* By 1970, they had developed a revolutionary new brand of football, one that would help shape the sport for the next fifty years, especially in the Netherlands and Barcelona. Ajax people didn’t really have a name for the style, but foreigners called it “total football.”
“Total football” meant that every player attacked and everyone defended. Ajax’s players changed position so fluidly that it became hard even to speak about positions. Ajax’s game evolved into what Cruyff called “a controlled chaos.” 26 Every player had to think for himself nonstop, adapting his position second by second depending on where every other player was. The ideal of a totally fluid football team went back to the “Danubian Whirl” of the 1930s’ Austrian Wunderteam. Ajax had reinvented it for a new era. 27
The dominant style of the 1960s had been defensive Italian catenaccio . Ajax took the opposite approach: they played in the opponents’ half, passing one-touch at top speed, with players changing positions all the time. They positioned themselves so the man on the ball always had at least two diagonal passes to choose from. A pass that goes straight ahead is easy for an opponent to read, while a square ball is usually pointless, and can be fatal if intercepted. But no single opposition player can block two diagonals simultaneously. So Ajax made triangles, prefiguring the great Barcelona teams of Cruyff himself and Pep Guardiola.
Cruyff saw football as geometry, a question of space. When Ajax had the ball, they made the pitch wide: he said wingers had to have “chalk on their boots.” When Ajax lost possession, they shrank space: several players would “press” the opponent on the ball, aiming to win it back at once. That was the perfect moment, because a team that had just won the ball was usually disorganized, disorganized, with players out of position. If you could rob them, you could have a clear run on goal. And if your opponents never got a chance to build, they grew demoralized.
Pressing, or “hunting,” as Ajax called it, required almost military coordination. Each player had to occupy exactly the right spot, and everyone had to join the press. Ajax’s attackers were the first defenders. Conversely, the goalkeeper was the first attacker, starting moves with incisive passes. He played like a “fly keeper” in street football, patrolling his entire half as if he were a defender in gloves. This meant that Ajax used all eleven players, whereas other teams played with just ten.
“Nobody had overturned the codes of football like we did,” 28 Cruyff said later. Arrigo Sacchi, coach of “il Grande Milan” of 1987–1990, would comment, “There has only been one real tactical revolution, and it happened when football shifted from an individual to a collective game. It happened with Ajax.” 29
Cruyff marshaled the collective. He could pass in any direction because he was, in the phrase of his great biographer, Nico Scheepmaker, “four-footed”: 30 he used the insides and outsides of both feet, curling the ball like a snooker player. He clocked at a glance which foot a defender had planted in the ground, and accelerated past him on that side. He always said that speed wasn’t about running fast, but about knowing when to run—a claim that denied his own astonishing acceleration.
On the field, Cruyff was everywhere. Ajax’s trademark changes of position were in part an adaptation to his penchant for roaming. He was an extreme version of what we now call a “false nine”: a center-forward who constantly abandoned his position, dropping back into midfield or the wing or even central defense, losing his markers to find space and opportunity. He once explained, “If they don’t follow me, I’m free. If they follow me, they’re one man short in defense.” 31 Ajax’s midfielders would burst into the space he vacated.
* The great player used to live like a rock star. He was pursued by groupies. He expected his body to give out by the age of thirty. He didn’t make a fortune. And so he lived large. After all, being a genius meant you didn’t have to work hard. Ferenc Puskás in the 1950s was fat, George Best in the 1960s an alcoholic, Cruyff chain-smoked, and Maradona took cocaine. The temptations of stardom were magnificent; succumbing was almost the point.
Best after 1968, and Maradona and Pelé for most of their club careers, played with many unremarkable teammates. Maradona at Napoli often received passes behind him (which he would kindly applaud). Both for his club and his country, he learned to play alone.
Few of these men aspired to weekly brilliance. Pelé was forever crossing the planet to play lucrative exhibition games. Maradona turned it on for World Cups but rarely in between. And they all got kicked a lot. In 1966, Pelé limped out of the World Cup. A few years later, before Cruyff joined Barça, Real Madrid’s chairman Santiago Bernabéu warned that the Spanish league wouldn’t suit the Dutchman, “because they’ll break those little legs of his within three weeks.” 55 Watching clips of Cruyff playing for Barcelona, it’s noticeable that almost every opponent chops or trips or elbows him, or slides in with a two-footed challenge, or at least tries to. In his first match against Granada, his teammates wouldn’t let him enter the opposition’s penalty area for a corner: “You don’t go into the box against these guys.” 56
In 1983, Maradona’s spell with Barcelona effectively ended when his ankle was crushed by the defender Andoni Goikoetxea, the “Butcher of Bilbao.” “Maradona has not died,” Goikoetxea pointed out in mitigation. Sometimes, intimidation took baroque psychological forms. A month before Goikoetxea’s assault, Barcelona hosted Nottingham Forest in a preseason friendly. Forest’s manager Brian Clough went up to Maradona in the tunnel before the game, announced, “You might be able to play a bit, but I can still grab you by the balls,” and proceeded to do just that, recalled Clough’s midfielder Steve Hodge. 57
What transformed the star’s lot was TV. Before the 1990s, few matches were televised live. Then Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlu-sconi built TV channels on football. Suddenly clubs became content providers, and stars were premium content. The clubs offered the stars a new deal: we’ll pay you fortunes if you’ll live like professionals. Messi and Ronaldo accepted the offer.
Football’s authorities protected stars by cracking down on fouls and banning the tackle from behind. Messi said in 2005, “In professional football nothing really happens because there are referees. At school was where kicks were real kicks.” 58 Once he became recognized as an international treasure, from about 2008, he received extra protection. Even if a referee missed a foul, the culprit still had to worry about being caught on camera. Cruyff noted in retirement, “TV improved the skill level. Now the good players are protected.” 59 Imagine what Cruyff himself could have done with that protection.
Perfect, telegenic fields have helped, too. Messi didn’t have to navigate the muddy Dutch fields of Cruyff’s youth, when simply not falling over was sometimes a feat. And Messi was never going to destroy his knee on a frozen pitch on Boxing Day, as Brian Clough did as a brilliant forward in 1962.
In the TV era, the best players have congregated at a handful of the richest clubs. Messi has spent his entire club career playing with world-class teammates, who enabled him to reach his best.
* Messi’s need for a band became clear during all those tournaments struggling in front of mediocre midfielders and defenders with Argentina. He was unable to imagine the mindset of a player who couldn’t see obvious one-twos or execute basic one-touch passes. At the World Cup 2010 I was transfixed by Newcastle United’s ungainly winger, Jonás Gutiérrez, who performed a comic impersonation of a right-back for Argentina while often struggling to stay upright. The next World Cup it was center-back Federico Fernández, astute enough to know he had been promoted beyond his competence, so terrified of the ball that the moment he received it, he would try to shove it into the feet of the nearest teammate.
The manager of a leading national team explained to me the difference between the Messi of Barça and the Messi of Argentina. For his club, the manager said, Messi typically received the ball near the opposition’s penalty area, after a series of short passes involving multiple players. He then had about five teammates within twenty meters of him, each one drawing away defenders. He could choose between multiple passes, or he could dribble. Often he was in a one-against-one situation, and as Mourinho said, “When Messi has the ball one-on-one, you’re dead. There’s no way to solve that problem.” 61
Argentina, by contrast, are a team without a system. They rarely manage to win the ball near the opposition’s goal, and they give it to Messi when they can find him rather than when he asks for it. Often that’s in midfield, with no teammates near him, as if plan A is for him to re-create Maradona’s solo goal against England. Opponents closing in on him know something useful: he’ll probably dribble.
Argentina have forced Messi to play like a pibe . At the 2014 World Cup, he completed forty-six dribbles, seventeen more than his nearest rival, Holland’s Arjen Robben; meanwhile, Messi completed only 242 passes, two fewer than Germany’s keeper, Manuel Neuer. But Messi didn’t want to be a pibe anymore. Whereas Maradona was the individual who wanted to beat the system, Barcelona had socialized Messi into a Cruyffian collective game. With Argentina, his frustrations often spilled over into quarrels with teammates and referees. After the defender Nicolás Burdisso was unable to get the ball to him during a match in 2011, he and Messi had to be separated in the changing room. 62 Cruyff in the 1970s had enjoyed playing for his national team because the standard was higher than at Barça; 63 for Messi it was the other way around.
Only at Barcelona did Messi find the ideal environment for greatness. One afternoon, a woman who lives in Castelldefels drove me past his home, and I realized: the essential underpinning of his routinely brilliant football was a boring life. High up in this unremarkable town, away from the beaches, he had bought the neighbor’s house and constructed a compound complete with mini–football field. Palm trees, bougainvillea, and white walls provided privacy. He lived here for years without security cameras or alarms until eventually the club installed some. He later learned to make himself unpredictable to criminals by driving different routes to training in different cars. 64 But even with these precautions, his tranquil home life couldn’t have been further from the overheated chaos of Argentina.
* …let’s pause for a moment and think of what Messi does for global happiness. To paraphrase Cruyff’s biographer, Scheepmaker, he has made our lives richer than they would have been without him. We live in the age of Messi, and it often feels like the best way to spend this time is to watch him. A friend who has struggled with his mental health told me that for years he tried to catch almost every match Messi played for Barcelona: “For me, watching him has something of a therapeutic quality. He’s basically an accessible genius, on a weekly basis at a relatively low cost of a yearly subscription.”
Messi can even have that effect on opponents during a game. The French striker Djibril Cissé recalled, “I was surprised to find myself watching him, leaving the match and becoming a spectator.” 85
Messi is extraordinary even when playing for his country. If the Messi of Argentina sometimes seems disappointing, that’s because we compare him with the Messi of Barça and with the Maradona of the World Cup 1986. In fact, according to the sports statistician Benjamin Morris, the Barcelona Messi and the Argentina Messi have been probably “the two best players in the world.” 86 Remember that between 2007 and 2016, Messi reached four finals with Argentina, three in the Copa América and the World Cup final of 2014. He lost them all, but three of them only by the finest of margins.
* Sociability is part of the point of Barça’s football, Seirul·lo told me. “That’s why we pass the ball a lot,” he said, “so that all the players are involved.” Eamon Dunphy, in Only a Game? in 1976, put it even higher:
If you are just knocking a ball between you, on a training ground, a relationship develops between you. It’s a form of expression—you are communicating as much as if you are making love to somebody. If you take two players who work together in midfield, say, they will know each other through football as intimately as two lovers. That would apply to Giles and Bremner, for example. It’s a very close relationship you build up when you are resolving problems together, trying to create situations together. It’s an unspoken relationship, but your movements speak, your game speaks. The kind of ball you give each other, the kind of passes you give each other, the kind of situations you set up together, speak for you. You don’t necessarily become closer in a social sense, but you develop a close unspoken understanding.
* Great soloists were what distinguished Barcelona from the Spanish national team of their era. Spain passed like Barcelona, pressed like Barcelona, and built walls like Barcelona, but they didn’t score like Barcelona, because they didn’t have the soloists. They won the World Cup in 2010 by scoring just eight goals and conceding two in seven games.
* A coach has to seduce players into accepting his ideas. Whereas motivating players is a top-down relationship, seduction implies a relationship of equals. The contemporary manager is more film director than military general. Authoritarian rule has faded out even faster in football than in most high-skill workplaces.
* Lilian Thuram: “I’ve never met a racist person in football. Maybe they were, but I didn’t see it. You know why? Because people who are racist tend not to know the Other. In football, we share things. And in football it’s harder to have discrimination, because we are judged on very specific performances.”
* [Luis] Van Gaal left at the end of that season after multiple conflicts with his Brazilian players, and no prizes. He had learned what happens in modern football when the talent clashes with the club: the talent wins.
Many fans find this incomprehensible. They still expect a manager to command his players like the no-nonsense headmaster of a 1950s reform school for bad boys. In fact, a macho coach who tries to break the players’ will, or who attempts heavy-handed “motivation,” will prompt talent flight. Modern clubs have abandoned the fantasy of dominating their mobile, multinational, multimillionaire, near-irreplaceable players, most of them armed with egos, agents, and journalistic sycophants. In a talent-driven business, rule by talent is inevitable.
* Money is the best measure of player power in football. Big clubs spend about 50 to 70 percent of their revenues on footballers’ salaries, and another 20 to 40 percent on transfer fees, calculates Ian Graham of Liverpool. In other words, the talent is able to command up to 90 percent of clubs’ revenues.
* But the truth is that sport isn’t a very useful model for business. On the contrary: many sports clubs are so badly run that they ought to model themselves on ordinary companies. (The only sphere of excellence inside many clubs is the playing squad.)
More fundamentally, though, a football club is a different kind of animal than a bank, a law firm, or a multinational oil business. The biggest difference is the importance of talent.
* Wenger, who went from running Arsenal to giving management talks at corporate conferences, admitted that lessons from sport weren’t easily transferable: “Players have to be as close as possible to 100 percent of their potential to be efficient—what is not the case in daily life.”
* At Barça—and in Spanish life more generally—there are high expectations of courtesy. Public tellings-off are not tolerated. This indirectness can be a problem. It helps explain (along with the family nature of Barça) why nobody ever took Busquets or Piqué aside to tell them they had got old and it was time to go.
“It’s part of top-level sport that you say things, and discuss things,” said Zenden. But in Spain, “if you have an open clash with a player, it won’t automatically come good again.” Any criticism needs to be delivered in private and carefully phrased. A shrewd coach will first invest time building a relationship of trust with a player before trying to broach sensitive issues.
* Inside a football team, pay is the main measure of status. Cruyff said, “The degree of appreciation is expressed in money. So it’s not about the sum that you earn, but the hierarchical position that you occupy.” 23 Piqué was signaling, in the grossest possible way, that his status was stratospheres above that of the people who abuse him.
Since money in football equals status, players keep trying to gouge more of it from their club, no matter how much they already have.
* High-intensity running—defined as moving at over fifteen kilometers an hour—increased 30 percent in the English Premier League between 2006 and 2013, according to the Gatorade Sport Science Institute. The number of sprints rose sharply in the Champions League, too. “We have to have a much better physical condition to play our game,” Paco Seirul·lo told me.
Modern coaches push players almost every day for eleven months of the year, leaving little time for recovery. Most players can perform optimally in the autumn, but struggle to maintain that level between February and May—the period that Barça defines as “high competition,” with lots of matches, travel, and sleep loss.
Gil Rodas, a specialist in sports medicine at the University of Barcelona who has worked with Barça for many years, said the game’s rising “intensity and density” had prompted an increase in muscle and tendon injuries, which he called “the cancer” of football. The packed schedule didn’t help: one study found “a 6.2-fold higher injury rate in players who played two matches per week compared with those who played only one.” 10 As players’ pay rose, so did the cost of injury: on a salary of €8 million, spread across forty club games, each match appearance was worth €200,000.
In short, footballers needed to get fitter. How best to achieve that? An unspoken truth in the game is that doping will do more for you than broccoli. I’m sure there are some illegal drugs in football. On the other hand, clubs, doctors, and players have strong incentives not to risk getting caught.
* Here are some of Barça’s recommendations:
• Cheeringly, caffeine appears to improve everything in football from cognition through sprinting to passing accuracy. Barça’s booklet recommends tea or coffee at pre-training breakfast, and caffeinated sports drinks (or gum) on match days, ideally to be taken during the warm-up. 13
• Carbs are an essential part of the pre-match meal, usually eaten about three hours before kickoff. Most clubs also provide them at halftime, often in the form of a gel or a drink.
* Within an hour of a match ending, players should ingest protein to help their damaged muscle fibers recover. (The player’s cycle is “damage/recovery, damage/recovery,” said Lizárraga.) The anti-inflammatory protein recovery shake—which some clubs personalize for each player—has become a ritual in the industry after training and matches.
* For all the effort invested in getting footballers to eat right, there is still little scientific evidence that it makes a difference. We just don’t know whether good nutrition wins football matches or does much to prevent injury.
* Decision-making and football intelligence—pattern recognition, in effect—seemed to improve with age, he explained. “The percentage of successful passes is 3–5 percent higher in players over 30 compared to players between 16 and 29 years old.” That could compensate for a decline in speed. Lago Peñas cited a study of players in Germany’s Bundesliga: after age thirty, their number of sprints (defined as runs faster than 6.3 meters per second, maintained for at least a second) was 21 percent lower than for younger players.
* Active footballers may not be any happier than the rest of us, but they do have more intensity. The basic illusion of top-class sport is that it is more important than life and death. Winning in front of a hundred thousand fans provides a buzz unmatched in ordinary life. So, perversely, does losing. You sit in the changing room with all your teammates, your body hurting, too tired to lift a bottle of water to your lips, slumped in misery, and it is a shared intensity of emotion that you will never experience again after football. Retirement in one’s thirties is a widespread fantasy among Dilberts in office cubicles, but most top-class athletes have too much internal motivation to spend their remaining decades on the sun lounger.
They struggle to understand how the rest of us put up with our low-adrenaline lives.
* But deprived of Barça, [Neymar] lost some of his discipline. At times he degenerated into a number ten who liked to receive the ball standing still, then taunt opponents by doing tricks while they kicked him. It was his natural game, and perhaps he preferred it to brilliant servitude at Barça. Stuck in the French league, the most gifted player of his generation effectively retired from weekly top-class football.
* Only outside Western Europe does youth football remain pre-Cruyffian. Around 2013, a kids’ indoor soccer tournament in Rockville Centre, New York, found itself a referee short. One of the organizers asked the parents: Does anyone know the rules well enough to call a game? A Hispanic-looking man in a baseball cap volunteered.
But he turned out to interpret his role rather broadly. He kept stopping the game to advise both teams on positioning. The watching parents, who had come to see their kids win, grew antsy. “Come on! Let them play!” they shouted.
The guy in the baseball cap, on sabbatical in New York after four draining seasons at Barça, was Pep Guardiola.
* In Catalonia today, people stomp out of Sunday family lunch or break up with old friends because of quarrels about independence. Catalonia has become an even more distrustful place than the rest of Spain, which is itself low-trust by European standards. In the World Values Survey for 2010 to 2014, only 14 percent of people in Catalonia strongly agreed that “most people can be trusted”—less than half the level of Madrid.
* Messi (and for the most part, Luis Suárez) stopped defending—an almost unheard-of privilege in top-class football. When Barça lost the ball, opponents aimed to play the ball out through Messi’s zone, while he just stood there and watched them go. Then he would often trudge back alone, yards offside behind the opposition’s defenders, watching play unfold at the far end of the field. Teammates like Rakitić, Arturo Vidal, Sergi Roberto, and Griezmann acted as his legs, pulling forty-yard sprints to cover the holes he left. That dragged Barça’s midfield out of shape.
As the team aged with Messi, Barça’s training sessions slowed down. This was a shock for Griezmann, who had come from Atlético Madrid. There, he recalled, “Every training session was at the intensity level of a match.” 6 To the quiet dismay of Barça’s younger players, football’s most demanding rondo descended into a warm-up routine. In matches, Barcelona’s defenders and midfielders rarely overlapped anymore.
* “Every day football gets more spectacular, the players physically, technically, and tactically stronger,” remarked Gerard Piqué. “I always say that the best defenders in history are those of today.” Even Franz Beckenbauer, he added, was “worse on the ball, slower and understood the game less well” than Piqué’s generation. As for defenders who just kicked people, they had died out. 7
Piqué was right that football kept improving—but most of all outside Barcelona. While Barça neglected pressing, other teams updated it. Gegenpressing , the Germans called the latest version: chasing up the opposition the moment you lose possession, so as to win the ball near their goal, before their defense could organize. It was Ajax’s “hunting” of the 1970s on fast-forward—a game so rapid it should be called “storming.”
Storming teams adopted some of Barça’s innovations, such as Guardiola’s five-second pressing rule, but discarded others, like the obsession with possession. Whereas Guardiola’s Barça had hated losing the ball, for teams like Klopp’s Liverpool, losing the ball and then winning it back was the strategy.
In 2014, Germany’s 1–7 thrashing of Brazil with rapid forward pressing had seemed like a hilarious one-off. It turned out to be the portent of a new phenomenon: blowout wins by teams playing at a pace that would have seemed impossible as recently as 2010. By 2020, storming had become the orthodoxy, practiced even by traditionally cautious teams like Juventus and Chelsea. 8 Wing-backs pelted forward nonstop. Midfielders pulled sprints when their team won the ball, and also when they lost it.
Wenger told me in 2020:
In the last ten, fifteen years we have gone for real athletes, and from the day on where everybody could measure the physical performance, all the players who could not perform physically well were kicked out of the game. Today football goes at two hundred miles an hour, so you have to show first that you can go on the train. Once you’re on the train you can express your talent, but if you cannot get on the train, you don’t play.
A football field is about seven thousand square meters in size. Teams like Bayern and Liverpool, said Wenger, squeezed their defending into 8 percent of that space: they massed players around the ball in a zone of about six hundred square meters in the opposition’s half. Storming had become so overwhelming that a brilliant lightweight like Mesut Özil was squeezed out of the Premier League at Arsenal.
“It has killed some artists,” said Wenger. “I think it has uniformized a little bit too much the way to play football. . . . Everybody presses on the first ball from the keeper. . . . It has emphasized the chain defending to close balls down. And it has killed a little bit the creativity.”
Yet storming produced lots of goals. After a team went ahead, rather than sitting on their lead they just kept on storming.