Talking tactics with Jordi Cruyff: Modern football is all about angles

Son of Dutch master Johan Cruyff is well respected in the game having held various roles at Barcelona and overseas. He sits down with Andy Mitten to offer insight on Real Madrid's 3-3 draw with Manchester City and what to look out for in the second leg

Powered by automated translation

A painting of Johan Cruyff dominates one wall in Jordi Cruyff’s Barcelona home, watching over his son. On another, a large television shows Real Madrid about to host Manchester City.

I’ve been invited to watch the game with Jordi who has been in football all his life and worked around the world. He played in Spain with Barcelona, Celta Vigo, Espanyol and Alaves; in England with Manchester United, Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk as well as Valletta in Malta. He also represented the Netherlands and Catalonia. As a coach or sports director, he worked in Malta, Israel, Cyprus, China and Ecuador before he returned to his home city, Barcelona, to become sports director of FC Barcelona for two years. Almost a year ago, he decided it was time to put family first for a year.

Cruyff’s just turned 50. He’s ready to go again. He’s done the good cop/bad cop role as the sports director enough for now and says: “I have the energy to coach again.”

But first, there’s the game at the Bernabeu, the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final between two giants of world football, and the second leg next week.

“I remember my first game at the Bernabeu for Barcelona. The stadium seems to go up forever,” he says. “You can feel the people on you. It’s loud, hot tempered and you feel that more when you go with Barca, less so with Alaves. Yet I’m not sure Madrid are even favourites [against City] in their own home.”

Within two minutes, City lead through a Bernardo Silva goal.

“Madrid won’t be happy with this. If you concede a goal from good play that’s one thing, but that was a poor goal. But Guardiola and City know with Madrid it’s a marathon.”

And so, it proves.

“That’s a foul in Spain, but not in the Champions League,” Cruyff points out one incident involving Jude Bellingham. “There are subtle difference in the way games are played. Spain is a country where players talk with their arms. There are so many yellow cards, but Bellingham is not a diver. He’s done so well since joining Madrid. People didn’t expect those numbers of goals and assists, or even a change of formation because of him. It’s the first time they’ve played this formation in many years, without a number 9, almost like a diamond. Joselu is the only pure number 9, but usually comes off the bench and doesn’t start most of the games. Bellingham is sometimes behind the strikers, sometimes he goes in front to arrive to the ball and it can quickly change to a 4-3-3.”

Differences between the world’s top two leagues are prominent in Cruyff’s analysis.

“The Premier League has made a step up and has more money, yet Spain always gets teams in the finals. Maybe that influences decision makers in Spain that things are better than what they are.”

“City are super comfortable here.” he says. “Normally Madrid hold on to the ball and wait for their chance. They can play possession football or transitions where they defend well and counter attack. Like that!”

Ruben Dias has put the ball into his own goal after 12 minutes. It’s 1-1.

“Not well defended but bad luck that,” says Cruyff. “But I like City’s multi system of play. Sometimes it’s a back three, then a back four. One player changes and it changes the whole system. Amazing how they synchronise that.”

Madrid make it 2-1 two minutes later.

“It’s not offside,” shouts Cruyff as Madrid attack. “Wow!”

Madrid’s second is set up by Vinicius Jr and scored by Rodrygo. Cruyff is impressed.

“Rodrygo, the potential is there, he has his moments. Vinicius has a new position, more central and not on the left, He’s not a pure striker, he has freedom to move. He’s so direct and fast when he gets the ball, he can dribble inside or outside. He’s so dangerous that he attracts defenders and that liberates other players to find positions. City just can’t take ball off Vinicius as he’s so dangerous. He can run behind you, he’s difficult to mark.” However, he is not convinced Madrid are on top.

“Madrid have chances to make it 3-1 here, but City are staying alive. [Federico] Valverde is the one who gives Madrid balance by his positioning. Physically strong, tall and with that tough Uruguayan mentality, Valverde plays inside, then moves out. He does the invisible things. And he basically decides the system – that’s a huge responsibility.”

The game is end to end, exciting and high level between the current European title-holders and the team who have been European champions more than any other.

“This is an amazing game,” says Cruyff. “Always goals between these two, always the unexpected. You can see huge mutual respect from both teams. When City attack, Madrid defend compact and low. When Madrid attack, City drop. That’s respect. Madrid are incredibly athletic and there’s always danger. They are so vertical. Madrid have the passers and the runners. Every counter attack seems to end with a shot on goal. And Madrid hardly lose the ball in attack, they’re so effective in transitions.”

It’s engrossing.

“For me that’s not a yellow,” he says when City defender Manuel Akanji receives a card on 37 minutes.

“And I’m happy away games don’t count double any more,” he says. “It makes it more pure and this game can go either way. City are much more open with wingers on the line. [Jack] Grealish and [Phil] Foden. We’ll talk about Foden later. Grealish is the type of player with a free role and he doesn’t play unless you’re in top form. He’s adapting himself well.

“Madrid’s are only there sporadically and always changing positions. They’re difficult to mark as they’re never in the same position.”

It’s half time.

“Normally I’d cook something,” Cruyff smiles as his children raise their eyebrows. “Is it OK if we order some food in?” Pasta arrives shortly into the second half and the subject turns to Erling Haaland.

“Haaland needs crosses, he’s getting nothing. He needs the ball in the box. [Antonio] Rudiger against Haaland is interesting. He’s doing well at man marking. Maybe Haaland could move to be marked by [Aurelien] Tchouameni as he’s a midfielder rather than a natural defender. Maybe he can make his own life easier here – though they could change positions.

“Madrid are being smart here. More compact behind and City are losing more balls than usual. The only team you don’t want to lose balls to is Real Madrid, especially in the centre. In a few seconds they’re in your box. Guardiola is trying to control ball possession because then you stop Madrid being dangerous. His wide players are very wide with four midfielders who can arrive to score up front with Haaland. But Haaland looks isolated. He’s one of the best in the world when he receives crosses, but he’s not getting them.”

Talk shifts to the coaches.

“Ancelotti is elegant,” says Cruyff. “Emotional but controlled. Protects the players. Good at man management, both individually and as a group. People doubted him not having a pure number 9 because to play with Rodrygo, Vinicius and Bellingham has its risks. But it’s working out well.”

Guardiola is a family friend who idolised Jordi’s father.

“Very few could do what he’s done,” explains Cruyff. “His passion, even after winning everything, is hard to maintain. He’s super demanding but demands more from himself. His knowledge is in multi systems. His strong point as a player was that he was a master of angles – like [Sergio] Busquets. He always had to look at a 360 view – behind, in front, sides. Any mistake and he would be eaten. A lot of coaches were defensive midfielders and he sees life in 360, not vertically. Modern football is all about angles and he has a sixth sense for them. Because he was so good, he can teach every player how to dominate angles.”

It’s still 2-1 to Madrid after an hour.

“They’ll never admit it, but I think Man City would take a one-goal deficit,” is Cruyff’s verdict.

Then Phil Foden equalises on 66 minutes.

“That was unexpected but when he has the ball there anything can happen and that’s an unstoppable shot. Foden has grown with Pep. He has a fantastic left foot and the ability to play different positions in different systems.”

City make it 3-2 after 71 minutes thanks to Gvardiol, another fine strike from outside the area.

“Wow! What are the odds of two goals from outside the box when you are losing 1-2?” asks Cruyff. “Great goal. The goalkeeper can’t do anything for those, though he’s saying ‘You should have prevented the shot’. If Guardiola’s offensive plan is to use Haaland to attract the central defenders and free up the others, then it’s working. There are other twists. I see four central defenders on the pitch for City, but they do this trick where sometimes [John] Stones is a central defender and at others he goes to midfield.” There is an important piece missing.

“Kevin de Bruyne’s personality would have been a good addition in this game,” says Cruyff. “Why is he not playing?” Pep Guardiola later confirms the player was vomiting on arrival at the stadium.

“Toni Kroos is now on,” says Cruyff. “Top player. Always signs those one-year deals when there are rumours about what he’ll do, but he stays at Madrid and plays so well. He’s back in the German national team ahead of the Euros too. You need transitional players against an English team, box-to-box players. Kroos or [Luka] Modric are different to that. They’re amazing, they can play in front of the defence too. Kroos is perfect for Spanish football which is more positional and he’s had an amazing career in Spain.”

After 78 minutes, Madrid equalise.

“That came out of nothing but Madrid have been more dangerous,” says Cruyff. “Valverde – a hell of a goal! He could easily play in the Premier League. He’s efficient, box to box, physically tough. And he has the ability and technical skills – well, look at that goal. This is a beautiful game.”

“Man City haven’t been much better, it’s just moments from them. City struggle to get out the same way as Madrid do. Madrid are vertical and fast, City try and pass their way out.”

But Cruyff admires several of City’s players deeply.

“Rodri is amazing,” he says. “Rodri has learned a lot under Guardiola in terms of positioning, the angles and how he is with and without the ball. And he’s better because the pace of the game is faster than in Spain and he can play both – he has the body to play in England, to defend himself. He gives balance to the team, very important for Man City. He’s so respected in Spain now.”

City make their first substitute after 87 minutes, by which time Madrid have already made three changes.

“Pep tends to make few subs,” says Cruyff. “He’s a coach who has a lot of power and you need that because that’s a lot of players you need to keep satisfied who aren’t playing. That’s it, 3-3, a good result for City and for Pep it’s doubly important to get a result in Madrid.”

Cruyff believes City’s manager will have some tactical issues to deal with before the return leg in Manchester on Wednesday.

“Pep will be preoccupied with how to control the transitions of Madrid,” says Cruyff. “Tchouameni not playing in the second leg and will likely be replaced by Nacho, a big difference for Madrid. City are clear favourites and whoever wins this tie will be the favourite to win the competition.”

Talk shifts to another of his former clubs, Manchester United, and which of his former teammates would have done well at top clubs in Spain.

“Roy Keane,” he replies. “Though he would have broken the record for yellow cards. He was hugely respected in the dressing room, a proper leader, but the definition of a good player in Spain was different because of the way the game was played. I still think Keane would have thrived – like a Luis Enrique.

“Ryan Giggs would’ve done well in Spain for any team. Paul Scholes could work without the ball but was so good with ball, especially in last third coming from the second line. And he was so stable and consistent, with no ego. He was never up or down in the dressing room. He could be mean and late with his tackles in training, but his timing to arrive in spaces on the pitch was faultless.

“Eric Cantona? No problem. He could have played everywhere. I’m convinced that Eric decided to leave United and move to Barcelona after he came here for a weekend with me when we were both at United. We played in a charity game and on the flight home, he said: ‘Let’s bet who leaves United first.' I was convinced it was me as I was always on the bench. Then he retired a few months later, shocking football. I think he knew months before. People thought Eric was introvert and difficult, but he took care of younger players like me and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. And it was more than words. He’d offer to pick us up from the hotel for training. In training, I’d see him chest the ball and volley it. It was the best I’d seen, and I’d seen Romario. Cantona had an aura and elegance, yet he was a super human before and after training.”

Cruyff’s had almost a year out of football for the first time in his life. He’s glad he did, but he’s ready to get involved again. His experience and insight should not go to waste.

Updated: April 16, 2024, 11:35 AM