Helenio Herrera is regarded as one of the greatest managers in football history, but his name is also frequently tarnished by a perceived link to the most unfashionable system: catenaccio. The word catenaccio has come to mean something more than that which it originally described: negative, cynical, overly-defensive. It is used by many as a convenient insult to throw at Italian teams, even when their play has nothing to do with the tactic. Owing to his success at Inter in the 1960s, Herrera is often referred to as the man behind the system.
Catenaccio owes a lot to the methods used by Karl Rappan’s Swiss national team in the 1930s, where a midfielder was pushed back to act as an additional defender. Like other defensive developments in football history, it was an unpopular move. This attitude lives on, as Manchester United fans chant “attack, attack, attack” and 1-0 wins are still regarded as somehow unwelcome.
Football underwent many changes from the 1930s to the 1960s. Herbert Chapman’s famous WM formation was popularised in the 1930s, and in Italy, il Grande Torino used a version of this as they dominated Serie A in the 1940s. The system was dynamic, fluid, attacking, with Torino scoring 125 goals in one title-winning season.
In the 1950s, the great Hungarian side tweaked this to a WW, with the emphasis still firmly on attack. The Brazil team that won the 1958 World Cup did contain a more familiar back four, but this was in a 4-2-4 formation with Garrincha, Mario Zagallo, Vava and Pelé as the frontline. This World Cup took place two years before Herrera’s arrival at Inter, and is indicative of the tactical emphasis of football up to the 1950s. In the last four games of the tournament, 27 goals were scored. The group stage was equally free-scoring, and Just Fontaine would finish as top scorer with 13 goals.
Even in Italy, many teams emphasised attack in this period. Juventus and Milan won league titles in the early portion of this decade scoring 100 goals or more in 38 games. As late as 1959-60, Juventus hit 92 goals in another scudetto. Still, a different idea of the game had long since taken root. Journalist Gianni Brera’s view was that “la partita perfetta finisce 0-0” – the perfect match finishes 0-0. A goal can only be scored when a mistake is made, when a defence fails. Brera bizarrely believed Italians to be weaker than other nations, and the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini suggested that catenaccio was part of the Italian psyche. Italian football was condemned as defensive in the 1950s, and catenaccio was already widely used years before Herrera’s arrival.
A decade before Herrera, Inter had developed a negative reputation, using libero Ivano Blason in the team that won two scudetti between 1950 and 1954. In 1952-53, Inter scored only 46 goals in 34 games. They won Serie A, and paved the way for Fiorentina’s first title win in 1956 with 59 goals, itself a meagre return for a title-winning side. Torino in 1947-48 played six more games than Inter five years later, but scored 79 more goals. Needless to say, they didn’t utilise a libero.
A battle raged in Italy about how the game should be played; it seems inconceivable now that Inter and Juventus could win Serie A within a few years of each other, one by scoring 46 goals and the other twice as many. Big Italian teams were still expected to play entertaining football, but they were also expected to win, and the best way to do this was unclear.
This was not just an Italian issue. The openness of World Cup 1958 seemed a distant memory by the 1962 tournament. The average goals-per-game dropped below three for the first time in World Cup history, and the tournament was marred by cynical, aggressive play, notably in the Battle of Santiago, as Chile defeated Italy 2-0 in what commentator David Coleman called “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football”. After Fontaine’s 13 goals in 1958, the top-scorer in 1962 managed just four.
Herrera arrived at Inter in 1960, then, at a time of great change. Even if he claimed to have invented catenaccio, it is clear that these changes were bigger than any individual. It is unfair, though, to consider Herrera as merely a defensive coach. He was innovative and adaptable in ways that have shaped the modern game. The Grande Inter under Herrera did not use a libero merely to become more defensive; extra cover led to Herrera revolutionising the role of the full-back.
Today, overlapping full-backs are the norm, but this was not the case before Herrera. This change is best demonstrated by Inter legend Giacinto Facchetti. Previously a centre-back, Facchetti was converted into the first modern full-back, a link between defence and attack, a starting point for rapid counter-attacks. In Herrera’s last three seasons, Facchetti would score 27 goals from the left-back position.
Even now, we are unsure how best to describe Herrera’s system. Is it a 3-5-2 or a 5-3-2? Is it a defensive formation of five defenders, or a dynamic system that allows rapid transition between attack and defence? For Herrera, it was both.
In his first season in charge Inter scored 73 goals, but were outscored by league-winners Juventus. Herrera adapted, tightening the system, and Inter had the league’s best defence the following year. Still, they did not win Serie A. In 1962-63, the scudetto finally arrived, with Inter scoring 56 goals, but conceding just 20. Defence seemed to be winning the battle of football’s future; five of Serie A’s top seven conceded less than a goal per game.
The following season, Bologna emulated Inter, scoring 54 goals but conceding only 18, and defeated the Nerazzurri in a championship play-off. Inter themselves had also scored 54, and conceded 21. By this point, Serie A’s worst defence conceded only 50 goals. For context, in the season when Torino scored 125, Milan and Juventus had finished second and third conceding 48 goals each.
Seeing other teams follow his blueprint, Herrera adapted again. In 1964-65, Inter won the league scoring 68 goals, way ahead of their nearest rivals. Having been out-defended by Bologna the previous year, he reworked his side’s emphasis. Inter won the league again the following year, scoring 70 goals. Bologna were the only other side to score more than 45.
Italian football reacted to and copied Herrera, but il Mago was always one step ahead. He had won Serie A by having the best attack and the best defence, reacting to the developments of his opponents. Some have highlighted Inter’s European Cup win in 1964-65 as proof of Herrera’s defensive mind-set, as they beat Eusebio’s Benfica 1-0 in the final. This forgets that Inter had scored 14 goals in six games to reach the final, and that they won the European Cup the year before by beating Real Madrid 3-1.
Herrera’s Inter could grind out narrow wins or play spectacular, open football. He built teams that transcended the attack-defence debate, showing it was possible to have both. He moved the game forward as more rigid defensive systems were taking hold, but his approach was not the defensive, cynical one that many associate with Italian football.
In the immediate aftermath of Herrera’s Inter, calcio did become much more negative. Nine Serie A sides conceded fewer than 20 goals in a season in the decade after Herrera’s Inter, and Cagliari won the league in 1969-70 with just 11 goals conceded. But this is not Herrera’s legacy. To use a libero without liberating the full-backs misunderstands his vision. Without the dynamism provided by players like Facchetti, catenaccio loses its purpose.
Whilst few teams play genuine catenaccio today, Herrera’s true legacy lives on. It was seen in the great Manchester United of Alex Ferguson, an adaptable unit able to enthral or ruthlessly pick up points, depending on the situation. It is seen when Sergio Busquets drops deeper to cover the runs of Dani Alves. It is seen in every great full-back since the 1990s charging forwards to support an attack.
Helenio Herrera was a man who arrived in football at a time of flux, but who refused to pick a side. He was a man who played according to the situation, who developed more than one way to win. He was, perhaps, football’s first modern coach.