The history behind Catenaccio

Over the years there have been many managers who have been labelled as ‘tactical geniuses’. One of these is Helenio Herrera. You might not have heard of Herrera, which is entirely understandable, however, he’s the man who created Cetenaccio.

Cetenaccio is a football philosophy, that in layman’s terms essentially means – if the opponents cannot score, they cannot win the match. His philosophy has had an everlasting effect on the world of football.

The tactical system of Cetanaccio has a strong emphasis on defence. The modern day Cetanaccio is associated with the negative side of football, many relate it to ‘parking the bus’. This style of play has been associated with Italian football and many football fans mindlessly call their ruthless defending boring. They have simply overlooked that Cetanaccio is one of the greatest innovations in the history of the beautiful game.

In the 1930’s, Karl Rappan of Austria established the system. He played a 2-3-5 formation and it was then known as ‘Verrou’ otherwise known as ‘the bolt’. The Austrian manager was in managing in Switzerland and decided he needed a style of play that would nullify the professional teams his side would be playing.

The groundbreaking component of the system was the use of a spare player in defence. The wing-halves – similar to wide central midfielders in the modern game – dropped back and occupied a central defender role. This had a chain reaction with the central defenders dropping back and the forward players becoming midfielders. These changes prevented the players’ man-marking responsibilities and meant they couldn’t be pulled out of position. The centre-back who had dropped back was known as the ‘Libero’ in Italian, which means ‘free’. He was responsible for clearing up loose balls and challenging any players who had managed to break the first line of defence.

Rappan’s success in Switzerland got him the job as the national team manager. He employed the same tactical philosophy and went on the beat major nations such as Germany and England. Despite the achievements of Rappan, Catenaccio is closely associated with Italian football. Nereo Rocco employed the system and his Triestina side finished second in the Serie A. His team had a strict defensive approach, their formations varied from 1-4-4-1, 1-3-3-3, 1-4-3-2 and the 2-3-5.

Herrera’s version of Catenaccio used four man-marking defenders, who would tightly mark their assigned attacker, whilst the sweeper would clear the loose balls. This system started to breed tough-tackling ruthless defenders. This, of course, benefitted the national team.

In Herrera’s first two Serie A campaigns, Inter Milan scored the second highest amount of goals, however, they finished third and second respectively. Their failure to capture the league title led to Herrera being threatened with the sack. This caused Herrera to tighten up the defence. He replaced a midfielder with the ‘Libero’ who, of course, occupied the space in behind the defence.

This caused serious criticism, though. His side were labelled negative and unsporting. Inter Milan were one of the biggest sides in Italy at the time and for a club of their stature to be playing in such a manner was frowned upon, even though it reaped the rewards.

In 1995 the Nerazzuri won the European Cup with a 1-0 victory over Benfica. They made sure they were defensively strong and committed few men to their attacks enabling them to stop any possible counter attacks from Benfica. It worked.

During his time at Inter Milan, Herrera won three Serie A titles and two European Cup’s. In the year of 1969 he moved to Italian rivals AS Roma and, implementing the same system, he delivered the Italian Cup. Herrera wanted his teams to “think quickly, act quickly, play quickly.” This enabled his sides to find gaps in the opposition defences and when they did counter attack, they did it at great pace causing trouble for opposing teams.

Catenaccio soon got found out though and more innovative and attacking strategies began to outwit the defensive mindset. Inter Milan lost the 1972 European Cup final 2-0 to Dutch giants Ajax who had implemented the famous total football strategy.

In 1973, Nereo Rocco had taken AC Milan to the European Super Cup final. His side were also defeated by Ajax, however, the loss was much more humbling – a 6-0 win for the Dutch side! The two defeats to Ajax indicated something needed to change in the Catenaccio style. They altered the system that enabled a more offensive style without abandoning their strong defensive roots.

By 1982, the Italian national team, managed by Enzo Bearzot, had come up with a semi-zonal system. They took the tournament by storm and using this system went on to beat Germany 3-1 in the final. Italian football was beginning to evolve and their defensive system was being forgotten for a more attacking system.

In the present day, Catenaccio is rarely seen. It seemed to diminish in the 1980’s, however, there are examples where defensive philosophies similar to Catenaccio have been used effectively.

In the 2004 European Championships, there was an unlikely winner in Greece. They adopted a defensive system to beat Portugal in the final. Portugal were dominant in possession, however, they were unable to break down the stubborn Greek defence. The underdogs took the lead on the 57th minute thanks to Angelos Charisteas and the game was done there. Greece stopped any Portugal attacks and went on to win the match 1-0.

Jose Mourinho has been closely associated with Catenaccio. A manager who also lead Inter Milan to success during his time there, the self proclaimed special one beat Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals where they adopted a defensive mindset that had similarities to Catenaccio used by Herrera and Rocco 50 years earlier. Mourinho’s side defended firmly and pressed in pairs to the player in possession and, to be fair, it worked.

Cetenaccio may not have been the most beautiful style of play, but it delivered the goods on many occasions. It’s certainly a unique way of playing that has played a big part in the history of the game.

By Callum Read – @CReadJourno

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