This article was originally featured in Tales of Two Halves back in May 2019.
There were not many players in the history of the beautiful game who can boast a legacy as big as Johan Cruyff’s. The Dutch pearl not only reinvented the way Barcelona played (and still play) but also changed the way the world saw football as a sport. Call it over-romanticising or exaggeration but to list the Prophet of Betondor as one of the most influential footballers of all time would not be a long shot.
Over the years, Cruyff has played a number of memorable games and has won almost as many as a coach on the sidelines. Still, when we think of big moments in his career, there are a couple of highlights, one of which would definitely be his El Clasico debut.
The Barcelona – Real Madrid rivalry doesn’t need much of an introduction but way back in the 70s, the story was just a tad different. You see, the Catalans were not really a force they are now in the new age of football but the inclusion of one of the world’s most brilliant players at that time was bound to stir things up a bit. And boy did it stir it right.
It was the season of 1973/1974 and Barcelona just acquired the services of a 26-year-old Dutch superstar for an unthinkable sum of six million Dutch guilders (approx. two million euros), the new record-breaking fee that left the footballing world in awe. That same figure would barely be enough to get an average-level player on loan in this day and age but I digress.
Not having won the La Liga title since the year of 1960, you could say that Barcelona were in a bit of a crisis, so to speak. But the purchase of Cruyff was not that straightforward because their new signing had to miss out on the first seven games due to some “bureaucratic tangles” that kept him sidelined and by the time he first stepped foot on a Spanish pitch, the Blaugrana was knees deep in mud, sitting 14th on the table, just four places from the very bottom spot in La Liga.
In that period, they only managed to score seven goals which yielded two meager wins for the Catalan side, leaving them fighting relegation instead of chasing a title dream after 14 years of failure. The first Clasico, the one played at the Camp Nou, ended in a goalless draw, which, to be honest, could also be seen as a good thing taking into consideration the rest of their campaign up until that point in time.
But all of that and more was about to change as Johan Cruyff was approaching his debut in the red and blue shirt, and it arrived at home against Granada. What happened next was only the very beginning of something beautiful and a true introduction to a world of change Barcelona would go through very shortly. Cruyff celebrated his debut with two goals to his name as the Catalans cruised to a 4-0 victory. But they did not stop there.
From that day against Granada, Barcelona proceeded to crush every single opponent in their way, creating a fiery unbeaten streak that saw them rattle the net five times against Sporting Gijon, four times against Malaga, and five times against Celta Vigo, among other results. The only instance when they went goalless was against Espanyol in a nil-nil draw on the night. Suddenly, they had a goal difference of +31 and were six points clear at the top of the table. It’s safe to say that it was a rather drastic turn of events for the Catalan team with Cruyff leading the way.
Still, the biggest challenge of the season was only approaching as the reverse fixture against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu was looming but the visitors were not the ones dreading this encounter. No, not this time. Come the Clasico, Barca were still on a five-point cushion at the top of the table while Madrid were down to seventh, trying to get their season back on track with an important game.
Johan Cruyff and Real Madrid were not really on “speaking terms” just yet since the Dutch pearl was reportedly really close to actually joining the Los Blancos rather than the Blaugrana but opted for the latter team which angered the boys from the capital. What was an even bigger stain on this failed transfer was the manner in which the said confrontation was handled.
Cruyff noted that he could never play for a club so “intrinsically linked to the fascist regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco”, the dictator who ruled over Spain and had a huge influence on the region’s footballing scene at that time. The infamous ruler was also a big Madrid fan, seeing how Real was indeed the country’s biggest club and also the one situated within the capital itself. What makes the matters even more ironic, Franco died the following year, having witnessed the man who refused to lend him his services batter his favourite team playing for his ever-lasting rival. For many, it was as poetic as it gets but as it should be, politics and football were not intertwined and all the poetry that was done was actually composed on the pitch.
17 February 1974 was the date and The Santiago Bernabeu Stadium the venue for the night that would enter both club’s histories, albeit in far different contexts. Looking solely at the teams, there was not much that could, at least on paper, divide the two giants of Spanish football.
Both teams lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, showcasing some of their new firepower right away in the starting XI.
Real Madrid (4-3-3): Garcia Remon, Morgado, Benito, Rubiñan, Pirri, Zoco, Aguilar, Velazquez, Amancio, Netzer, Macanas
Barça (4-3-3): Mora, Rife, Torres Garcia, De La Cruz, Costas, J.C. Perez, Rexach, Asensi, Cruyff, Sotil, Marcial
The main thing to note in this game was something that, in a way, stayed true even to this day. When it comes to both Barcelona and Real Madrid, and especially when they face off against each other, the one that takes control of the midfield usually gets the upper hand in the entirety of the match. This specific game was all about the battle of Johan Cruyff and Gunter Netzer, Real’s second choice pass maestro who was brought in after they failed to secure Cruyff’s services.
Barcelona were practising one of the first variations of “Totaal Voetbal” or Total Football, what later transitioned to tiki-taka and a style that is closely connected to possession-based teams and especially to the Catalan giant. Rinus Michels was at the helm at that time, having landed in Barcelona just a couple of years earlier, in 1971 and his ideology was slowly but surely carving its way into the Blaugrana team. The change in formation was the first thing he implemented as he moved away from the traditional systems clubs used to default to but it was actually his padawan, Cruyff, who perfected this way of playing. But I digress once again.
Barcelona had the reigns over the game from the get-go as their new style was something Real Madrid could not keep up with. You see, total football is all about movement; the players are maintaining possession and are manipulating the space via great positioning and movement. Instead of sticking to their spots on the pitch like most players used to back in the day, their system was a fluid one – they were constantly required to run and interchange with their teammates, move to different positions and confuse the opponent. In short, they were reconstructing their own strategy as they went and tailoring it in a way they deemed most appropriate in a given situation.
For that reason, Barcelona’s forwards were seen dropping deeper, and the wingers would cut back when necessary. Cruyff was at the heart of everything that was happening in that team. He had a free role of sorts in the midfield trident, just like Lionel Messi has nowadays. Usually, the Dutchman would position himself in the number 10 role, just behind the strikers, from where he could either be a direct threat to the goal himself or simply distribute it into the box with his killer passes.
Madrid had a different, more traditional approach to their game. The strikers would sit high up the pitch, waiting for their chance to pounce on a good delivery of the ball. But that was, in many ways, the huge disparity between the two as the dominance of the possession as well as the midfield battle, would go in Barcelona’s favour. This was achieved with numerical superiority due to the dropping forwards who consistently supported the midfielders when both defending and progressing the ball forward.
With that being said, both sides had chances of their own within the opening minutes of the game with Real Madrid actually getting the upper hand when it came to clear-cut sitters as Velazquez somehow missed a chance being just a few steps away from the net. The hosts had a clear tactic in mind: get the ball into the final third through the wings and then cut it inside with accuracy and towards their target-men up front. This worked well since Madrid had the personnel to execute the plan, and as much as they were seen chasing shadows in the actual build-up and dominance of the game, they were just as dangerous as their counterparts, if not a bit more, in those early stages of the match.
But having missed those chances, it felt like they only managed to anger Barcelona and give them even more motivation for a change in pace. What happened next was the epitome of total football in its true essence. The attack started with the goalkeeper, a novelty that is more common nowadays but was seen as revolutionary back then. Mora squared a great long ball to the overlapping Marcial on the right flank, who forwarded it immediately to Rexach, their winger who occupied a more central position at that moment. The latter player showed some of his fancy footwork before releasing the overlapping Marcial who was running wide into free space behind the defence. One fake shot, and a “bodied” Netzer a second later, and Marcial’s pass found Juan Manuel Asensi who finished it into the net first time to make it one-nil Barcelona. But that was just the beginning.
In less than ten minutes of play and before the half-time mark, Barcelona managed to double their lead, and as fate would have it, Cruyff fired home for his first Clasico goal and Barca’s second on the night. And what a magical goal it was.
Cruyff received the ball from Sotil at the edge of the box and dribbled his way past his first marker, Benito, only to mask his shot between two other defenders and beat the man in-between the sticks with a memorable piece of skill. Madrid was already down but not completely out, at least from a statistical point of view as they had their chances but couldn’t make them count.
From a tactical point of view, though, there was only one winner in that first half, and the second one would be even better, or worse, depending on which side you were rooting for. The key difference between the two was the stark gap in embracing the modern system of that time. Madrid were a static team with lots of talented players but they couldn’t cope with Barcelona’s dynamism and movement patterns.
This was most visible in the second half as the full effect of total football was unleashed on the Los Blancos’ tired legs. The hosts just couldn’t retaliate and keep up with all the interchanging of positions, swapping of places, and players constantly being on the move, and seemingly out of position. Cruyff was orchestrating from the deeper ends of the pitch, winning the ball and moving it up and sending it to more advanced positions behind the tired defence of Real.
Soon the third goal came and was followed by the fourth and the fifth as the humiliation was finally complete, and the world was introduced to total football in its brightest iteration yet. Of course, that was only the beginning of a story about to be told in the fullest in the years to come. The aftermath of that game came in shockwaves, to say the least.
Barcelona’s win over Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu in 1974 was a part of their 25 games unbeaten streak that ultimately saw them lift the title after 14 years of drought. That season alone, the Catalans scored a total of 75 goals and ended their run with a 10 point lead over the second place team. Cruyff managed 16 goals in that period, which ended up being his best tally in the Spanish domestic league.
Madrid, on the other hand, finished eight, barely clinging their way into the European Cup next year with a triumph in Copa del Rey, where they, among other things, got their revenge on Barcelona in the process. Still, their league defeat echoed for years onward and now, closing down to 50 years later, is still one of the most memorable Clasicos to date, only overshadowed by the Lionel Messi inspired 2-6, and the 5-0 manita before that.
What was probably the most important thing on the night, apart from expanding their gap at the top and forcing their eternal rivals into submission, was the cathartic triumph over “franquismo” and slap in the face of the dictatorship forced upon them. For many it was a victory for football but for the Catalan nation, it was much more than that. That was the day Barcelona’s identity was born and forged in the fires and rumbles of a destroyed Real Madrid. It was the poetry of football at its finest, and definitely, something that helped shape the history of arguably the biggest rivalry on the planet.
Barcelona would continue their path to glory even after the bashing of Madrid. Blaugrana did not lose a single game after that until the title was safely in their hands. It ended a 14-year-old wait for them to get back on the top, and since then, they haven’t truly left it, not really. And when it comes down to it, they have Johan Cruyff to thank for that.
Two Dutchmen, a Peruvian and a bunch of Catalans walk into a Madrid stadium and kick a ball. Guess what happens next?