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How Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 diamond has returned to Barcelona

A few weeks ago would have been the Dutch legend's 70th birthday. RealSport are about to look into whether or not one of his legacies is about to be reborn.


When selecting the best player of all time, despite undoutbedly being one of the greatest, very few people would have Johan Cruyff at the top of the tree. The same can be said for the best ever manager. However, if the question was who was the greatest revolutionary football has ever seen, Cruyff would surely top most lists. He, along with legendary head coach Rinus Michels, put Ajax on the footballing map with their ‘Total Football’ revolution. 

A system based around intelligence, skill and technical ability, the concept of any player on the pitch being able to thrive in all of the roles. It was the ingenuity of Cruyff and Michels in particular that saw Ajax win three consecutive European cups in the early 1970s, despite professional football only coming about in the Netherlands in 1954. In the 1974 World Cup, one of football’s most iconic moments was created that would live on to this day. The ‘Cruyff Turn’. Simple yet elegant and highly effective. The defender thinks you’re going one way, before you flick it in the other direction. And that was the thing that was so brilliant about Cruyff. To him, his creations were logical, even simple. For the vast majority of others it was like watching Picasso create art.

The beginnings of Cruyff’s 3-4-3

It was inevitable therefore that Cruyff would go on to become one of the greatest managers of all time. He led Barcelona to their first ever European trophy in 1992 with the ‘Dream Team’. A 1-0 win over Italian outfit Sampdoria, Cruyff adopted the now infamous ‘3-4-3 diamond’. On paper, it looks bizarre. In the mind of Cruyff it covered every possible basis to ensure you have almost the complete team, playing beautiful football.

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Barcelona’s starting XI from the 1-0 victory over Sampdoria in 1992.

When in possession, Barcelona would have extreme fluidity, linked back to ‘Total Football’, however with a perfect mixed of carefully co-ordinated and strucutred movements to ensure it wasn’t simple a free for all. The rotation of players into varying positions and spaces on the pitch was nothing short of beautiful. Luadrup would often drop deep into the half-space left by Juan Carlos who would move out wide. Stoichkov would then take up the central position vacated by Laudrup.

In truth, there were so many variations to the 3-4-3 diamond it almost made the word ‘formation’ redundant. And yet, this system has rarely been adopted by any other manager or team since, certainly not in modern day football. Perhaps it’s because most teams don’t have 11 genuises on the pitch. Maybe it’s because most managers can not comprehend this beautfiul and sophisticated style of football.

Introduction at modern-day Barcelona

The 3-4-3 diamond looked like a thing of the past, though that was until we saw arguably the greatest every comeback in European history earlier in the season. Losing 4-0 to Paris Saint-Germain after the first leg of the Round of 16 in the Champions League, Barcelona needed a miracle to get through the tie. In the second leg at the Camp Nou, that is exactly what they got. And they done it with the 3-4-3 diamond. 

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Barcelona’s starting XI on the night they beat PSG 6-1.

The result was nothing short of extraordinary. In truth, due to the desperation of Barcelona to get back into the tie, and the sheer panic spread across the PSG players, the game was often chaotic and the football more in line with rock and roll, rather than the beautiful symphony Barcelona usually orchestrate.  Nevertheless, this change in tact from Luis Enrique, and the re-emergence of the 3-4-3 resulted in a game that will live long in the memories.

Most sides won’t ever be able to adopt the 3-4-3 diamond. It requires such fluidity and intelligence as well as cohesion from all players on the pitch, most teams simply won’t have the personnel to apply it and most managers wouldn’t be brave enough to either. This tactic can therefore be likened to the solar eclipse. A rare occurence, but when it does, it’s simply a thing of beauty.

Should more teams employ Cruyff’s 3-4-3 diamond? How did it revolutionise football? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Harry Brooks

Harry graduated from UAL in Elephant and Castle with a 2:1 BA Hons degree in sports journalism.

He has an NCTJ diploma and also coaches football and teaches PE in schools.

Harry loves to talk football tactics!

How Johan Cruyff’s 3-4-3 diamond has returned to Barcelona

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