‘The Barcelona Legacy: Guardiola, Mourinho and the Fight For Football’s Soul’ by Jonathan Wilson (2018)

In my early twenties I spent a two week holiday in Thailand with friends.  Typically such holidays involve full moon parties, buckets with mystery booze, and magic mushrooms on ‘Mushie Mountain’. While I was there I spent more time reading Inverting the Pyramid, Jonathan Wilson’s seminal book on the history of football tactics than I did doing basically anything else.  I say this to provide the context that I’m not an objective reviewer of Wilson’s work as I probably enjoy his broad stroke analysis of football’s evolution more than your average reader.

More than the Barcelona Legacy, Wilson tells the story of Johan Cruyff’s legacy and how the modern game has been shaped by coaches who were at Barcelona in some capacity in the early 90’s.   The book traces the tactical evolution of Pep Guardiola, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho  Ronald Koeman, Luis Enrique, and Frank de Boer, and the impact those coaches have had on the game’s overall evolution.  It’s a story of football philosophy and what it means to play football “the right way”.

The clash of Pep and José in Spain is the box office centrepiece of the story – Pep’s Cruyffian ideals versus vs Mourinho ‘s cynical counter attacking football.   Wilson avoids taking sides and presents an unbiased assessment of how the game has developed across Europe.  This is perhaps the best thing about the book as the most popular books to present on any of these figures are generally very biased either in favour of their subject (like Marti Peraneu’s books on Pep) or against (like Diego Torres trashy, brilliant and totally unreliable book on Jose).   Given their current fortunes, it would have been very easy to fall into the trap of declaring Pep the victor in a battle of good vs evil.

Many of the individual details of the book will be familiar to the type of person who generally reads Wilson’s books (i.e. football nerds) who will likely have read many of the books Wilson cities throughout.  However, the book is very well researched with Wilson adding the views of key players like Javier Zanetti or Ricardo Carvalho either from interviews or from biographies that aren’t available in English.  It ensures some fresh and interesting material even for those of us who have devoured the many biographies of the key figures and clubs at the centre of the story.

I enjoyed particuarly the bits of the book that I hadn’t read about elsewhere – Mourinho’s origin story (well he is basically a super-villian), Van Gaal’s post Barca evolution and the turmoil at Ajax were all areas I was less familiar with that are covered well.

Like all of Wilson’s books he can’t resist showing off his literary knowledge with the occasional digression showing how well read he is.  I quite like this about Wilson’s writing – and The Outsider shows this side of his work off the best – but I can imagine it will alienate some readers.  Those interludes are brief and the book quickly gets back to more familiar territory.

What this book excels at is providing a clear joining of the dots by setting Pep, Jose and the others in the context of Cruyff.  Above all it is a testament to Cruyff’s influence on the game and how his approach shaped 25 years of tactical evolution.

Like all Wilson’s work, its a very enjoyable, interesting and thought provoking read.  It leads immediately to a YouTube binge as you try track down some of the more memorable matches and moments.  I think you can tell if you’ll like this book by your response to someone using the phrase post-Cruyffian.  If it makes you think of Guardiola’s possession based football this is the book for you.  If it makes you think ‘tosser’ then it might not be the book for you!

One thing the book left me wondering about is Athletico Madrid’s rise which is noted but not quite explained.  I’ve since ordered Hijacking Laliga by Evan McTear which promises to answer that very question!

The book is accompanied by a 6 part podcast which narrows in on 6 key games covered in the book.  An interesting, and to my mind successful, way of promoting the book while also enhancing the experience for readers.  Hopefully something that catches on.

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‘My Turn’ by Johan Cruyff (2016)

Cruyff was a genius who played a huge role in reinventing football both as a player and a coach. His death rightly prompted a wave of remembrance and reflection on his achievements.

I was too young to see Cruyff play, or to really remember his greatest teams as a coach.  But his influence has loomed large over my football watching – none more so than Pep Guardiola’s magnificent career at Barca, Bayern and Man City.   In the 90’s Eurosport used to show replays of the best World Cup matches from the 70’s and 80’s with modern commentators acting as if the game was live, yet the players had somehow lived another 20 years. Can’t beat lines like “What will Cruyff do next, oh what a pass, it is such a shame that he doesn’t play in the next World Cup”.

One the first great football books I read was Ajax, Barcelona, Cruyff by Frits-Barend and Henk Van Dorp.  This unusual, intriguing book is the closest we have come to a footballing biography / autobiography of Cruyff before My Turn.  Indeed my early football reading was heavily Dutch/Ajax/Cruyff influenced with Simon Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War and David Winner’s Brilliant Orange also among the books I read in my late teens/early 20’s – all three books deserve a reread and a separate blog post.   I also have a keen picture of Cruyff from the various Barcelona books I’ve read over the years, none more so than the excellent Barca: A People’s Passion by Jimmy Burns.  What is clear is that almost everyone reading My Turn will have a preconceived notion of Cruyff – brilliant, arrogant, temperamental, power hungry and lots lots more.

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What is clear is that My Turn could not have been written at any other time in Cruyff’s life.  It is inevitable that his diagnosis with lung cancer led to a period of reflection and consideration of his life’s work.   This book is not a typical footballer’s autobiography.  The book seems to reflect what was on Cruyff’s mind in the years before he died, with more space given over to both the politicking behind the scenes at Ajax from 2010 to 2015 and to Cruyff’s general worldview than is given to the great Ajax side that won 3 European Cups.

His childhood is very much the story of his relationship with Ajax and the many surrogate fathers he found along the way.  He dwells very little on the key matches or moments of his playing career – instead focusing on his relationship with his coaches – the legendary Rinus Michels and the equally important (to Cruyff) Jany Van Der Veen.

The various slights that have led Cruyff to abruptly depart both Barca and Ajax more than once are both covered.  While Cruyff recognises he can be difficult, it is clear Cruyff felt wronged on each occasion and still believes his own actions were the inevitable result of others actions.  He certainly had a sense of his own importance – but then many us are plenty arrogant without 1% of Cruyff’s achievements to back it up.

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His discussion on family is fairly limited – with a focus being on Jordi’s playing career and the impact Cruyff’s own moves had on his son – until the final chapter, but his relationship with his wife is clearly the most significant of his life.   At every point, Cruyff describes events through the prism of his relationships with others though  – Nunez at Barcelona, the board at Ajax, the directors at Washington Diplomats etc.

What shines through most of all is Cruyff’s vision of football.  I felt this was a bit lacking in the book until the last 50 pages when Total Football and how to play it is given the space it deserves.  Anyone who has watched Man City play this season (or Guardiola’s previous teams) will clearly recognise the template. His commitment to this style of play and his willingness to fall out with everyone when it is not achieved is somewhat endearing to me.  Having gone to an Ajax game in 2013 and nearly fallen asleep during a 0-0 draw, I certainty understand where he is coming from in his later discussions on the fall of the Ajax he knew and helped to build.

There are some great and slightly odd anecdotes throughout the book – from his desire to sign Cyril Regis at Ajax, to his involvement with the proposal to move Wimbledon to Dublin (as a peace initiative apparently!).

Part of the book is clearly Cruyff’s attempt to shape his legacy.  But is endearing is that to him the Cruyff Foundation is what counts – he shows less interest in reshaping the narrative of his career than I would have expected other than correcting ‘fake news’ as we would call it today.

Its a book that jumps from the story of a great footballer, to that of a great coach, to that of a celebrity searching for a legacy.  Overall, the book is an insight into the mind of one of arguably football’s greatest genius.  Like the man it probably gets too caught up in personality clashes – I’d have loved more detail on the three European Cup winning team – but is also singular in its vision.  In many ways, the book is Cruyff’s last call to action – play football and play it the right way.

Pep and Cruyff