A common stereotype in the coverage of Italian football is that it is still bound and shackled in the all-encompassing embrace of Catenaccio, the tactical system which came to prominence during the 1960s with a strong emphasis on defence.
The Azzurri are often described as playing in the “Catenaccio style” and whilst certain characteristics remain, the system itself died many years ago.
Translating from the Italian for “door-bolt,” the defensive structure is characterised by ruthlessly tough tackling, close man-marking and the use of a deep-lying “Libero” or “free” defender, playing behind the back 3. Known in England as a “sweeper,” the Libero, is employed as a last line of protection for the goalkeeper to clear up any danger missed by his defensive colleagues.
Catenaccio has become an ugly word in football’s parlance. If the fluid, expansive “Total Football” methods of the Dutch, and Spanish tiki-taka represent “good;” to many commentators, Catenaccio is football’s dark underbelly. A stifling, anti-football bereft of flair, where ruthless cynicism is celebrated. Catenaccio became identified as the art of “not losing” a game of football.
Whilst known to the world for its deployment in Italian football, Catenaccio’s philosophy can trace its roots back to 1930s Swiss football and the Austrian coach Karl Rappan’s verrou tactics (again, “verrou” translates from French to English as “bolt”). “Real Catenaccio” came to Italy in the late 1940s and early 50s where Nereo Rocco’s Triestina and Padova teams added the Libero to the mix.
Argentine Helenio Herrera is held to be Catenaccio’s godfather. Between 1963 and 1966, his Internazionale team won three Italian league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups through a watertight defence and ability to counter attack at pace with the help of wingers and a midfield playmaker. Successful tactics are often imitated; sadly with varying degrees of success. As more and more clubs adopted Catenaccio, Hererra noted that in the struggle to keep clean sheets, his admirers had forgotten to attack. Ultimately, football is about scoring goals.
Catenaccio was left redundant as more fluid systems where players regularly switched positions, left the tight man-marking system looking confused and dated. Hererra regularly heralded the “death of Catenaccio,” most notably after Inter’s 1967 European Cup Final defeat to Celtic, and Italy’s 4-1 collapse at the hands of Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Final. No tactical system is immune to the preparation and progress of opponents. Italian football was forced to evolve and allow a more “zonal” approach to marking and today, the Libero position is a thing of the past with Italian sides preferring to use a spare man to compete in midfield. A Regista playmaker opperating between defence and midfield, with the ability to influence tempo and control posession such as Andrea Pirlo of Juventus, is now a much more valued commodity in Italian football.
Whilst Italy has a rich tradition of exceptionally talented defenders, including Claudio Gentile, Franco Baresi, Giuseppe Bergomi, Paulo Maldini and 2006 World Cup winning captain Fabio Cannavaro; the modern Azzurri have evolved into a more potent attacking force in contrast to the commonly held view. Today’s Italy boast youthful promise and may explode myths at this year’s World Cup Finals.
When the situation calls for it, when the odds are against them, Italy can still turn a game in their favour by offering a glimpse of the past and the ghost of Catenaccio. Coach Cesare Prandelli may even wish for opponents to believe it still exists.