The Rise and the Gradual Disappearance of the Libero

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Gaetano Scirea Italy Gaetano Scirea Italy
In Football History, the position of ‘Libero’ was synonymous with positive attributes such as experience, leadership, calmness under pressure, etc. Just hearing the word, we see in our mind images of Beckenbauer, Scirea and other greats of the game who exemplified this key position.
However, this position was not conceived at the onset of classical tactics. In the Pre-war days, the positioning of players prioritized offense over the defensive strengths of sides. 1920s-30s Italian Manager Vittorio Pozzo’s ‘Il Metodo’ was a (2-2-3-3) formation, where defenders were in line. Similarly, ‘Il Sistema’, Herbert Chapman’s famous ‘WM’ was a (3-2-2-3) formation, where once again the defenders played in a line. It was in the 1930s that the Swiss-based Austrian Manager Karl Rappan created the ‘Libero’ position in a system called ‘Verrou’ (bolt). There was still a line of three defenders, but now there was an extra defender (a sweeper, called a ‘verrouilleur’) just behind them in support. The position of the ‘Libero’ would reach its ascendancy in the post-war years with the Italians in 1950s and 1960s. Nereo Rocco at Padova, in the 1950s would popularize the Italian ‘Catenaccio’ based on the Swiss ‘Verrou’. The role of the sweeper was now called ‘Libero’ (free). Just like in ‘Verrou’, the ‘Libero’ was just behind the line of three defenders. Its purpose was to clean up all the loose balls, as well as marking duties and also tasked with launching counter-attacks from the back. This system would be perfected in the 1960s, with Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale Milano side. His system had a line of four defenders with one sweeper behind.
Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale Milano Side

In this incarnation of the ‘Libero’ under Herrera, the sweeper was tasked with only defensive duties and protecting the goal at all cost and staying behind. This side playing with this new revamped ‘Catenaccio’ conquered Europe with the first Great ‘Libero’ of the modern game, Armando Picchi. In fact, such was Inter’s Success that there was a cultural shift in Italian Football Tactics and this type of ‘Catenaccio’ with a strictly defensive ‘Libero’ would be the order of the game for the next few decades. In time, in the late 70s into the 80s, Juventus’ Gaetano Scirea would pick up the mantle of the dependable Italian ‘Libero’ and leader who guided teams with authority. While Italy had become the spiritual home of the ‘Libero’, it would be across the border in Germany (West) where the position would evolve and have its most famous custodian in the 1970s. Franz Beckenbauer had started as a midfielder before being deployed into his new Sweeper position. He would use his experience as a midfielder to become a more effective Sweeper. No longer, was the ‘Libero’ a static figure only intent on defending, the new ‘Libero’ had to have ball-playing skills. Beckenbauer would often start the attacks from the back with effective long passes.

Such was Beckenbauer’s prowess that he managed to win the Ballon d’Or twice (1972, 1976), which was a rarity for a defender (in any time). West Germany had been so dependent on Beckenbauer that they struggled to find an adequate replacement after his retirement. Even when he became National Team Manager, Beckenbauer could not find a worthy successor. Former West Germany Manager Helmut Schoen would famously say ‘Franz has no Franz’. Having the vision and experience of playing in midfield would be useful when two other midfielders converted to the position with great effect. In the 80s and 90s, Dutchman Ronald Koeman and Frenchman Laurent Blanc brought an offensive minded approach to the position, especially Koeman with his dead ball expertise and long-range shots. As France Manager Michel Platini had no qualms to change France’s tactics as Blanc had exceeded expectations in transitioning into the position. In his turn, when age finally caught with German Midfielder and Captain Lothar Matthaus he dropped back into the position to great effect. He extended his career by nearly a decade and once again his past as a midfielder helped him. Similarly, another German Midfielder Matthias Sammer would also transition into the position and would be so good that he would in turn win the Ballon d’Or (1996) in his new converted position.
Franz Beckenbauer had started as a midfielder

While, the majority of Nations appeared to accept playing with a ‘Libero’ natural, the position remained elusive in certain areas, such as Britain (the Motherland of Football), and Brazil (the spiritual home of the Beautiful Game). The tactics and school of thought in Britain had stuck to a flat back four formation. There was no Sweeper to speak of; the centrak defenders were called Center-Backs. In fact, for decades the British would be derided by the Continent for its perceived outdated tactics. Such was the opposition to the position, that it was considered revolutionary when during the 1990 World Cup; England Manager Bobby Robson deployed Mark Wright as a ‘Libero’. In Brazil, the use of a ‘Libero’ was considered a sacrilege and would routinely be frowned upon as an attempt to ‘Europeanize’ Brazil’s Natural ‘Jogo Bonito’. During the 1990 World Cup, Brazil Manager Sebastiao Lazaroni’s attempt to use a Sweeper was universally looked upon with contempt. For this World Cup, Mauro Galvao was used as a ‘Libero’, a position that he did not play at club level.

In the succeeding decades, the once important and key position would gradually disappear and become obsolete. There are a few theories as to what started this shift. The genesis may have in fact occurred in Italy with the arrival of Arrigo Sacchi at AC Milan and his high pressing game. Sacchi dispensed of the traditional man-to-man marking to zonal marking. He set a 4-4-2 formation with a flat-back four with Franco Baresi as more of a Central defender rather than an out and out ‘Libero’. Some believe, Argentina Manager Carlos Bilardo’s 3-5-2 formation during the 1986 World Cup was also a factor in some ways. In this system, three defenders in line were essentially center backs with two outside backs (or wingbacks) in support. Argentina’s triumph in that World Cup would lead many to copy that tactic. Others point to the popularity of the offside trap made the ‘Libero’ a liability, as they could no longer stand further behind like they used to. The emergence of deep lying midfielders such as Andrea Pirlo also helped to phase out the position. In the older days, these players were expected to be ball-winners only with defensive abilities. This new breed of midfielders are essentially sweepers in midfield and dictate the play from deep lying positions.
Sacchi dispensed of the traditional man-to-man marking to zonal marking

In the Modern Game Today, the Libero has been replaced with Central Defenders with Ball-Playing skills. The likes of Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Rio Ferdinand (of the recent past) are superb defenders who also join in the attack when necessary. The high and fast tempo of today’s game does not favor the use of the classical ‘Libero’ due to lack of time and space to execute plays. As talented as today’s Central Defenders are, one can hardly see any of them having organizational and passing skills like the Sweepers of the past. Perhaps, if midfield organizers like Pirlo ever dropped back as they approach retirement age this might be possible. Another reason, why the return of the position appears unlikely is due to the evolution of the goalkeepers as well. Ever since the back-pass rule, one could even argue that goalkeepers are becoming Sweeper-Keepers and are more active in starting plays than before. AS Football History has shown us, tactics are cyclical and perhaps in the future a shift in tactics will revert the ‘Libero’ (or a variation of it) back in fashion.
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Read 352 times Last modified on Monday, 26 November 2018 14:56
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