Cruyff, Liedholm's Roma and total football

Only once did our paths meet on a football field. Only once did Roma come into direct contact with a certain Johan Cruyff. 

It was back on 14 August 1983. The Giallorossi – fresh from winning their second-ever Scudetto title – were taking on Thijs Libregts’ Feyenoord side, which just so happened to contain the most famous man ever to pull on the Oranje jersey. 

It was a friendly match, part of a four-team tournament taking part in Amsterdam that summer. The game itself was nothing to write home about, Feyenoord winning 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in normal time, with Agostino Di Bartolomei getting the Giallorossi’s goal courtesy of one of his trademark free-kicks. In fact, the most noteworthy part of the whole occasion was that the great Cruyff actually missed his spot-kick. No matter… he went on to lead Feyenoord to league title glory that season before hanging up his boots for good in favour of the manager’s coat.

Cruyff’s influence has been widely lauded, meticulously analysed, discussed at length. He revolutionised Ajax, Barcelona… yet Italy was by no means immune to the Cruyff effect. And if there was one Italian team – other than Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan – that really tried to draw inspiration from Cruyff’s brand of total football then it was Roma. 

The first example of this was the Nils Liedholm era in the 1980s. The Swedish manager was the first coach to garner success in Serie A by moving away from the quintessentially Italian counter-attacking, man-marking style. Liedholm encouraged his players to use the whole pitch and – to disorientate their opponents – the Swede’s tactic of choice was not tiki-taka but the so-called “spider’s web”, a series of horizontal passes designed to break down defensive organisation.

Even the formation was innovative. The 1982-83 Scudetto was won with the following line-up: Franco Tancredi in goal, Sebastiano Nela, Pietro Vierchowod, Agostino Di Bartolomei and Aldo Madera at the back, Carlo Ancelotti, Paulo Roberto Falcao and Herbert Prohaska in the middle and Bruno Conti, Roberto Pruzzo and Maurizio Iorio up top. But it was a kind of 1-3-3-3, a little like the Dutch national side at their total football peak. 

The main difference between the two sides was the way they attacked. While the Dutch were lightning quick, Roma had a more considered approach. For Liedholm – Il Barone, as he was known in the city – the keys to everything were mobility and fluid positioning. 

Di Bartolomei was deployed at sweeper, tasked with overloading the midfield when Roma were in possession. Having played midfield most of his career, Di Bartolomei – whose mobility was his only slight weakness – was able to draw on all of his elegant technical ability and shooting prowess to pull the strings from his new position.

Ago’s equivalent in the 1974 Netherlands side was Arie Hann. Reinvented as a defensive midfielder by national team coach Rinus Michels, he too was a dead-ball specialist, his penchant for long-range goals earning him the nickname the Bombardier (he also scored against Italy in the 1978 World Cup).

Pietro Vierchowod was another key cog in the Roma defence under Liedholm. The left-footed Vierchowod had enviable pace, enabling him to blossom into a truly majestic centre-back. It’s a description that could easily be attributed to Holland’s Ruud Krol, he of the cultured left foot, imposing physique, impressive speed and noteworthy ability in bringing the ball out from defence. Krol was a colossus in the air and no slouch when it came to one on ones either.

The fulcrum of all Roma’s play in 1982-83 was the Brazilian midfielder Paulo Roberto Falcao. A genuine tuttocampista – an all-rounder – the No.5 could dictate the play or merely nudge it elegantly whichever way he saw fit, pitching in with a fair few goals to boot. It was a similar role to the one filled by Johan Neeskens, a key man for Michels who started in defensive midfield before moving up to partner Cruyff and later to lead the line outright. 

Ultimately, if Liedholm’s Roma was missing something then it was a Johan Cruyff of its own. A player who could score the goals but also inject sublime quality into the team’s build-up play. A false nine, to coin a phrase. It wasn’t Roberto Pruzzo, a lethal fox-in-the-box striker but not one to bring a great deal else to the team. And neither was it Bruno Conti, an extraordinarily talented winger but a player whose main task was to provide the ammunition for the central striker (usually Pruzzo).

Speaking after news broke of Cruyff’s passing, Luciano Spalletti – another coach who has got Roma playing attacking football not a million miles away from the total football blueprint – gave his opinion on the Dutch master’s qualities as a false nine: “Nowadays, we like to play around with the idea of the false nine. You could say he had all the necessary qualities for that position. Cruyff was a false nine because he'd play up front, then he'd pop up on the left wing and he'd also drop beneath the halfway line to pick up the ball and start move.”

Perhaps the only Giallorossi player that can be compared to Cruyff hails not from the 1970s or 1980s but from the present day: Francesco Totti, Roma’s eternal No.10. Though he was never as quick as Cruyff, Totti made up for it in physical stature. Together, they scored 669 goals – 300 for Totti, 369 for Cruyff. As Al Pacino said in Any Given Sunday: “That’s football, guys. That’s all it is.”


Johan Cruyff illustration by @daveflanagan. Click here to see more art by Dave Flanagan.