Catenaccio is a defense-oriented strategy first introduced by Austrian coach Karl Rappan in the 1930s. It became popular during the 1960s when Argentinea coach Helenio Herrera used it to lead Serie A club Inter Milano to several championships.
The success of Inter Milano under Herrera encouraged many Italian teams to adopt catenaccio style soccer. This same strategy was utilized by the Italian national team when Herrera was appointed its manager.
Because of its popularity in Italy, catenaccio calcio became almost synonymous with Italian football in the 1960s.
But in the 1980s catenaccio began to decline as it proved to be ineffective against attack-oriented strategies such as total football. Yet there remain teams today that still used the old soccer style that once dominated Europe.
How does catenaccio calcio work?
Catenaccio calcio literally translates as “door bolt football.” It is a football strategy that employs a very tight man-marking defense, with players staying deep in their own half to prevent any offense by the opponents.
Catenaccio defense seems to block any passage towards the goal, and so the name “door bolt” soccer. The most significant innovation of catenaccio is an additional defensive player called the libero or sweeper.
The libero is an Italian word which means “free”. Most often, he freely roams in front of the goal to prevent any penetration by the opponents. The sweeper or libero also performs a number of other defensive tasks for the team.
The sweeper covers an opponent who manages to break the two lines of defense. He is also tasked to control loose balls and double-mark an opponent when necessary. If the opposing team has a talented striker, the sweeper may be assigned to man-mark him.
With the libero to provide an additional line of defense, the other defenders and midfielders perform other assignments to prevent the opponents from scoring.
The midfield and the defensive back keep the ball from getting near the goal. Their primary objectives are to disrupt any offensive flow, put pressure on the attackers, and deny the best offensive players from getting the ball.
While teams utilizing catenaccio focus primarily on defense, it does not mean that they are not dangerous offensively. The catenaccio tactic can easily be used for counterattack, which may leave the offensive team with no time to react to the quick play switch of catenaccio calcio.
Fouling and conceding free kicks is alright in catenaccio, as long as they are far from the goal and they do not lead to bookings. Since this tactic employs additional rank, the catenaccio formation is often 1-3-3-3, 1-4-4-1, or 1-4-3-2.
The pros and cons of the catenaccio formation
- Catenaccio is an effective defensive football strategy. The double line of defense prevents opponents from getting the ball near the goal. In case these two ranks are broken, the libero and goalkeeper will still be there to protect the goal.
- The libero is useful if the opposing team has a brilliant striker. By closely marking the striker, the libero weakens him as it would require him extra effort to get the ball. Having a man that marks the striker also means that he will never be left open to use his offensive skills to score.
- Catenaccio is an excellent formation for counterattacking. By creating strong defensive walls, the opponents will be forced to add more players to their offense. This weakens their defense and creates a chance for the catenaccio formation to make a long pass to its forwards.
- Catenaccio relies primarily on collective hard work and not on individual skills. Therefore, it is an effective strategy for weaker teams. It is also effective for teams who become undermanned after a red card.
- Emphasis on a defensive style of play greatly improves the defense of players. Some of the best soccer defenders are product of catenaccio calcio. They are Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea, Paolo Maldini, and Alessandro Costacurta.
- Although catenaccio was extensively used in the 1960s and 1970s by the Italian national football team, it is nearly obsolete at present. Teams need to adopt more offensive strategies in order to advance in football competitions since wins are now given bigger points. Before, teams are rewarded 2 points for a win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 for a loss. The same points are awarded today for loss and draw, but a win is already awarded with 3 points to encourage teams to true spirit of football—lively and attacking.
- Catenaccio calcio is a poorly balanced playing style since it focuses too much on defense. It is not practical for stronger teams to play catenaccio since it nullifies their offensive force.
- Catennacio football requires players to man-mark. This can easily lead to confusion when playing against a team whose players regularly switch positions, as in total soccer.
- Since teams prioritize defense when playing catenaccio soccer, they will have to adopt a retreat game style. This can make teams unpopular and will subject them to criticism for using an anti football strategy.
Catenaccio in the past
Catenaccio was first introduced by Austrian football coach Karl Rappan in the 1930s. As a coach for Swiss football club Servette in 1932, Rappan first introduce the libero then known as “verrou” which means “lock” in French.
Rappan also became the manager of Switzerland’s national team, which he led to successful international matches against powerhouses like Germany and England.
Catenaccio football, however, is closely associated with Italy since it was the Italians who played it extensively. In 1947, Italian coach Nereo Rocco used catenaccio calcio to make Triestina finish second place in Serie A, the Italian football league.
In the 1960s, catenaccio soccer was utilized by Helenio Herrera who brought Internazionale Milano to 3 Serie A Championship titles and 2 European Championship Cups. In 1969, Herrera moved to AS Roma where he won the Italian Cup using the same defensive soccer strategy.
Herrera was famous for using catenaccio calcio to win 1-0 matches. The basic elements to Herrera’s strategy were tight defense and rapid counterattacks.
But in 1970, catenaccio-style soccer began to decline because of more innovative and more offensive strategies. In 1972, Herrera’s Inter was defeated 2-0 in the European Cup finals by Ajax, with its total football strategy.
The following year, Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan reached the European Super Cup finals only to be hammered by Ajax 6-0. These two major defeats of Inter and AC Milan signaled the need for a change in catenaccio-style soccer. Italians began revising their strategies in favor of more offensive play without having to give up their strong defense.
By 1982, the Italian national team has come up with a semi-zonal system, which they used to win over Germany in the 1982 World Cup Finals by 3 goals to 1.
It became apparent in that tournament that Italy was starting to evolve from a highly defensive system in favor of more attack-oriented football strategies.
Catenaccio at present
Catenaccio is rarely used today after it diminished in the 1980s. However, hyper-defensive styles similar to catenaccio are still used at present.
In the 2004 European Football Championship, underdog Greece used a defense-oriented football to triumph over Portugal in the final. The Greek football squad’s style of play reminded many of the catenaccio tactic Italy used to be famous for.
In that game, the Portuguese soccer team kept possession most of the time but were unable to score because of the tight Greek defense. Greece played defense patiently until they had the chance to score.
In the 57th minute, Greece stole the ball and Angelos Charisteas dribbled all the way to the top of Portugal's goal to score with a blaster. Greece’s defense prevented Portugal from scoring and won the match 1-0.
One football manager closely associated with catenaccio calcio is Jose Mourinho, who coached F.C. Internazionale Milano from 2008 to 2010.
In April 2010, when Milano beat Barcelona in the European Champion’s League semis, the club used a defensive strategy similar to the catenaccio played by Herrera and Rocco in Italy in the 1950s and 1960s.
Inter defended tightly and often doubled the man with the ball. Inter also played tough defense against Barca’s strikers, such as Lionel Messi.
Mourinho’s catenaccio, however, required players to play further up the field, unlike the traditional catenaccio where players stayed deep in their own pitch.
Today, most of the clubs noted for the catenaccio style of play are Italian. The list includes Roma, with its strong four-man defense at the back and the Italian national team itself, for its 4-3-3 formation which sometimes work as the classic catenaccio formation of 1-3-3-3.