Ever since the early days of the game, wherever people have kicked a ball around, someone would come up with an idea that would help their team, their players, to be more successful and to be better achieve their aims; in short to win more often by making the most of the assets at their disposal. These sorts of ideas weren’t tactics; they surpass that. They provide the framework, the structure that tactics are hanged upon. They are ways of playing – much as there are ways of living – a set of ideas and principles that guide in decision making, a light that illuminates the path.
These are the philosophies of the game that we all love, and the philosophy of the ‘Libero’ sits foursquare in amongst those ideas. It was a pattern of play that had its genesis in 1930s, has been adapted and developed since by different strands of thought with varying degrees of success and acclaim, and was perceived to have fallen out of fashion for a while, but its children lived on, albeit somewhat hidden and unrecognised by many and, in a quiet corner the original incarnation sits, waiting patiently to be called to the fore once more.
Karl Rappen was an Austrian former player, who spent most of his managerial career in neighbouring Switzerland, managing four different clubs and having the same number of periods in charge of the national team. It was during his initial tenure of Switzerland that he first deployed his Libero philosophy. At the time, there were a number of developing strands of thought as to how to shape games and some may argue that Rappen may not have been the first to hit on this philosophy, but it was he who codified it and used it at a level where others within the game would take notice.
The amateur Swiss team was certainly not one of the major powers of the game, and Rappen deduced that, if his team were to compete effectively in the new World Cup tournaments that were then in their infancy, he would need to develop a system of play that would compensate for any technical deficiency they may otherwise suffer from.
The dominant paradigms of play at the time were the classic 2-3-5 and the WM although some teams were playing with three defenders, particularly among these pioneering sides were Real Madrid, and the Brazilian Seleção. Rappen realised however that merely placing his players in different positions was not going to elevate his team to a position where they could compete effectively. Changing tactics would be insufficient. He needed a new philosophy, a template that would guide his players in different phases of the game, particularly in the transition of possession. Although hamstrung by the limit of having only eleven players, his solution was to give his team both more security at the back, and the opportunity to strike with rapid counterattacks, at one and the same time. Borrowing, perhaps unconsciously from Thucydides, he realised that instilling ‘freedom’ into one of his players was the answer – and he had the courage to deploy it. The Libero was born.
Instead of the three defenders, Rappen withdrew a player from his midfield to turn his back-line trio into a quartet, with the Libero, very much the conductor, calling the tune. Often referred to as the ‘Verrou’ in French, or ‘bolt’, the free man at the back was there to support his fellow defenders and tidy up any situations that got out of hand. The bolt that locked the door. From there, it’s an easy step to see how the tag of ‘Sweeper’ became affixed to the player. Rappen’s development was far from being merely a defensive security however. Stripping his midfield to stiffen the defence almost inevitably meant conceding much of the play in the middle of the field, but the fluidity of the philosophy was seen when the strengthened back-line regained possession. At such times, it was the Libero’s task to initiate rapid counterattacks. With the opponents committed to attack, springing forward quickly out of defence would often be advantageous as gaps could be exploited. The philosophy therefore not only helped the defence, it also supplemented the attack, and shaped the way his team would play. Much as with the philosophy of Judo, it used his team’s opponents’ strengths as weaknesses. When they overcommitted to attack, emboldened by the sparse opposition in midfield, the opportunities to strike arose.
The test of anything of course lies in the success, or otherwise, that it brings. Two weeks ahead of the 1938 World Cup in France, Switzerland faced England in a Friendly in Zurich. Despite having an unofficial FIFA ranking in the 30s, whilst England were considered the fourth best team on the planet, Rappen’s team won out 2-1 against the visitors’ 2-3-5 formation and traditional mode of play. Taking the plan forward into the tournament itself, Switzerland then defeated Germany 4-2 in a replay after a 1-1 draw, eliminating the team that had also drawn into their fold the best players from the Austrian team, to reach the last eight of the competition before falling to eventual finalists, Hungary. Rappen’s new philosophy was proven. Converts would surely gather.
The Second World War initially interrupted any ideas of the philosophy spreading, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery as the saying goes, and a number of teams were flattering Rappen through the 1950s. One particular convert to the philosophy was the legendary Argentinian manager Helenio Herrera. Moving to Internazionale in 1960, reviewing the players at his disposal and building as he went along, Herrara took Rappen’s philosophy and put a distinctly Italian stamp on it, adding a new word to the sporting lexicon, by developing what came to be known throughout the footballing world as ‘Catenaccio.’
Although the word is a literal translation of ‘bolt’ much as with Verrou, the translation on the field was less than sincere. Rappen’s Libero needed not only to have a defender’s mentality, an ability to see situations developing and deal with them, he also needed a midfield player’s nous when in possession and a forward’s desire to strike when the opportunity presented itself. He needed the “courage” that Thucydides identified as the key to “freedom”. To all intents and purposes, Herrera dispensed with such elements of the role. His Libero was to have much less need to venture forward. His primary role would be to defend and in Aramando Picchi, he found the perfect player to fit the role of Rappen’s illegitimate child.
For all that the adaptation of the philosophy was more defensively orientated than the original, it reaped huge dividends for Inter and Herrara. Christened as ‘Grande Inter’ the Argentine manager’s team dominated both domestically and in Europe, winning three Scudetti, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups between 1962 and 1966, operating under the philosophy. Nothing succeeds like success, and with Catenaccio becoming the dominant paradigm in Calcio, so many other teams took it to their hearts, shaping their tactics around the patterns that it wove.
The success of Inter and particularly the play of Picchi begat the roles for Tarcisio Burgnich and Giacinto Facchetti, and more latterly Gaetano Scirea – the latter being a much truer version of Rappen’s ideal – for Juve and Franco Baresi with the Rossoneri. Catenaccio, born of the Libero, had now ventured off into the world and forged a new life for itself as the dominant philosophy in Italian football. The wisdom of this particular development of the Libero philosophy, whilst many consider it a sullen and strangulating development, has without doubt justified itself on the criterion of value by success, and it remains a source of inspiration in both Italian domestic football and international competitions for the Azzurri.
Family trees tend to have more than one branch though, and in northern Europe, a different variant of the philosophy was taking root. In Holland Rinus Michels’ development of Totaal Voetbal in Amsterdam was akin to Rappen’s plan, but deployed across the entire team, rather than just one individual. Players who could adapt to a variety of positions, without having their efficacy diminished, whilst still maintaining their team play would have surely been stuff of dreams for a farsighted coach such as Rappen, and it brought forwards the development of one of the finest Liberos of his era in the titan that was Barrie Hulshoff. In a career tragically diminished by injury, as well as winning three successive European Cups, he scored no less than six goals in a mere dozen international games for the Oranje, many with surging runs from defence, as well as creating chances for others with the disorder his rapid advances from the back-line would create. If Catenaccio was the studious but effective child of Rappen’s philosophy, Totaal Voetbal was the flamboyant, favoured son.
In Germany at a similar time, another different adaptation was created by the play of Franz Beckenbauer. Originally a creative midfielder, Der Kaiser redefined the role of the Libero, garlanding it with success as both Bayern Munich and the German national team drew great benefit from it. Elegant on the ball when driving forwards into midfield, Beckenbauer was also a deceptively effective defender, and could perform that part of his duties with as much grace as when in possession. It was his ability to adopt the Libero philosophy that allowed Beckenbauer to direct play from a deep position both dictating the style of play for the teams he played with, and fuelling another development of the Libero. In the parlance of the NFL, Beckenbauer could well be described as a quarter-back. An ability to ping long passes to drive his team forward, he was not also without the ability to run with the ball when defences opened up. Teams built around this system, with Beckenbauer in the Libero position would be hugely successful.
Much as Pichhi spawned a line of successors, so too did Beckenbauer. Matthias Sammer carried on the tradition and was probably the last of the, at least semi-authentic, German Liberos, but before that Lothar Matthäus came to the fore. Although undoubtedly Beckenbauer had created the blueprint, each of the players that followed put their own stamp of the role as the philosophy developed, shaping the tactics of the team. Towards the end of Matthäus’s time in the role for the Mannschaft, his diminishing pace became a liability as the last line of defence, and instead of a role behind the back four, he played as a Sweeper in front of them. The Libero philosophy was moving on again, and it would spawn a number of different patterns of play where the role of the Libero, rather than being discarded, was in fact cherished and placed into the hands of different members of the team, so that it still retained its key position as the philosophy influencing a team’s pattern of play.
Claude Makelele is one of the few players in the history of football to have a role named after him, and when considering the type of play that earned him such an honour, it’s not difficult to see how it was a development of the Libero, especially when taking into account the move forward of Matthäus as referenced above.
Less defensively inclined perhaps, but Andrea Pirlo also retained elements of a Libero as the playmaker. Certainly, more Beckenbauer than Picchi, and a lot less dynamic than Hulshoff, there is still the genes of a Libero running through his play. And, he did of course borrow the title of a famous philosophical treatise for his autobiography, ‘I Think Therefore I Football’. It would be wrong however, to merely consider midfielders as the offspring of the Libero philosophy. Defenders, particularly centre-backs, who can carry the ball out of defence to instigate attacks are of rare value. Rio Ferdinand would be a good example, and the development of the so-called ‘Sweeper-Keeper’ with such as Hugo Lloris or Marc-André ter Stegen being example exponents also kept the Libero philosophy alive and relevant. Having custodians that can pick up this element a Libero’s requirements allows teams to play a much higher backline with their goalkeeper covering the space behind them.
Rather than say that the philosophy of the Libero has been cast aside therefore, it’s perhaps more apt to consider that it has been developed. It’s value and importance has increased rather than diminished, with many hands now carrying the load previously ascribed to a single player. Leaning on the wisdom of Thucydides once more, his assertion that, “History is Philosophy teaching by examples” may well be apt here.
For all that, will there be a time when the philosophy of the Libero ever returns to its true state as promulgated by Rappen? If I may crave the forgiveness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau for mangling his phrase a little, “(The Libero) is born free, but is everywhere in chains,” may not be far from the mark. With the philosophy now dispersed among different elements of so many modern teams, is it folly to expect a reassembling at any time in the future? Such muses may not be as fanciful as they first seem. Younger, avant garde coaches such as Pep Guardiola may not be too far from revisiting Rappen’s initial philosophy. Certainly, at Barcelona, Gerard Pique was often played in almost that role when partnered with Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano certainly had the capacity to perform the role when he played alongside Pique. Was John Stones earmarked for a similar role at Manchester City?
Perhaps not, but never right off what has proven to be such an outstanding philosophy. Let’s turn to our Greek historian friend once more. You’ll recall that Thucydides said that “The secret to happiness is freedom… And the secret to freedom is courage.” One coach’s foresight, or courage, may well visit that dark corner and call Rappen’s original incarnation to the fore once more, and if that player turns out to be the previously mentioned Manchester City player, perhaps he would become, a new Libero as perceived by Rappen, the Philosopher’s Stone(s).
(This All Blue Daze article was originally produced for the ‘Philosophies’ edition of ‘These Football Times’ magazine).