Attack, Attack, Attack
As the tireless cliché goes: football is an art form – creative and elegant. That’s what we want it to be, anyway. Never have football teams been so heavily criticised if they didn’t exhibit The Beautiful Game in its glorious entirety. It seems passes are being praised more than goals. And as for the appreciation for a solid tackle? – You may just earn yourself a yellow card for applauding it.
Football is a changed sport. A more frantic, frenzied game. Complete reverence to forward play, along with, what seems almost like, a disregard to the defensive side.
In 2009 only two, of the thirty two teams in the Champions League group stages, managed to keep their average number of shots conceded per game below 10. Disregard.
Was It Always Like This?
La Grande Inter, that solid, resolute Internazionale team of the sixties were a force to be reckoned with. Under Helenio Herrera they enjoyed a spell of unprecedented success. They had won seven major honours during his eight year-reign. All of them coming within four years.
They were dominant and virtually unplayable. During this near decade-long sovereignty of European football, he had pioneered the Italian giants into a direction of devilishly determined defending. They didn’t play expansive, attacking football. They kept things tight and played on the counter.
From the ‘30s, stretching and straining against the shackles of global approval, a three decade-long revolution had grasped football. In the mind of Austrian Karl Rappan the ingenuity that would sculpt the era was brewing, and thus, the ‘sweeper’ was created.
Rappan’s philosophy, verrou, included isolating a defender and playing him just in front of the ‘keeper. Apart from success, it also brought great defensive pressure. Something had to be done; a metamorphosis of the verrou and its system.
The idea travelled from Switzerland to Italy, where it was adopted by Nereo Rocco. A pivotal role in the birth of Catenaccio (literal translation: door-bolt – as with verrou) – a system that, according to Giovanni Trapattoni, ‘rules out defeat as far as possible’. A system that withstood bombardments of attacks and held firm. A system that repelled the romantics and created a dark cloud that enveloped the beauty of our game and gave rise to the evil creature: Anti-Football.
What was it about Catenaccio then that made it so despicable to the footballing eye? The libero that is an evolved sweeper who has free licence to roam the defensive line? The suffocating man-marking? The lack of distinct attacking play?
Whatever it may be, it was despised. It forged an image of terrible football into the minds of connoisseurs of the game. As unattractive as it was, it was efficient and reigned supreme. Michel Platini even said: ‘In football, defence was always superior to attack.’ When you picture that, imagine the player and not UEFA’s president.
Slaying the Beast
There were two known causes of the death of Catenaccio: the emergence of the position-free Total Football and the hybrid Zona Mista. These freed the incarcerated soul of football and liberated a playing style that captured the age.
This allowed players to fully express themselves. Football became a flowing sport. New ideals and indeed ideas engulfed the game. Zonal Marking dictated defensive play and rotating positions influenced offensive strategies.
From the ashes of Serie B rose the Old Lady. Juventus were, not a few seasons ago, a club in crisis, but now they have re-established themselves as European heavy weights. Antonio Conte’s bianconeri went the whole of last season unbeaten, precisely mirroring Arsenal’s Invincibles and going 49 league games unscathed.
The secret to their success? There are many points to this argument, but there are some that are more striking than others: the genius simplicity of the 3-5-2, the balance of the Regista and Trequistra, and undoubtedly the bombing wing-backs.
There are tactical similarities between this Juventus side and Herrera’s Inter, if not distinct. The deep-defending linchpin, Leonardo Bonucci, who can distribute the ball with effortless ease. The use of the wing-backs – who are trapped between the titles of defenders and attackers – who can sit deep, invite the opposition to attack, then spring a counter. The integral role of Andrea Pirlo, the perfect example of a traditional Regista. To emphasise the strength of Juventus’ defence, draw comparison to the rest of the league – the Bianconeri have conceded a staggering 11 goals less than the Serie A average.
Italy, against all odds, reached the Euro 2012 final. They employed three at the back and played a similar system used by Conte. Manchester City experimented in the season’s curtain-raiser, the Community Shield, with three at the back. Jurgen Klopp resorted to it in a time of need against Schalke.
Opinions may be divided on this subject, but the influence this system has on modern football is growing. That is incontrovertible.
Football is an ever-evolving sport. Is the old evil reinventing itself, masking its undesirable traits?