The art of defense


Defense is an art that the best coaches in the world consider more important than any other aspect of the game. Covering positions, making timely tackles and even getting out of the offside trap is essential to preventing teams from scoring. . After all, what good is a team that can’t even defend a 2 or 3 goal lead.

It was the Italians who decided to take it upon themselves to make defense an art form, moving away from the physical aspect of defense and bringing in technical prowess. Until the Italians brought finesse to the board, defense was about getting past opposition and reducing tackles.

It was the ability to tighten space and restrict movement that led to the rise of the Catenaccio style of play.


Few people remember his name, but Helenio Herrera was a Franco-Argentinian player and later a coach who was one of the biggest names in football training in the mid-20th century. After playing for teams like RC Casablanca and Stade Français, Herrera retired from club football in 1945.

Herrera started coaching and moved to Spain, where he became the manager of Real Valladolid, Atletico Madrid, CD Malaga and even FC Barcelona squad. It was after his visit to Barcelona in 1960 that Herrera moved to Inter Milan.


It was during his stay at Inter Milan that Herrera decided to change his team’s defense. He switched to a 5-3-2 formation to improve his counter-attacking style of play. A strong believer in hard work and a strong work ethic, Herrera was known as the pioneer of psychological motivation techniques, including team pep talk.

Herrera also introduced the no-smoking and drinking policy as well as controlling the diet of his players to make them true professionals. Herrera was also known to suspend a player for telling the media at a press conference, “We came to play in Rome” instead of “We came to win in Rome”.

A tough man, Herrera was slightly defensive in his style of play although his Catenaccio form was not as defensive as some of the roster’s future mutations, when applied by Italian architects.

One of Herrera’s full-backs, the great Giacinto Facchetti, testified to the attacking style of Catenaccio de Herrera that prevailed in this Inter Milan side. The team was built around defense, its primary role being to absorb opposition pressure before launching lightning-fast counterattacks.

Using his full-backs to straddle the midfield, Herrera completely transformed the way the world looked at attacking football. Not giving too much to the rear, the team rose to fame for their 1-0 victories, leading to the nickname Verrou, which means “Door Bolt”.


Known as “Herrera’s Inter”, the team won the 1963, 65 and 66 league titles, the 1964 and 65 European Champions Cup as well as the Intercontinental Cup in those two seasons. Herrera also became the first coach to continue and coach three separate national teams, ending his career with a record 48.57%.

In his 908 games as a coach, which included teams like Inter Milan, AS Roma, Barcelona, ​​Atletico Madrid and CF Os Belenenses, Herrera has lost just 241 games as he withdrew 226. In his 12-club coaching career, Herrera finished with one negative goal. difference only three times – with Real Valladolid (-21), AS Roma (-1) and Rimini (-22). Each team was too weak at the time, though Herrera turned Roma into a championship-winning team, winning the 1969 Italian Cup with substandard roster and his famous Catenaccio style of football.


Contrary to popular conception, the Catenaccio was not built to exclude opposition. The whole concept of the game was to allow the opposition to attack, relentlessly even, before suddenly attacking on the counter. The team would play with five at the back, in a “V” formation, with the Libero or sweeper in the middle. As opponents entered the “V” their attack was reduced, restricting movement and space.

Once the ball changed possession, the defending team had a winger on each side, already in front of the opposing midfielder. This meant that the team could now push, quickly, playing the ball to these wingers, who would have a lot of space to exploit.


While the Catenaccio was itself a mutation of the 5-4-1 system invented by Karl Rappan for the Swiss national team, the formation itself has undergone many transformations. The teams returned to the original “Rappan style” by playing the sweeper just in front of the goalkeeper and placing a flat back in front.

Nereo Rocco, Calcio Padova coach in the 1950s, was another who exploited the system. With three flat defenders scoring the opposition, Rocco would play a playmaker in the middle, just ahead of the defense, alongside two wingers. While these three weren’t the actual midfielder, Rocco’s style also used the sweeper behind central defense to pass the stronger players.

The midfielder would be in front of those three players, with a lone striker up front, leading to a 1-3-3-3 formation.

While Herrera also focused on scoring men with four of her defenders, her defense was flexible in that she swung right or left to make it a flat line most of the time. This meant that four defenders, aided by the midfielder, would effectively score the opposition, which had already been parked in the middle. That left the fifth remaining defender – still a winger, free to do counter runs.


Catenaccio had become the flavor of the month in the 60s and 70s, catching the imagination of all coaches on the world stage. However, it was a man who brought Catenaccio to his knees – Rinus Michels.

Faced with Catenaccio’s tight male scoring, Michels decided to do away with the whole concept of playing footballers in fixed positions. He removed the lines that separated forwards, midfielders and defenders, teaching all of his players to play in all positions. As the attackers fell back into midfield, or even in defense, their man markers were unable to leave their posts and pursue them.

The fact that Michels had the crop of players he made, to implement such a technique, was the only reason Total Football became a reality.

Catenaccio was no longer the first choice, as Total Football, or its lines, began to dismantle defenses with their speed and movement. The mediocre coaches, who followed rather than searched, had no choice but to fall by the wayside.


Coaches who preached the Herrera Principle sought to counter Total Football with a change in the scoring formula for Catenaccio’s men. The answer was quite simple, in theory – Zona Mista.

The Zona Mista was a concept that incorporated man marking and zone marking into a strong defensive strategy. While the concept still used the four-man defense with the traveling sweeper, the difference was in how the midfielder and full-backs supported the defense.

The two central defenders, at the heart of the defense, would play the zone marking. The midfielder would have a defensive midfielder, who was to help the defense by falling back. A central midfielder would play in front of the defensive midfielder while a winger (usually on the right flank), would support in attack.

Two attackers would play in the front, one on the left and one in the center. The position of the wide forward was determined by the position of the winger – the two being on opposite flanks. The winger would act as an additional attacker while the wide attacker would float to make it a two-pronged attack.

While defending, the wide attacker would come to cover the central midfielder as the latter would fall into a defensive position.


Italy – 1982

The most famous application of this training was at the 1982 FIFA World Cup when Italy entered the tournament with this whole new style of football. Gaetano Scirea played the sweeper role to perfection while the attacking left-back was an 18-year-old, who would later become one of the greatest defenders of all time – Giuseppe Bergomi.

Gabriele Oriali played as a defensive midfielder, just ahead of Fulvio Collovati and the man who stopped young Diego Maradona – Claudio Gentile. Marco Tardelli played as a central midfielder while Bruno Conti was the creative genius behind the success of Zona Mista from Italy.

While Antonio Cabrini played up front, it was Paolo Rossi who took the position of the main striker.

The success of Italy led to increased use of the Zona Mista although the app remained mainly in the Italian leagues. The teams in Europe struggled to beat this fantastic combination of zone and man scoring, keeping the Italians ahead of the others. However, there was still the need for a good striker to take care of the few chances that this format would create – something most teams lacked.

Italy – 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004

Most recently, Cesare Maldini used the form of play Catenaccio in the 1998 FIFA World Cup campaign in Italy. Needless to say, Italy played defensively, without creating too many waves, only to be sent off in the round of 16, by penalties. His successor, Giovanni Trapattoni, also used the same tactics at the 2002 FIFA World Cup as well as the 2004 European Championships.

Either way, Italy hasn’t made any significant progress, although Trapattoni proves his critics wrong by leading Portugal’s team, Benfica, to the league title.

Dino Zoff, whose team successfully used the Zona Mista in 1982, was Italy’s coach for Euro 2000 when Italy adopted the same tactic. This time, Zoff managed to take the team to the final of the tournament, losing to France thanks to a Golden Goal.

Greece – 2004

Greece used the same format under Otto Rehhagel, at the 2004 European Championships, and with success. Greece won the title with numerous 1-0 victories in the round of 16, all thanks to a strongly defensive style of play.


The Catenaccio was often the subject of criticism from the rest of Europe, mainly due to the boring style of football that it promoted. The Italians would have made the game “unattractive”, but those who practice this form of football have always had results in strengthening their confidence in the system.

In most cases, the reason for the criticism would be the inability of most teams to break through these defenses, especially in crucial European relations, resulting in a loss or a draw they could not afford.


Catenaccio is a dormant formation today. With both the male tagging and the sweeper stance going out of fashion, with the faster pace and television entering the scene, teams are rarely known to implement such a format today.

You can see the strange variation in this formation when weaker teams face stronger opposition, but the success of Catenaccio or Zona Mista depends largely on the quality of defenders and wingers.

The more physical format of Catenaccio finds few followers even in the technical format of the Italian league while other formations, such as the 4-1-2-1-2 (midfielder) and even the 4-3- 2-1 (The Christmas tree formations) can be attributed, albeit vaguely, to the Catenaccio.

Teams that take down one or more men are also known to exhibit similar patterns of play, although Catenaccio’s true form remains buried under a pile of demands for offensive play.


In today’s scenario, you often find commentators, even experts, who call Italian football the Catenaccio style of football. The latest example was the match between Barcelona and Inter Milan at Camp Nou in the second leg of the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League semi-finals.

Unfortunately, Jose Mourinho’s tactics were nothing like Catenaccio’s style, albeit defensive. At ten men, Inter simply held an inferior midfielder to help their defense, nothing more. They did the right thing and even Barcelona, ​​with all their firepower, couldn’t break through. It must be said that while Mourinho knew exactly what he was doing, there was absolutely no connection with the Catenaccio style of defense.

Commentators, especially the English, are known to refer to the Italian defensive style of football as Catenaccio, whether the team follows the format or not. Catenaccio has become synonymous with defensive play although few understand the true meaning of the term, unfortunately even the experts make mistakes.

At the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Italy was reduced to 10 men as they played Australia in the round of 16. They defended heavily until a winner came in the form of a penalty from Francesco Totti, late in the game. An English newspaper, “The Guardian”, wrote: “The timidity of the Italian approach made it appear that Helenio Herrera, the high priest of Catenaccio, had taken possession of the soul of Marcello Lippi.”

What the reporter didn’t notice was that Italy, 10 men, were playing in a 4-3-2 formation which was just a short man from the regular 4-4-2 they started with – Daniele De Rossi, the rejected midfielder.


Like all good things, Catenaccio also had to end. With its end, as with everything else, many new formats have appeared, until this day, practiced by coaches from all over the world. While the Catenaccio may have rested with modern TV’s demand for exciting football, coaches will always revert to learning this system when they struggle with their backs against the wall.

Until next time a British commentator mentions “Catenaccio” in the wrong place, Happy Defending !!!

Source by Asit Ganguli


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button