It was what he called his diamond formation, but the positional football that Cruyff preached was not always easy to understand. It was possible, but only as long as his players shared his own deep understanding of the game – an understanding that enabled them to decide when to approach their teammates, and indeed when not to.
Possession of the ball by itself did not interest Cruyff. He wanted his players to understand that, in order to keep it and move towards the opponents’ goal, the ball had to be moved and moved and moved. This was the key to creating imbalances in the opposition shape and creating the spaces that would allow them to penetrate into dangerous areas.
At the same time, he wanted his team to maintain a compact block. This would allow constant exchanges of positions, and enable easier and faster reorganisaions when they lost possession. And the closer together they were, the easier regains would be even in the opposition half.
Based on all of this, Cruyff relied, in his time at Barcelona, on two tactical formations: the 3-4-3 and the 4-3-3.
It all started for Cruyff with the composition of his defence. He chose an unorthodox back three: one single central defender – Ronald Koeman or Miguel Angel Nadal – and two full-backs in Albert Ferrer and Sergi Barjuán or Juan Carlos. The full-backs, however, were expected to join the attack constantly; as a result, the defensive line was often comprised only of that single central defender and the defensive pivot – Luis Milla, Pep Guardiola or José Ramón Alexanko. None of these were players renowned for their physical attributes.
The role played by the full-backs was fundamental, however, as this allowed Cruyff to widen the pitch. Ferrer and Sergi advanced as traditional wide players down the lines, which allowed the wingers – most commonly Hristo Stoichkov and Andoni Goikoetxea – to move into more central areas and reduce their distance to Michael Laudrup in the central striker position. Echoes of this can be seen in Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool team, in which Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson so often provide the width that enables Sadio Mané and Mo Salah to drift into dangerous half-spaces.
This wasn’t always the case, however – Cruyff also wanted his full-backs to have the option of advancing into central areas. This didn’t just give the wide attackers more space; with Sergi and Ferrer encouraged to come inside (below), it also gave the midfield pivot more passing options nearby.