Tuesday, 23 Jul 2024

What Is Catenaccio?

Reading about the history of football can be an enlightening experience. Since the English Football Association of the mid-Victorian period came up with the Laws of the Game and began the process of turning informal city kickabouts and lawless rural games into the formalized sport we all know and love today, a variety of different tactical concepts, in-game trends, and broader ideas about the game have been developed all over the world.

As soccer has spread to each corner of the globe, different nations and individuals have added their own ideas and strategies to help evolve and modernize the sport. Today, association football is more tactically evolved than ever before, after generations of innovation from big-thinking coaches and managers.

In this article, we’re going to be taking a dive into one of the most interesting tactical advancements of the 20th century, an idea that has contributed massively to the history of Italian football, while also impacting a number of other nations around Europe and beyond.

What is Catenaccio?

As you may have guessed from the title, “catenaccio” is a term that originated in Italy. While some famous international sides have built their success around free-flowing attacking football – the Netherlands’ Total Football philosophy, or the Spanish system of tiki taka soccer, for example – the Italians have been able to achieve triumph on the international stage by focusing on building strong defensive foundations.

Catenaccio is a defensive system built around man-marking and sweeping. Essentially, it involves dropping a central midfielder back into a more deep-lying defensive position and using them as a sweeper who plays behind the rest of the back line.

In Italian football, this deeper player is referred to as a libero, although other names for this role exist (in England, they’re usually referred to as a “sweeper”, for example). A couple of legendary players who typify this role would be Franz Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthäus, who both achieved great success with Germany playing within a variation of a sweeper system, picking up loose balls in defensive positions and driving forwards to initiate attacks.

The role of this player is to cover the space behind higher-placed defenders, clean up loose balls, and assist in marking any attackers who advance forwards. However, the likelihood of this happening is also reduced by another key aspect of catenaccio: with the sweeper covering behind, the two central defenders are freed up to focus on man-marking opposition attackers and preventing them from getting the ball.

Another key aspect of the deep-lying sweeper role is a responsibility for starting attacking moves themselves. By dropping back, they can create greater space for themselves to pick up loose balls and launch counter-attacks. This greater central defensive presence also allows wide defenders to advance into more attacking positions, where they can aid offensive moves.

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Ultimately, this operates as a defensively-minded counter-attacking system. Often, teams playing catenaccio focus on defending first and hoping to nick a goal on the counter – a 1-0 is a classic catenaccio victory (and a scoreline often seen in Italy’s top league, Serie A). This focus on defending, provided by the catenaccio system, helped Italian football produce some of the greatest defenders in world football history, from Giorgio Chiellini to Franco Baresi and Fabio Cannovaro (the only defender to have won the Ballon D’Or).

Defensive solidity has been instrumental to Italy’s success in competing with other major footballing powers and securing their status as one of the most successful soccer nations on the planet (to date, they’ve won four World Cups and two European Championships). However, this style of football didn’t actually originate in Italy…

Where does the name “catenaccio” come from?

Before we discuss the origins and development of the ‘libero’ role over the years, it’s worth diving into how this defensive style of play got its name.

There are a couple of possible explanations behind the name. According to some, the term catenaccio means “the chain”, referring to how the defensive pivot interacts with the back line, dropping in and out of it to sweep up play. Others believe it comes from the word “door-bolt”, which makes sense — with a strong focus on defense, this is a tactical structure that’s all about nullifying the opposition and keeping them out, hence the association with bolting the door.

But don’t be fooled; although the Italians perfected and titled this strategy, it didn’t actually originate with an Italian manager. Let’s spend some time exploring the history and development of this style of play.

The development of the sweeper role

It was Austrian coach Karl Rappan who first implemented the catenaccio system, way back in the 1930s. He spent the vast majority of his coaching career in Switzerland, managing clubs such as Grasshopper and Servette, as well as the Swiss national team. Rappan’s extraordinary success (he won numerous league titles and cups during the 30s, 40s, and 50s) was owed largely to his tactical ingenuity, chiefly his implementation of a “verrou” or “bolt” system that introduced a sweeper to increase solidity within a defensive back line.

According to Jonathan Wilson, the author of the highly influential 2009 tactics book Inverting the Pyramid, Verrou is “best understood as a development from the old 2-3-5. Rather than the centre-half dropping in between the two full-backs, as in the W-M, the two wing-halves fell back to flank them. They retained an attacking role, but their primary function was to combat the opposition wingers. The two full-backs then became in effect central defenders.” These two central defenders would be able to move towards the ball, with cover being provided behind them by the spare man, or “verouller”, as the Swiss called it back then.

It took a bit of time, but eventually the system caught on, and in a big way. It was adopted by various managers over in Italy, following the decision of Argentine-French coach Helenio Herrera to use it at Internazionale (who he led to a number of Serie A Championships in the 1960s). At this point, the “catenaccio” name popped up, and the libero role began playing a major role within Italian soccer tactics.

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Highly influential Italian coach Nereo Rocco implemented similar ideas at Triestina, developing Ivano Blason into arguably the world’s first widely-celebrated libero and managing a shock second-place Serie A finish as a result. Thought by many to be one of the greatest managers of all time, Rocco later joined Italian giants AC Milan, where he introduced similar tactical ideas.

With Milan, Rocco won two Serie A titles, three Coppa Italia titles, two European Cups, two European Cup Winners’ Cups, and an Intercontinental Cup. Quite the haul (and a testament to how much impact the catenaccio shape had on 20th-century European football).

In these early days of the sweeper role, it would typically be the half-back (an early adaptation of the central defensive midfielder position) who dropped into the deep defensive space to sweep up danger. However, the type of players most associated with this role has changed over time.

Shortly, we’ll explore the long-term impact of this footballing phenomenon. But first, if you’re interested in finding out more about the libero position and the responsibilities these players are tasked with, you might want to check out our article on the role of the sweeper in soccer.

The Sweeper role in the modern day

This specific ploy isn’t seen too much in football these days, even in Italy. Man-marking is increasingly rare, as coaches generally prefer the advantages that zonal marking offers in terms of controlling space on the pitch and maintaining well-structured positions. That being said, the concept of the sweeper, first introduced en masse by the catenaccio system, has nonetheless had an important impact on the development of soccer tactics over the years.

In a standard back four with two central defenders, for example, you’ll regularly find that one player will be tasked with being the aggressor who steps forward to challenge in aerial duels and win the ball higher up the pitch, while the other center-back will drop in a little deeper, sweeping up danger and covering space. This is in essence a reflection of the sweeper role and its wide-ranging impact on defensive structures within football.

Often, highly defensive structures with little attacking intent – for instance, systems in which teams are thought to be “parking the bus” or merely stopping their opponents from playing – are incorrectly labeled as Catenaccio. It’s important to note that catenaccio isn’t a catch-all term for deep-lying defensive play; rather, it’s an intricately-managed system built to nullify the threats of opposition attackers. And what’s more, it was hugely successful; It’s possible that Italy would never have achieved as much as they have on the world stage without the introduction of this strategy to Serie A by coaches such as Helenio Herrera and Nereo Rocco.

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By protecting the back line and helping to launch attacking plays after winning back possession, the catenaccio shape played a crucial evolutionary role in defensive tactics in football. However, it’s not the only important consideration when it comes to examining how defending has shaped and evolved over the years.

On our blog, we’ve covered a variety of different tactical developments, from the invention of the double pivot to provide greater solidity at the base of midfield, to the evolution of zonal marking, which has transformed the way players go about marking their opponents. If you’re looking to boost your knowledge of football tactics, you might want to start with the basics, though — if that’s the case, take a look at our guide to 9 of the best soccer formations explained.

About The Author
Fred Garratt-Stanley is a freelance football writer, Norwich City fan, and amateur footballer for South London side AFC Oldsmiths. For Jobs in Football, he’s covered subjects including the rise of set-piece coaching, the role of xG in football, and the growth of tactical ideas like gegenpressing and zonal marking. He’s also written about football for publications such as British GQ, VICE, FanSided, Football League World, and more.

FAQs

Q: What is the catenaccio system?

A: The catenaccio system is a defensive strategy in soccer that originated in Italy. It revolves around man-marking and sweeping, with a deep-lying midfielder or sweeper covering behind the back line, freeing up central defenders to focus on marking opposition attackers.

Q: What is the role of the sweeper in catenaccio?

A: The sweeper, also known as the libero, is responsible for covering the space behind higher-placed defenders, cleaning up loose balls, and assisting in marking any attackers who advance forward. They also play a role in starting attacking moves and creating space for wide defenders to move into more attacking positions.

Q: How successful is the catenaccio system?

A: The catenaccio system has been highly successful, particularly in Italian football. It focuses on defending first and relies on counter-attacks to score goals. This defensive-minded approach has produced some of the greatest defenders in world football history and has helped Italy become one of the most successful soccer nations on the planet.

Summary

Catenaccio is a defensive system in soccer that originated in Italy. It revolves around man-marking and sweeping, using a deep-lying midfielder or sweeper to cover behind the back line. This strategy allows the central defenders to focus on marking opposition attackers, while the sweeper aids in defensive duties, starts attacking moves, and creates space for other players to join the attack. Although the catenaccio system is not as commonly seen in modern football, its impact on defensive tactics and the development of the sweeper role cannot be understated. Italy’s success in international competitions is closely tied to the effectiveness of catenaccio, which has produced some of the greatest defenders in football history.