angry echoes of tactical instructions from the bench could be heard.
CRUYFF WALKED INTO A MESS. But, as we would soon learn, adversity is the brain-child of innovation and Cruyff – a visionary who was ahead of most of his peers tactically, relished the challenge.
The Most Difficult Thing About An Easy Match Is To Make A Weak Opponent Play Bad Football – Johan Cruyff.
EPISODE 2. CRUYFF’S DIAMOND
One day, Cruyff invited the players over for a tactical session. He rolled a black board and in his hand was a piece of white chalk. A piece of chalk, he held like a freshly lit cigarette.
Most players smirked, expecting to laugh at the new ‘’IDEA’’ this tobacco addict had. Besides, he always spoke Brouhaha when he had enough fumes in him.
He drew 3 defenders, 4 midfielders & 3 attackers. And with a weird glee, blurted out; ‘’This Is It’’!
Instantly, the coaching staff & players got defensive;
‘’THIS CANNOT WORK!’’
‘’THIS IS THE 442 ERA!’’
‘’WHY SO MANY ATTACKERS?’’
‘’THIS IS NOT HOW WE PLAY IN SPAIN!’’
The reactions were Hardly Reassuring… but, little did they know that that silly 40 second scribble would change their lives & the beautiful game forever.
You see, Cruyff knew that a back 4 maintained at all games states – from Low block to Possession was a waste. Most opposition teams started the press with 2 forwards. He knew that 3 technically competent defenders would be enough to dizzy the forward pressing line.
If the opposition pressed in a 442 (as they did 90% of the time) using 6 players against the oppositions 8 was disastrous up-field as they will always be overloaded.
While these observations seem logical today, Remember we have 2023 hindsight. Most Top coaches at that time stuck to the trusty 442.
His solution was to move a defender into the midfield, change the shape to a morphing back 3 and form a central diamond. The defenders were now Wide centre backs tasked with more responsibility than ‘’blocking shots’’ & ‘’Tackling’’. They were key to the build-up. Koeman was Cruyff’s man. He learnt the role PERFECTLY.
The team had now had triangles all over the pitch.
The team also had: A linkup striker, A fantastic deep midfielder – PEP GUARDIOLA WHO WAS THE HEARTBEAT OF THE SIDE, central midfielders’s at either side of the Midfield diamond, who were the creative hub of the team in the half spaces.
If you stayed too tight on the 8’s, the Widemen could run riot. If you stuck too much on the Wingers, the 8’s would have a fest. Cruyff discovered FIRE!
The diamond shuttled up & down the pitch sowing chaos. Laudrup at the time, was one of the worlds best midfielders & flourished here.
Guardiola, Stoichkov, Laudrup, Koeman & Eusebio are just a few of the stars that were in that Barca team.
Before Cruyff, Barca had won 3 La-liga titles in 30 years.
Cruyffs diamond won Barca 4 La-Liga titles in 8 years. A Copa-Del-Rey. 3 Copa-De-Espana’s. A Champions League. A Uefa Cup Winners Cup & The Uefa Super Cup.
The seeds of Success had been sown.
(END OF EPISODE 2)
”Every professional golfer has a separate coach for his drives, for approaches, for putting. In football we have one coach for 15 players? This is absurd.” – Johan Cruyff
EPISODE 3. DISCIPLES
Many Managers experimented with the Cruyff Diamond after he introduced it to the world. Benitez, Ancelotti, Bielsa & even some of our tactically astute MLS managers. Here is an Atlanta United vs Philadelphia Union game. Look at the Atlanta Set-Up in possession. Cruyffian!
But, Pep Guardiola is the true Disciple of Cruyff. He worked with the great man as a player & developing manager. Guardiola has often used the Diamond’s principles in his teams & even added his own tweaks to the formation.
During his early Barca days, Pep would try many iterations of the diamond with changes in personnel.
Fabregas was an intelligent spear-head of the system. He was one of the first names on the team sheet but would later be dropped.
Messi, Iniesta, Thiago (who Pep would work with in Germany) & Xavi were integral members of the diamond setup. Busquets remained at the base in the ‘’Guardiola Role’’.
Guardiola would take his tricks to Germany where he maintained the deadly diamond. He would continue to apply the trusty diamond & was rewarded with massive success.
But, Guardiola never rests on his laurels. His new gift to the modern game is to use his CBs as members of his diamond. It sounds like a completely crazy idea when you 1st hear it but it gets interesting.
City set up in their usual shape on & off the ball but the tweak is with Stones. Formerly, Pep gave room for the Fullbacks (Cancelo & Zinchenko) to occupy one of the attacking lanes.
Today, all members of the back 4 remain behind the ball with the only iteration being Stones stepping into midfield to form some sort of double pivot with Rodri.
John Stones is playing like Javi Martinez. He is playing this role so well it made me wonder if he used to be a midfielder. Stones is receiving between the lines, dropping his shoulders to evade pressure, executing 1, 2s, threading passes between the lines & recycling play.
To summarise, this point, take a look at this video presentation from Manchester City’s official TIKTOK account. It is an interesting sequence I feel encapsulates the modern evolution of the centre back.
I once got involved in a little debate with a friend, about who started this ‘’Utility CB’’ thing. Franz Beckenbauer was the obvious historic figure for me but my friends Javi Martinez, Mascherano & Nacho of Madrid shouts were interesting with regards to the modern game. Guardiola worked with 2 of those names.
Its clear to see that he is now experimenting with John Stones in his trusty diamond. I believe that John Stones is the perfect guinea-pig for this experiment because he is one of those unicorn CB’s I like to study. There are not many of them & I would like to share how I identify these players with you.
I watch & classify Centre-Backs in 2 ways.
You see, I do not like the current mish-mash approach of studying CBs which a lot of people in the industry employ today.
My approach is like “SET THEORY” where there are 2 elements (A&B) within the sets data. “A” represents the Horizontal aspects of defending & “B” represents the Vertical.
You would observe that there is a 3rd category between the sets A & B. This third category represents the intersection (A n B).
In simple English – It is the grey area where Items of A exist alongside Items of B. This is where I believe, you find your unicorn. Your Stones & Virgil Van-Djik.
I believe that the facets of defending (Vertical & Horizontal) are laid out by the pitch.
- The Vertical facet (Post to Post) which is the length of the pitch.
- And the Horizontal facet (corner flag to corner flag) which is the width of the pitch.
It is also my understanding, that teams ideally pair the guy who is stronger Vertically alongside the guy who is stronger Horizontally, for optimum balance. Take Jagielka & Stones, Kompany & Otamendi, Puyol & Pique, Koscielny & Mertesacker, Vidic & Ferdinand and the list goes on…
However, this is not to say that all CBs must strictly conform to 1 of the 2 categories as we have already explained how some individuals have overlap between our 2 elements – in the grey area.
That said, there is some additional information you need to know about our 2 facets. That is, there are 2 aspects within each facet. Are you lost? Bear with me as it makes sense at the end.
Basically, within Vertical & Horizontal aspects of defending, there are on the ball & off the ball attributes.
Lets go in depth on the Vertical attributes:
On the ball Vertical qualities include;
1. BALL PROGRESSION – This CB is the stereotypical “Ball Playing CB” who aggressively seeks to break pressing lines & play through the oppositions structure to find his outlets.
2. PROGRESSIVE CARRIES.
3. PRESS RESISTANCE & THE ABILITY TO EVADE OPPOSITION PRESSING TRIGGERS.
4. SHARP TURNING RADIUS on the ball which is very rear, as most CBs tend to be the largest people on a football pitch & such trait is more common in the diminutive players, that operate higher up the pitch.
Off the ball Vertical qualities include;
1. RECOVERIES: Most top teams play with an aggressive high-line designed to make the pitch smaller for their opponents. However, this makes balls over the top or those threaded through the eye of the needle for pacey wingers, a constant threat. Recoveries are vital for any top Vertical CB because closing down the acreage the team leaves behind is a non-negotiable.
2. ENGAGING EARLY: Most good Vertical CBs do not allow the opposition settle into the attack. They are quick to make life difficult for forward players & especially strikers by engaging them in duels & tussles higher up the pitch. This prevents them from; constantly defending in a settled block & helps them force turnovers.
In a situation where the CB misreads a charge, he has the afterburners to make dashing recoveries.
3. INTERCEPTIONS: Again, because Vertical CBs do their best work with the length of he pitch, they are licensed to attempt more Interceptions. In my opinion, this is the 2nd most critical part of off the ball vertical work, after Recoveries. Most of the time after an Interception is completed in the midfield, the opposition would be out of their defensive shape. They would be in their 235, 325 or 226 shape with most bodies committed forward. The opportunity to launch a counter attack increases 10 fold. The opposition is instantly on the back-foot, trying to reassemble compactness & fill in gaping holes.
With those points in mind, I want you to pay close attention to this William Saliba presentation from the Arsenal versus Spurs, on the 1st of October 2022 , at the Emirates Stadium.
I consider this performance to be one of the best Vertical Displays from any CB so far this season. Compare what you see to the bullet points discussed about on & off the ball work.
Study how aggressive he is with progressive actions are & how he applies the same intensity in sweeping vertical space that spans the length of the pitch.
I would not spell out all the Horizontal traits as I believe the principle is clear but, I would list the key attributes of Horizontal CBs on & off the ball.
Remember, Horizontal CBs do most of their best work from corner flag to corner flag. They are not your stereotypical “Ball Playing CB”. They are the American Pitbull of the team.
On the ball Horizontal qualities include;
1. RECYCLING: There is not much to do on the ball from corner flag to corner flag except passing sideways. Therefore, this CB is Less Ambitious with the ball. He employs passing simply designed to relieve pressure. Short, sharp & simple passes to his Vertical teammate or the GK.
You see, people often criticise such CBs for being too sideways but it’s a balancing act in the grand scheme of things. Especially when his partner can aggressively break lines.
Off the ball Horizontal qualities include;
1. LAST DITCH DEFENDING: With a defensive partner allowed to step out of the line & influence the game in midfield, it is imperative that this CB remains conservative in his positioning. He is literally the last wall between the attacker & the goal. This means his nose for sniffing danger must remain prime as he often completes difficult tasks in seconds. Mistakes here are what get plastered all over the highlight reels & successful actions hardly get talked about.
2. BLOCKS: Sometimes, the Horizontal CB has to throw his body in the line of fire to ensure goals do not get it. It’s a tricky endeavour as it involves baiting the attacker enough to believe that a clean hit is in sight, while you swoop in to save the day.
3. AERIAL PROWESS: A prerequisite for big strong Horizontal CBs. This CB comes alive in & around his own box. He would defend this territory fiercely as teams would try crosses from deep, set-pieces or ½ space deliveries engineered to exploit gaps a team leaves. A good horizontal CB has a powerful leap, is brave & would not hesitate in putting his head in the direct line of fire.
4. PROTECTING THE CHANNELS: This is perhaps the most underrated aspect of Horizontal CBs. Teams often use the channels as a pressure relief valve when they are transitioning from deep defence to attack. This means that the Horizontal CB must keep the wide man as close to the side-lines as possible because the side-lines act as an invisible defender.
This can be a challenging task especially when CBs come up against electric forwards with a low centre of gravity. Remember the famous Henry vs Carragher battles? What about the famous Sterling vs Van Djik battles? 2 storylines that with alternate endings, that buttress the point.
Finally, some teams use 2 strikers up top, where 1 has the licence to ‘’DRIFT’’. If the Forward is pacey & powerful, it often times means that the defender has to literally duel them off the ball, maintain excellent jockeying, time tackles to perfection & make sure he does not expose the clear path to goal.
CBs as we know them are evolving before our very eyes & the recent displays of John Stones Substantiate this.
CB’s like Kalulu, Eric-Garcia, Ben White, Tomiyasu, Stones, Akanji, Ake, Stones, Kounde & Araujo are all finding their way into Fullback roles where they invert centrally, Use their defensive abilities to quell potential dangers & provide the team with better defensive robustness as more CB’s are on the pitch.
Because this piece focuses on the City & Arsenal rivalry, It is important to note that Guardiola has lined up with a back 4 of 4 CB’s on multiple occasions this season & Arteta has used the same method on several occasions. A good example is the Arsenal vs Liverpool game at the Emirates where Arsenal lined up with a back 4 of White – Saliba – Gabriel – Tomiyasu.
I believe the days of traditional CB’s expected to just block shots & perform defensive responsibilities would soon be behind us – Permanently! CB’s can now possess more rounded capabilities & teams would recruit these guys accordingly.
Guardiola is the poster-boy of Cruyff disciples and we know that the Premier League in the 2022/2023 is basically a 2 horse race between City & Arsenal.
Guardiola vs Arteta. Master vs Apprentice.
What’s interesting is that both teams employ similar Cruyffian principles that have landed them in the top 2 spots & I do not believe that this is coincidence.
Let’s call a spade a spade. Zinchenko would have generated laughs a few years ago if he declared his position in a room full of Macho Men that once dominated the fullback role.
You see, Pep changed the fullback game in England. He had done the same in Spain where his $35m acquisition of Dani Alves was frowned upon by the public & even admittedly by some board members. That was a world record for a fullback. Furthermore, Pep was not afraid to replicate the formula for success. The world began to warm up to the idea of the ‘’Inverted Fullback’’ when Philip Lahm who many thought was at the tail end of his career, progressed for another 5 years by duly applying himself to Peps Prescription.
Perhaps Arteta took note of these bold moves & decided to acquire Zinchenko to turn the fortunes of his team around.
Zinchenko for me is the technical dream. A weapon that allows Arsenal use Variation to build-up. He allows the gunners employ the 2-3 structure where he and the other inverted fullback line up either side of Partey. He also allows the gunners use the 3-2 shape he was famous for pioneering at City where he would become a member of the back 3, thus aiding progression from deep.
With Zinchenko at Arsenal, this Work of ART kicked off vs Sevilla at the Emirates.
Poor Sevilla were the victims of a massacre manufactured in 1988 by a certain Johan Cruyff.
Look at that marvellous diamond! Width is Maintained by the wide men, but intricate technicians are squeezing the opposition centrally by exchanging short passes that are a decoy for the final splitting pass. Forwards receive the splitting passes in space like attack dogs.
Before Zinchenko’s arrival, Arsenal lined up with Partey, Xhaka & Odegaard as the midfielders in a 433. That set-up was very balanced if we are using Brendan Rodgers’ template for a balanced midfield. Brendan Elaborates that a proper 433 has 3 non-negotiable elements.
A destroyer, A tempo-setter (or box to box traits to contemplate for poor tempo setting) & a volume creator.
I like his template as I find it very applicable. I have compared it to some of the greatest 433 midfield setups & it stands the test of time for me. Take Xavi (Tempo setter), Iniesta (Volume Creator) and Busquets (Destroyer) for example.
We can take this a step further & actually put the lens on Brendan’s own team. Going by his map, Leicester City experienced tremendous difficulties once the Maddison (Volume Creator), Tielemans (Box to Box/Tempo Setter) & Ndidi (Destroyer) setup got interrupted by injuries.
Zinchenko is the Overload Master & takes Arsenal up another level as he adds another dimension to an already balanced setup. He anticipates & reacts to the opposition’s antics. He is an outlet to recycle possession & Progress it as he wills. Intelligent, Intelligent Footballer… His midfield genes are really expressed with this new role.
Here are some mid-season stats compiled by the ever reliable SQUAWKA.
The stats match the eye-test which confirms that he is a big creator for Arsenal in the final 3rd. This is a genuine Midfielder!
In summary, we have seen the far-reaching legacy of Johan’s work as we are fortunate to live in an era where 2 different approaches to his life’s work are battling it out for the biggest league title in the world. Both teams have dazzled & entertained us with moments we will never forget. So, good luck to Manchester City & Arsenal F.C. in their respective bids for glory and may the best team Win.
Long Live Johan!