There was a time when Italian football was completely devoted to the art of defending, or at least that was how the rest of the world perceived it. It all started in the early Sixties, when a famous Argentine Helenio Herrera moved across the sea, from Barcelona to Inter Milan, to become a hero and bring international glory to them, by playing a wonderful attacking style that helped his Catalan team win back to back titles in La Liga and the Fairs Cup as well.
By the time he decided to move to Italy, Herrera was already a world famous coach. However, at the time he was a true proponent of the offensive game. In fact he didn’t adopt the famous catenaccio style until his third season at the San Siro.
Born in Buenos Aires, but raised mostly in Casablanca, Herrera’s playing career was spent entirely on French soil. It was never particularly glamorous even in the period before the Second World War, which then significantly disrupted sporting life.
HH took up his first coaching job as soon as the Germans were driven from France in 1944. Four years later he moved to Spain, where he would spend the next twelve years, bar a short spell in Portugal with Belenenses.
While in Spain his longest tenure was at Sevilla, but he was far more successful at Atletico Madrid, where he managed to win back to back titles in 1950 and 1951. Led by Larbi Ben Barek, an extremely talented Moroccan midfielder and one of the first black players in La Liga history, Los Colchoneros scored 238 goals in three seasons, 2.74 goals per game, more than any other Spanish side at the time.
When Herrera took over Barcelona in 1958, the Catalans were trying hard to break Real Madrid’s domination both at home and in Europe. Their squad was filled with talent, with stars like Sandor Kocsis, Luis Suarez, Laszlo Kubala, Zoltan Czibor, Eulogio Martínez and Evaristo.
Within nine days of his arrival at the club the first trophy was won: at the end of their first season at the newly built Camp Nou Barcelona beat London XI 6-0 to claim the maiden Fairs Cup trophy (incidentally, that game marked the end of the longest season in any club competition so far – London XI kicked it off at Basel 1062 days before their drubbing on the Spanish coast).
It was the birth of the new Barca, characterised by free flowing football and tonnes of goals. A year later Herrera was already called El Mago (‘the magician‘), after leading the club to their first ever domestic double. A year later, the trophy cabinet was filled with another La Liga and Fairs Cup. That all in the era when Real Madrid was led by Alfredo Di Stefano, whom Herrera considered the world’s best ever player and described him as the footballing equivalent of an entire orchestra.
Not before the arrival of Johan Cruijff’s glory days of the early nineties would Blaugrana enjoy so much success in such a short space of time, scoring more than 200 goals on the way.
When Herrera fell out with the stars led by Kubala, he decided to leave the club, soon after accepting an offer from Inter. One of the players who stood by the manager, Luis Suarez, decided to follow him to San Siro, and over the course of the decade he would prove to be one of the key players in what was to be widely known as Grande Inter.
Contrary to popular belief Herrera was not the creator of catenaccio, nor was that his system of choice when he arrived in Italy. El Mago wanted to copy the attacking style that he used so successfully in Spain, but that was never going to be possible in Italy. Over the first two seasons they finished in third and second place respectively, unable to surpass their local rivals AC Milan on either occasion. Milan’s European Cup win in 1963 set another challenge for Herrera, but soon enough he would be able to rise to any of them.
Football’s defensive revolution was set in motion back in the 1930’s in Switzerland. Geneva was once known as Jean Calvin’s stronghold and it became known for embracing radical footballing ideas ever since. Karl Rappan, Austrian coach at Servette, designed the system called verrou (or ‘Swiss bolt’), football’s first system focusing on defence and team work rather than individual skill.
The idea was to cede possession and use quick counter attacks with a free playmaker from the middle going to the wings. Unlike the usual WM system, Rappan used four defenders, strictly covering the movements of opposing players. That was the age of individual quality and attacking formations, so it took a long time for Rappan’s ideas to become accepted.
Soon after the end of the World War II verrou was transformed into what we know as catennacio (or ‘the lock’). The innovation was the brainchild of a young Italian coach named Nereo Rocco. A Trieste native, who got the opportunity to coach his local team Triestina in 1947, Rocco amended verrou by including a “libero” – an additional defender who does not have an opponent to take care of. That player would prove to be highly useful both with and without the ball: with it he could lead the attack from the back, while without it he would be in a position to cover for errors by his fellow defenders.
Using those innovative tactics Rocco would help Triestina to second place in Serie A, before leading Padova from the Serie B relegation zone to third place in Italy’s top tier within four years. At last he got his big shot at glory in 1961, moving to AC Milan. In his first two seasons he won the league, then the club’s first European Cup. Even though Rocco left the team soon after, he would do even better after his return in 1967, winning four domestic and four international trophies in eight seasons at the club.
After realising that he would not be able to beat Rocco using his preferred attacking formation, Helenio Herrera decided to adopt and further develop catenaccio. His approach was influenced by the players he had at his disposal.
His most famous team surely looked a bit off balance. On the left side Giacinto Facchetti was nominally a left back but he was given freedom to roam, which resulted in nearly 60 goals throughout his club career. On the right, Jair was a winger, but a very withdrawn one, positioned like today’s wing backs. However, unlike Facchetti, who was a great defender as well, Jair was a particularly dangerous attacking weapon and his speedy runs were key to Inter’s strategy of winning space.
When they didn’t utilise the wings, the Interisti played long balls. There were two options for that strategy – get the ball to Suarez, who could apply his magic touch, or simply give it to Picchi the sweeper, who was unopposed most of the time, so he had enough time to take aim with his passes. The target was usually Sandro Mazzola, whose role was to constantly roam behind the striker. Mazzola, whose father Valentino was a key member of Il Grande Torino, used his supreme technique to either send the ball through to Peiro up front or shoot himself.
Huge success followed. From 1963 on, Inter would win three league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups in four seasons, managing to get to yet another EC final in 1967 (where they would famously lose to Celtic).
At the beginning it was all about defending – Inter had the league’s best defence for three seasons in a row – but gradually their attackers adapted to the system, so that in Herrera’s last three seasons Inter was either first or second on the scoring charts.
Herrera is now widely known as a tactical genius, but there was so much more to him. His personality, often described in terms ranging from “strict disciplinarian” to “control freak”, helped him to create the players’ way of life as we know it today, introducing strict dietary and sleeping habits and even ritiro, whereby players go to a remote location, usually out of town, during the build up to a big game, in order to focus and avoid any external pressure or distractions.
Today’s footballers accept this as something normal, but it was highly unusual back then, when heavy drinkers and/or smokers were by no means a rarity. In order to insure that his ideas were being respected he often made night visits to players’ homes.
He was known for his motivational speeches and placement of billboards carrying the manager’s advice all over the training camp. Explaining his approach to Simon Kuper, Herrera remembered his Barcelona days.
“To the Catalans, I talked: ‘Colours of Catalonia, play for your nation.’ And to the foreigners, I talked money, I talked about their wives and kids. You have twenty-five players, you don’t say the same thing to everyone.”
From Premier League newcomers Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp to our very own Jose Mourinho and his long-standing friend and rival Sir Alex Ferguson, football managers today are perceived as superstars on a par with the greatest players. But the first managerial superstar was Helenio Herrera.
After Inter, Herrera would move to Roma, then back to Inter, Rimini and finally Barcelona. Wherever he went, he took his style with him, insisting on team spirit and discipline, both on and off the pitch. When away, he was the first to enter the pitch in order to provoke a reaction from the home crowd and ease the pressure on his team.
When Herrera finally ended his career at the age of 71, 37 years after it had begun, his legacy was tainted by his perceived destructive approach to the game. Unfortunately, even now El Mago is often considered as having been a negative influence on football. As we all now know, that assessment is far from the truth.