- By Pablo Veroli
Barcelona under Cruyff: The ‘false 9’, the infinite number and Pep looking for his destiny
In 1988, Johan Cruyff would return to Barcelona, this time as a coach, and change the modern history of the club.
From then until the end of the 1995-1996 season, the Dutchman would impose his mark, his way of living, understanding, and playing football, for which the Catalans are known worldwide to this day. But of course, beyond its revolution, which reached the top with the construction of the team called ‘Dream Team’, nothing is sustained without good results.
Four league titles, three Spanish Super Cups, a Copa del Rey, a European Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup, and, mainly, a European Cup, the first in the history of the Catalans.
Cruyff knew that he had to make a facelift for Barcelona, a club accustomed to failures in Europe (among them, the defeat in the European Cup final against Steaua Bucharest in 1986) and that it had been suffering from the superiority of its greatest enemy, Real Madrid, in the Spanish league. The Dutchman did not arrive alone but did so with an arsenal of technical and tactical knowledge that would make him go down in history.
Although he was the best player in the world in the 1970s, and one of the greatest in history, he was also a very good disciple of the great creator of the ‘Clockwork Orange’, Rinus Michels, the father of probably the greatest tactical revolution in the history of the sport: total football.
With the 4-3-3 system in decline, Cruyff implemented a 3-4-3 system, but it was not static. The objective was the one that, from that date until today, distinguishes Barcelona: attacking football, possession, control of the rhythm of the game, accurate passes, search for spaces, and progress from back to front.
In defence, two centre-backs and a sweeper were placed. The midfield, the most important area for this type of team, was populated with four men, with three players acting as forwards. This was the original idea, which was used in the first years, but later the midfield would be made up of ‘four and a half’ men, and the attack by ‘two and a half’. Why? By the presence of the ‘false 9’.
If there was someone who ever made this name famous, it was Cruyff, who played precisely that and wanted that for his teams. At first, not having players of these characteristics, he opted for Julio Salinas, a typical striker, but the arrival of Michael Laudrup would change the equation. Now, beyond history and tactics, what happened to the jersey numbering system of that famous team? Well, history was mutating as the years passed.
In the beginning, there were no great mysteries. Everything was how it should be. For example, in the final of the 1989 European Cup Winners’ Cup against Sampdoria – the first title won of many – the numbers were close to those used in the Ajax system:
But the years passed and Cruyff’s idea of playing with two wings intensified and leaving the central area of the attack vacant for the use of the false 9 and the rest of the attacking midfielders. Gary Lineker, a striker, did not adapt to playing as a right winger (the classic number 7). It wasn’t his game. He had to go at the end of the 1988-1989 season. He wore, in addition to 7, in those years his favorite number, 10, and also 8.
The team improved with the arrival of great stars, but with them began the ‘chaos’ in the jerseys numbering system.
Ronald Koeman, sweeper or centre-back, arrived in 1989 and quickly wore his favorite number: 4. The number of the classic centre-half of Spanish football was now owned by a centre-back. For Koeman, wearing number 4 was an everyday thing: he had been doing it since the 1985/1986 season at Ajax, and he also wore it at PSV Eindhoven (1986/1989). Precisely, Koeman was the architect of the first PSV title of the European Cup in 1988. He also wore that number in the final of the Intercontinental Cup that year against the biggest club in Uruguay and one of the five giants of South America: Nacional, which would end beating the Dutch in a thrilling penalty shootout (a must-see – highly recommended!). Of course, he also wore it in the Dutch national team, with which he became European champion in 1988 and would continue to wear number 4 until his retirement. Therefore, there were no options: he was a superstar and it was his personal choice, apart from that he came to wear number 2 and number 5 on some occasions, more on the end of his stay in the team. As you can see: numbers 2 and 5 were, generally intended, for centre-backs.
Another personal choice was that of Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov, who came to the club in 1990 and chose 8. That was the number he wore for CSKA Sofia. Why so much love for number 8? He once said that number 8 “never ends; any other number, yes”. The interpretation is simple: if the number is turned on its side, the infinity symbol will be formed.
Centre-back José Alexanko when he was a starter he wore his classic number 3, in a rare case identical to that of Gerard Piqué (in South America, in countries like Brazil or Uruguay, 3 is a number worn by a centre-back). It was his number.
José Maria Bakero was another who almost always wore the same number, 6, being an attacking midfielder (he sometimes played as a centre-half). It is a case similar to that of Andrés Iniesta with the Spanish national team. The number 6 is that of a midfielder in Spain, although not a purely attacking midfielder. At Real Sociedad, before Barcelona, he wore number 8, perhaps a more ‘appropriate’ one (again the case of Iniesta, who wore number 8 at Barcelona).
So far, the cases of those who had a particular predilection for wearing a certain number, but there were cases that are clearer and that respond to the position of each player.
For example: Albert Ferrer, a right-back, almost always wore number 2 and was assigned it in the 1995-1996 season, when the fixed numbering system for jerseys was established in Spain. At Barcelona, he was not a ‘classic’ right-back at the beginning in the 3-4-3 system, but that was his usual position. He came to alternate from centre-back, as in the final of the 1992 European Cup against Sampdoria, wearing number 3 (Alexanko, who was a substitute, came on late in the game wearing 12 and, as club captain, lifted the trophy).
Eusebio was an attacking midfielder or a right or left midfielder, a versatile player who played between 1989 and 1995 for Barcelona. Therefore, he changed numbers due to position and is not singled out for one in particular, although it was 8 that wore the most. Also wore 5, 6, 7, 10, and 11. With Begiristain there is no doubt: he was a left winger, left foot, and wore 11.
Jon Andoni Goikoetxea was a right midfielder or, at times, a right-back or a right winger. At Real Sociedad, before arriving at Barcelona, he wore 8 (the number indicated for a right midfielder), but with Stoichkov at his side, he had to settle for 7, another number associated with his position in the right sector of the pitch. He would wear number 7 at the 1994 USA World Cup and at Athletic Bilbao at the end of his career.
The case of Sergi Barjuán is similar to that of Goikoetxea, but on the left side. He wore 3 (logical), 5, 7, 11 (“logical”), and 12 when he entered the field as a substitute. Having worn 12 for Spain at the 1994 World Cup, he chose to wear it for Barcelona from 1995 when squad numbers were introduced and also had it at Euro 96, the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
Guillermo Amor was a central midfielder and he was another who wore a lot of different numbers. Although he opted for the number 8 when the fixed numbering system was established, previously he had used 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10. Except for the number 9, wearing the rest was not something so crazy for a central midfielder. Stoichkov had left Barcelona for Parma in 1995 but when he returned a year later, Amor switched to 18 to accommodate him.
The perfect example of wearing a number for the position on the pitch was provided by the Danish Michael Laudrup, who for everyone was a classic number 10, an attacking midfielder or second striker.
The perfect ‘false 9; of the 3-4-3 system, came to fill the position wearing the number … 9. As Cruyff did in Barcelona in his playing days and as he did in the Dutch national team when tournaments with established fixed numbers were not played (for example, Euro 1976).
Laudrup was the man that Cruyff needed and who relegated Julio Salinas – a very different player – who, although he started out wearing number 9, would wear 7 when he played alongside Laudrup, and then he would only be a substitute. As if it was very clear who the (false) 9 was. This happened precisely in the final of the European Cup in 1992:
5 Juan Carlos
A strange case: is that of Josep Guardiola, Cruyff’s exemplary student and the one who carried out a revival of that great team from the 90s when he took over the reins of Barcelona between 2008 and 2012. Not only that: for many, he surpassed his teacher.
Guardiola was a victim of his own youth. At one time in the beginning, he even said that he played “4 or 6” (the classic numbers of the Spanish central midfielders, as we said earlier), but they were numbers prohibited by the presence of Koeman and Bakero, respectively. Pep was an excellent player, with great technique and passing. When he could choose to wear a number, he chose 4, his desired, but, previously, he had to be content with wearing the numbers that became available. In the final of the European Cup 1992, he wore 10 (not bad!) and in 1994, number 3. He also wore 5, 7, and 8, but, curiously, not number 6, one of the numbers of the positions in which he felt most comfortable. Of course, for Spain at the 1992 Olympics and 1994 World Cup, he wore number 9.
There were other cases of players who wore the numbers that were becoming available within the lineup from 1 to 11. A clear example: the centre back Miguel Ángel Nadal. He wore 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and…9, in the 2-2 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford. With the fixed numbering system, he wore 20 – like Sergi, carrying over the number worn for Spain at the 1994 World Cup.
The number 10 It is curious, too, how number 10 was one of the most ‘scorned’ in the Cruyff era. The number that Diego Maradona (1982/1984), Steve Archibald (1985/1986), and Gary Lineker were able to wear previously, was worn by different players, but none of them managed to properly claim it. Roberto, Richard Witschge, Laudrup, Guardiola, Amor, Eusebio, José Mari, sometimes Stoichkov, until the 1993-94 season.
Ironically, it was claimed by a classi ‘number 9’ – the Brazilian Romário, an out-and-out centre-forward. A former team-mate of Koeman’s at PSV, he wore number 9 for the Dutch club and number 11 at the Brazilian national team. However, with Laudrup and Begiristain wedded to their numbers, he had no choice but to wear number 10, to great effect.
The great pity for Barcelona was that the rules at the time meant that only three foreigners could be on the field at the same time. With Koeman guaranteed a spot, it meant that only two of Stoichkov, Laudrup or Romário could start, with the third coming on for one of the other two.
Nevertheless, each kept ‘his’ number when starting, forcing others to rotate (similar to Liverpool’s glory days). For the 1994 Champions League final, Laudrup was the one to miss out – precipitating his departure to Real Madrid – and so Amor wore 9. Sergi had 7 with Guardiola 3 when the reverse would have made more sense.
Unfortunately for Barcelona and Cruyff, a 4-0 loss was the beginning of the end for the ‘Dream Team’ but the great memories remain.