Johan Cruyff revisited as Barcelona face Man United in Europa League

Dutch master was a huge influence on managers Xavi and Ten Hag as the two European giants meet at Camp Nou

Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez leads a training session at Joan Gamper sports complex ahead of their clash with Manchester United. EPA
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Erik ten Hag’s answer was immediate when asked in December which player from Dutch history he would like to bring to Manchester United.

“Cruyff, of course,” he replied. And he didn’t mean Jordi, the current sporting director of Barcelona.

Manchester United’s manager admits that he still thinks a lot about Johan Cruyff, of whom he had two pictures on the wall in his office at Ajax Amsterdam.

“One as a player, Johan Cruyff, and one as a coach, Johan Cruyff,” he told Uefa this week. “He, in particular, was thinking outside the box and he brought a lot to football. Football is always about winning, but he wanted to do it in a certain way. It has to be in an adventurous way, in an entertaining way.

“That was the way he wanted to express it, how he wanted the game to be played and we really have to credit him with that, we have to value that, because football is for the people to watch. That's why I'm so happy to be a manager at the Theatre of Dreams.”

In Barcelona manager Xavi Hernández, Cruyff has a kindred spirit. Ten Hag and Xavi clash on Thursday on the unexpected stage of a Europa League play-off. Interest in the games between two of the three biggest clubs in the world is vast, with more than 100,000 waiting in an online queue for tickets for Old Trafford next Thursday.

Xavi learnt from Cruyff’s style at Camp Nou. As a player, Pep Guardiola was the finest exponent of Barca’s Cruyffism until Xavi came along. “There’s the man who will retire me,” said Guardiola upon seeing a young Xavi. Guardiola was the master of teams which dominate, the product of a system which started with the Dutch Total Football system and was enshrined by Cruyff in Spain.

It’s little surprise that Xavi likes Ten Hag’s style. “He is a great coach,” he said on Wednesday. “Somehow reversing the situation at United was not an easy task but he’s accomplishing it.

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“The club and the fan base are excited again, he has changed things offensively and defensively. He is a very interesting coach, does great variants, a line of three side players who go inside. He’s an offensive coach and that proves that, he is a reference for offensive coaches who like this kind of football.”

Xavi, who’s side lead Real Madrid by 11 points at the top of La Liga, talked about several of the United players he is likely to face.

When the United manager’s comments that Rashford was one of the best forwards in Europe were raised, the Barca coach said: “Yes, fully agree because he’s very fast, he has a very good dribble one against one. In the transition he is very, very dangerous so, yes, we need to take care of all of them but especially Rashford. He’s one of the most dangerous players now in Europe.

“We have assessed what they are doing. Rashford, [Alejandro] Garnacho, [Jadon] Sancho, [Wout] Weghorst might be a reference. United are very quick on transitions, they have strong legs so we need players who can run.”

United tried to sign one of his players, Frenkie de Jong, last summer – and Barca were prepared to sell him.

“I think he was really clear to me – he wanted to stay so there was no doubt.” said Xavi. “Now he is our player, I am really happy with his performance and leadership, in a very good moment, he is enjoying himself on the pitch and that is the most important thing.”

“Man United is a big club in Europe,” Xavi added. “They are not in the best moment of their history but they are Manchester United and we respect them a lot.

“Erik ten Hag, all the players, they are in a very good moment with good results in the last weeks so it will be very difficult against them. It will be very difficult to beat them.”

Midfielder Sergio Busquets and attacker Ousmane Dembele are out for the Catalans, who last faced United in 2019 – which saw Barca triumph 4-0 over two legs in the Champions League quarter-finals.

Barca manager Johan Cruyff pictured in 1989. Getty

“I expect this is going to a harsh game, one of the best games we can play, it’s going to be difficult,” said wide man Raphinha, one of the Barca players with Premier League experience.

“These are two of the best teams in the world and we’ve both been through rough patches.”

Raphinha took time to settle after his £55 million ($66m) transfer from Leeds United in 2022. “You need an adaptation period, all players need that,” he said.

“When you have players you don’t know you need time to adapt to the style, but I’m experiencing my best moment in the club. In my mindset I’m doing better.

“Manchester is one of the best teams in the world, one of the best clubs. They’re a team with great players.”

Raphinha's boss thinks the same and the stage is set for the first of two tough battles.

Updated: February 15, 2023, 4:00 PM