This feature is part of Duology
In school, one learns about the importance of a literary foil – a character whose qualities and attributes contrast with the protagonist while highlighting important elements of their persona. Although Johan Neeskens spent the most impactful years of his career in Johan Cruyff’s shadow, at Ajax, Barcelona and with Oranje, he remains, without a doubt, one of the most talented Dutch footballers of all-time.
The partnership of the two Johans, for club and country, in an era of football that laid the groundwork for the modern game, is more than a story. It’s the stuff of legend.
Imagine two players, two men possessed by energies that few had seen and even fewer could explain at the time, step across the chalked white lines. One player is Johan Cruyff, football’s wizarding genius whose influence tactically still defines football. The other, Johan Neeskens, the prototype of the school of Total Football. The former sets the stage, the latter actions on the ever-changing environment. Neeskens proved himself to be the perfect foil to Cruyff.
These two players have affected the idea and concepts of time, space and movement on the football pitch. Because of this partnership, everything is different now. Intelligence and outthinking the opponent have always been drafted on paper or scribbled on the whiteboard in tactical session, but combining intelligence with the requisite physical output to succeed were proven on the pitch through the Cruyff-Neeskens partnership.
In other words, to play the type of football Rinus Michels charged Cruyff with orchestrating required a support system of players with the technical ability, physical capability, willingness to adjust and tactical excellence to match what Cruyff was thinking on the pitch in real-time. Total Football has been provided an aperture through which the world sees the melding of intelligence and work rate in footballing form. Through this lens, teams with Neeskens and Cruyff on the pitch outwork, outthink and, ultimately, outplay opponents.
The dualities of football breathe life into a simple game made complicated by its participants. Where there is good, or great, there is usually the opposite. Where skill and finesse exist, power and brute force counters or compliments it. But football’s dualities extend well beyond the attributes of the game.
Duality suggests opposition or contrast between ideas, aspects and concepts. And so it makes perfect sense that footballers have their dualities, too. These duos form partnerships that often reveal the magic of synchronicity and congruence on the pitch. A playmaker needs a striker to finish the act. A terrier of a player tackling his way through the midfield needs a playmaker to assume control of possession and create the next movement. The flux and flow of football is hypnotic when one concentrates on the pitch-level trance and zeroes in on the frequency of two players linking up almost telepathically.
Every football fan, scholar and even the passerby of footballing history recognises the canonical power of Johan Cruyff. The genius of Cruyff is evident on every level of football study, play, and tactical examination. His fluidity is seen on grainy film from his earliest days at Ajax, making leggy runs and erratic feints to twist, turn, and shift the opposition. Cruyff was a footballing locksmith – his left foot was the skeleton key that unlocked any and all doors.
But what of the other Johan? In the annals of the sport’s history, Johan Neeskens is often lost in conversation when Cruyff is involved. For those who never saw Neeskens play, much can be forgiven for failing to realize just how talented a player the other Johan really was in a time of Dutch football’s renaissance. When Neeskens was asked what is like to perpetually exist in the great Cruyff’s shadow, he answered: “I don’t mind being the second greatest player in the world.” In reality, Neeskens was hardly wrong in his assertion – even if it was made tongue-in-cheek.
Football teams are complicated collections of players with differing skill-sets, egos and personalities. The timeless analogy that some players play the piano while others carry it is more than just a cliched assertion. It is a well-known footballing reality. If ever there was the perfect juxtaposition of a footballing duo, the Neeskens-Cruyff partnership captures it.
For many that didn’t see Neeskens play, or do not have an idea of the type of quality player he was, the way the Cruyff is deservedly celebrated, universally, the temptation is to compare the two players. However, what makes the partnership a worthy duo is more about how Neeskens and Cruyff complimented one another and elevated the team’s level of play rather than to pit their talents against the other’s. Such a comparison is a disservice to the duo.
Neeskens was the complete player – a perfect disciple for Total Football. The standard he set and qualities he possessed typify those of the modern two-way midfielder. His superb fitness, high technical level, ability and willingness to track and tackle, strike from distance, pick out a pass, be a set-piece specialist, and be somewhat of a hardman when necessary, allowed the gangly, more slight of frame and elegant Cruyff to pull the strings and dictate patterns of play. In other words, Neeskens was a playmaker on the ball and an absolute terror off it.
When Neeskens joined Michels’ Ajax side in 1970, he played an enormous role in allowing Cruyff to work the magic, while the rest of the team, led by Neeskens, did the legwork. What made the Neeskens-Cruyff partnership so effective was the fact that Neeskens, in addition to his ability to defend, tackle, dribble and distribute the ball, could score goals.
When the opposition swarmed Neeskens, Cruyff found pockets of space to receive the ball and attack. When Cruyff lost the ball, it was often Neeskens who tracked and regained possession only to offload it back to Cruyff to counter-attack with devastating effect. Additionally, the Ajax and Dutch national sides were not limited those two players as Piet Keizer, Ruud Krol, Sjaak Swart and Johnny Rep to name a few of the greats deployed by Michels in his Total Football system.
At Ajax, the two Johans secured two Eredivisie titles, two league cups, a hat-trick of European Cups between 1971 and 1973, two UEFA Super Cups and an Intercontinental Cup. When Neeskens joined Michels and Cruyff at Barcelona in 1974, the partnership was seen on a larger stage. With the supporters dubbing Neeskens as Johan Segon – Johan the Second – the dynamic of the relationship of the two players on the pitch was highlighted.
Internationally, the partnership flourished as the Netherlands reached two successive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. In 1974, Cruyff’s surging run into the West German penalty area resulted in a penalty which was converted authoritatively by Neeskens, who smashed the ball into the net – twice. The duo of powerful player in Neeskens and pure genius in Cruyff allowed the two to play off the motives and actions of the other.
Where Cruyff opened up a channel with his movement on the ball, Neeskens can be seen making a powerful run and pulling a marker with him allowing Cruyff to find an available teammate or exploit the usable space himself. The dominant physical play on both sides of the ball by Neeskens contrasted with the smooth and polished play of Cruyff. If opponents believed dispossessing or out-muscling Cruyff would lead to their bossing of the midfield, they were often confronted with a marauding Neeskens to lay the boots down and enforce the play to re-establish control and possession.
A side of the two players worth mentioning is their personas off the pitch. Cruyff, the frail and physically weaker player on the field, was anything but that off it, where his talismanic personality and his witty, outspoken and often controversial quips and assertions increased his popularity and ability to capture and attract attention. Neeskens, the domineering and intimidating force on the pitch, was less outspoken of it, often willing to save the headlines and quotes for others while he made his statements in the background. When Neeskens spoke, it was often in stone-cold truths: “When I walk onto the field, I always want to win and get the ball – I am not concerned about myself.”
The mentality and aggression possessed by Neeskens could put-off opposing star players so much so they would look lost on the pitch because of the presence Neeskens provided. Opponents knew they would have less time on the ball and that Neeskens would be unrelenting in his tackling and pursuit of them. Such a dynamic force created an immaculate canvas for Cruyff to create masterpieces of footballing movement.
Michels and Cruyff may get the credit for having laid the foundation for Total Football but Neeskens was an architect of the system and, while it was Cruyff who was seemingly destined to design and orchestrate the system, it was Neeskens who was physically and mentally built for interchange and transition.
As the world rightly regards Cruyff as one of football’s geniuses, it must regard Neeskens as one of football’s most complete players ever. The success and effectiveness of Total Football required players of Cruyff’s genius and leadership and Neeskens’ mentality, physical abilities, and versatility. The archetype of the box-to-box midfielder is Neeskens’ very own.
Modern football owes much to the duo of Cruyff and Neeskens. The two showed what happens when space creation is as much of an art and act of genius in Cruyff as it is a discipline and standard of the game in Neeskens. As is the case with the modern player, versatility is king. The ability to run box-to-box will never win the headlines the way goal scorers do but, without that work on and off the ball, the goals are scored less frequently.
The lasting impact of the Cruyff-Neeskens partnership is evident today. The modern rendition might be N’Golo Kanté’s work rate and ability to operate on both sides of the ball, but, even then, without a genius like Cruyff, direct comparisons to the Dutch duo only serve as false equivalencies.
The best teams have the components for which Cruyff and Neeskens set the benchmark. For every playmaker there must be two-way players willing and able to break-up play, be comfortable on the ball, tackle and track. The high octane running must be reined in by high-level thinking. The hallmark of a great partnership is selflessness. Cruyff and Neeskens did the work that changed not only the dynamic of the game in a 90-minute span but changed the dynamic of football forever.
By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp