The Rise & Demise of the ‘Libero’

Football has seen it’s fair share of tactical changes in different eras but the word ‘libero’ has all but vanished from its vocabulary. In this piece, I will examine the rise of the libero, it’s use in the infamous Catenaccio system and it’s eventual demise.

Helenio Herrera - pioneer of Catenaccio
Helenio Herrera – pioneer of Catenaccio

Libero is an Italian term meaning “free” but the concept of using an extra defender did not have it’s origins in Italy.  A libero was a defender who played as the deepest outfield player, behind the two center-backs, and was relieved of any man-marking duties. His duties included sweeping across the back-line and providing the insurance his team needed.

The most infamous use of a libero was in the Catenaccio (Italian for ‘door-bolt’) system used by Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale side in the 1960s. But it was the Austrian coach Karl Rappan who first toyed with the idea of using a spare defender to shut out teams more talented than his side. He believed that unless you had 11 talented players on the pitch, tactics took on a whole new level of importance.

Karl Rappan's Verrou system
Karl Rappan’s Verrou system

Rappan’s system was called the verrou (French also for ‘door-bolt) and implemented three defenders with the sweeper (called verrouilleur) playing just in front of the goalkeeper. The verrouilleur was a strictly defensive position, with the player given little to no license to roam forward. His role was restricted to collecting the ball and punting long clearances downfield without a second thought.

Nereo Rocco’s “real” Catenaccio

Nereo Rocco’s Triestina side brought the system to Italy (often referred to as the “real” Catenaccio) in the late 1940s where it would be polished and used to devastating effect by Helenio Herrera’s Inter. Rocco used a typical 1-3-3-3 system which had a very defensive approach to the game. Another variation of Rocco’s system was a 1-4-3-2 formation (pictured on the right). Triestina went on to finish 2nd in Serie A that season which contributed to the rise of the libero in Italian football.

But there were a few teams who refused to accept that the potential of a libero would be limited to defensive duties. Franz Beckenbauer was the perfect example of this. If a player was capable of playing the ball out of defence, it could be used as a deadly weapon. The biggest advantage of having an attack-minded libero in the side was when he moved into the attacking half, it wreaked havoc since the opposition didn’t anticipate marking an extra man. A technically sound libero also helped in a smooth and swift transition from defence to attack thus prompting the innovation of counter-attacks.

But soon most coaches grew tired of this brand of football since it’s obvious weaknesses were starting to surface. Deploying an extra man in defence meant they were over-run in midfield where they were playing with a man less. The top sides (except Inter) started experimenting with other systems but the lower and weaker sides persisted with it since it allowed them to sit deep and not worry about concession of the possession in midfield.

Rinus Michel’s Ajax side started the demise of the libero and eventually rendered it obsolete with their brand of ‘Total Football’ in the 1970s and it never caught on again. In modern day football, a ball-playing center-back is a player who comes closest to fitting the bill. Players like Daniel Agger and Lucio fall in that category but the best example is that of Gerard Pique at Barcelona. He is supremely confident and comfortable with the ball at his feet and feels at ease when bringing the ball out of defence. Pep Guardiola used Sergio Busquets as the holding midfielder in his system – Busquets drops back when Pique charges forward. This does not take anything away from Busquets who is equally adept with the ball at his feet and sprays the ball around to start Barcelona attacks.

Some of the notable liberos of the past include Franz Beckenbauer, Armando Picchi, Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi.

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