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Cruyff’s quest for space lives on in Guardiola as De Bruyne finds calling

Man City style based on Cruyff’s thinking

Johan Cruyff built his footballing philosophy on playing attractive, fluid football – a style which remains at the core of all who he touched within the game.

Total Football did not end with Cruyff’s passing, with his most passionate disciple striving to bring such a thinking to the Premier League.

“He was the most influential person in football history,” Pep Guardiola eulogised of Cruyff in an interview with the Guardian last year. “He changed not one club. He changed two clubs – as a player and a coach. It’s impossible to find another guy like this.”

Guardiola’s approach to the beautiful game is modelled on Cruyff’s thinking, and we are starting to see the most fundamental strategy of Cruyff’s thinking come to fruition at Manchester City, with Kevin De Bruyne the centrepiece of Guardiola’s gameplan.

“We discussed space the whole time.” Barry Hulshoff of the 1970s Ajax side said of his time playing alongside Cruyff. “It was all about making space and coming into space.”


Tactics revolve around finding space


Finding space, that is bread and butter of Cruyff’s approach. He set his teams up in a way that would create space for the right players at the right time. It was as simple as that, it just took the majority of English clubs a long time to catch up.

There has been a real burgeoning shift in England away from the traditional 4-4-2. Rarely will you find a Premier League side who deploy a flat system, with traditional wingers.

The No 10 position, trequartista, enganche, whatever you want to call it, was born out of this mass tactical evolution.

“Arsenal have done very well against the 4-4-2,” said Sir Alex Ferguson. “Henry doesn’t play through the middle, he goes into space, and Bergkamp drops off. Henry needs space to play. If you give it to him he destroys you, but if you deny him space you’ve got a chance.”

Bergkamp’s ability to drop off and create space for Henry to run into blew teams away on occasion. Teams didn’t know how to defend against such an approach, and became the Gunners’ raison d’être for their success in the late 1990s.

Nowadays, it is somewhat incongruous to see teams without some form of No 10. Therefore, coaches have to be more creative to find space for their attacking players. That is where Guardiola, with Cruyff’s vision firmly in his mind, comes in.


City starting to click


City began the season in somewhat sluggish manner, sneaking over the line against Brighton on the opening day, before being held at home by Everton.

In both of those games, it seemed that Guardiola was unsure about how to get the most out of the myriad of creative options available to him. Fast forward a month and he seems to have cracked it.

Against Brighton especially, De Bruyne popped up in congested central areas all too often, virtually alongside David Silva. Silva’s game can function in such environments, with his fleet-footed skills not needing space in which to operate.

De Bruyne is different. He needs space to open his legs, and thread those intricate, but more ranging passes that can split a defence in the blink of an eye.

Against Liverpool it clicked. A look at the average position data shows De Bruyne found much more space in which to operate. Silva dropped deeper, Gabriel Jesus operated further forward, and De Bruyne shone, garnering his first two assists of the season.


Position not important


Then, against a beleaguered Watford, De Bruyne drifted into an average position further wide, and found that pocket of space in between the full-back and midfield which he loves to operate in.

Such an approach proved very successful for Eden Hazard at Chelsea last season. When the Belgium international could find that space in front of the full-back, untracked by a midfield marker, the result was often devastating.

It doesn’t matter whether De Bruyne is hugging the touchline, or operating more centrally, Guardiola wants his midfield dynamo working in space, wherever that may be.

And with so many players capable of excelling in the nooks and crannies, skipping past markers at will, De Bruyne could be that undetectable weapon at the forefront of a City title tilt.

Cruyff would approve.


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