Catenaccio. It’s a word wellknown among the ranks of Italian football and hardcore followers of the beautiful game, but has largely been left behind as football evolved and grew. Yet, the hyper-defensive tactical style has left a legacy on the sport which cannot be simply ignored or overlooked.
Ultra-defensive sides these days are so often bemoaned by supporters and pundits alike, but they serve their purpose. Earning a result over all other factors is sometimes a necessary evil for sides to undertake, especially against difficulty opponents, and much of this legacy can be found back in the success that Catenaccio football had in Italy in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Influenced by the earlier verrou style of Austrian coach Karl Rappan in the 1930s and 1940s, Catenaccio in Italy was pioneered by Triestina in the late 1940s and then brought to the masses in the 1950s by Nereo Rocco’s Padova side.
Triestina’s 1947 version of the Catenaccio tactical style is largely considered the real birth of the tactic. Most commonly deployed as a 1–3–3–3 formation with a strictly defensive team approach, Triestina finished the Serie A tournament in a surprising second place. Some variations utilised of the tactic included 1–4–4–1 and 1–4–3–2 formations.
What united them all as Catenaccio was this hugely defensive attitude and two key innovations: the introduction of a libero, or “free” defender, positioned behind a line of three defenders to act as a sweeper, and counterattacking football largely based on long balls launched out from the back. In Catenaccio the sweeper’s role was to recover loose balls, nullify the opponent’s striker and allow the opportunity to double-mark players when necessary.
All of this combined to form some incredibly mean defences in Italian football. Coaches soon saw Catenaccio and its success against the traditional tactical styles of the time – often very rigid in their positioning – and adopted the system themselves, allowing further innovation.
Helenio Herrera took up the tactic in the 1960s and provided it with the next stage of its evolution; man-marking. Herrera’s Inter Milan side saw four defenders tightly man-mark the opposing attackers, while the extra player, the sweeper, would pick up any loose balls which escaped the rigid, tight coverage of the defenders in front of them.
Part of the legacy from Catenaccio’s adoption was the emergence in Italian football of many top Italian defenders, known for their hard-tackling, ruthless defensive style. The likes of Inter were known around the continent for their remarkable defensive strength.
Yet, as Herrera recounted shortly before his death, many misremembered his Grande Inter side and their Catenaccio style for being purely defensive. It had its offensive capabilities, able to attack ruthlessly through fast, sudden counterattacks which utilised Herrera’s overlapping fullbacks – even giving birth to the likes of Giacinto Facchetti, one of the first full backs to regularly score and just as key a part as iconic players like sweeper Armando Picchi.
Another legacy of Catenaccio in Italy, particularly in the likes of the second tier, Serie B, was the emergence of scary goalkeeping records likely never to be broken. Given the widespread adoption of the defensive Catenaccio style, and without the world-class forwards of Serie A, a number of goalkeepers managed to run up remarkable minute streaks between conceding goals – records which still stand the test of time, and likely forever will given the changes in style of modern football.
Catenaccio’s time eventually ran its course, however, with the emergence from the Netherlands of Total Football in the 1970s. With outfield players suddenly able to adopt any role across the pitch, the effectiveness of Herrera’s man-marking toughness waned and the system was overcome.
Since then, through to modern football today, a similar true Catenaccio style is rarely used – though its defensive, man-marking capabilities and resilient, defensive counterattacking style have been adopted into many similar styles.
Even if Catenaccio in its outright form no longer exists, elements of the style still regularly play a role in the game. It has forever left a mark on the beautiful game.