This feature is taken from the Philosophies issue of These Football Times magazine. Order your copy of this beautifully crafted, timeless print edition via our online shop. In the process, you’ll support independent writing and enable us to move away from the sensationalised, clickbait football destroying modern journalism.
Ever since the earliest days of the game, wherever people have kicked a ball around, there have been those with creative ideas to help their team achieve better results. In short, to win more often by making the most of the assets at their disposal. These sorts of ideas aren’t tactics; surpassing mere dots on a page. They provide the framework, the structure, that tactics hang upon. They are ways of playing – as much as there are ways of living – a set of ideas and principles that guide decision-making. A light that illuminates the path. These are the philosophies of the game that we all love, and the Libero – a philosophy in its own right – sits foursquare amongst these ideals.”
It was a pattern of play that had its genesis in the 1930s. It has since been adapted and developed 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 live on, albeit somewhat hid- den and unrecognised by many. In a quiet corner the original incarnation sits, waiting patiently to be called to the fore once again.
Karl Rappan was a former Austrian player who spent most of his managerial career in neighbouring Switzerland, managing four clubs and boasting 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 plains of thought as to how to shape games, and some may argue that Rappan 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.
At the time, the amateur Swiss team wasn’t one of football’s powers, and Rappan deduced that if his side was to compete effectively at the newly-established World Cup, he would need to develop a system of play that would compensate for any technical deficiency they suffered 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 Real Madrid and Brazil. 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. 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 limitation of having only 11 players, his solution was to give his team both added security at the back and the opportunity to strike with rapid counter-attacks at 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. As a result, the libero was born.
Instead of the three defenders, Rappan withdrew a player from his midfield to turn his defensive trio into a quartet, with the libero, very much the conductor, calling the tune. Often referred to as the Verrou in French, the free man at the back was there to support his fellow defenders and tidy up situations that got out of hand. The libero was the bolt that locked the door. From there, it’s easy to see how the tag of ‘Sweeper’ became affixed to the player.
Rappan’s integration of this new role was far from a defensive move, however. Stripping his midfield to stiffen the defence almost inevitably meant conceding some of the play in the middle of the park, 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 counter-attacks.
With the opponent committed in 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 Rappan’s team would play. Much like the philosophy of Judo, it turned an opponents’ strength into their weakness. When they overcommitted in 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 Zürich. Despite having an unofficial FIFA ranking in the 30s, while England were considered the fourth-best team on the planet, Rappan’s team won 2-1 against the visitors’ 2-3-5 formation and more traditional mode of play.
Taking the plan forward into the tournament itself, Switzerland defeated Germany 4-2 in a replay after a 1-1 draw, eliminating the side 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. Rappan’s new philosophy was proven. Converts would surely gather.
World War Two initially interrupted any ideas of the philosophy spreading, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and a number of teams were flattering Rappan through the 1950s. One particular convert to the philosophy was the legendary Argentine manager Helenio Herrera. Moving to Internazionale in 1960, reviewing the players at his disposal and building as he went along, Herrera took Rappan’s philosophy and put a distinctly Italian stamp on it, adding a new word to the sporting lexicon by developing what became known throughout the footballing world as Catenaccio.
Although the word is a literal translation of ‘Bolt’, much like Verrou, the meaning on the pitch was less than sincere. Rappan’s libero needed not only a defender’s mentality – an ability to see situations developing and deal with them – but also a midfielder’s nous when in possession, and a forward’s desire to strike when the opportunity presented itself. The libero 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 Armando Picchi, he found the perfect player to fit the role of Rappen’s illegitimate child.
Despite the defensive adaptation of the philosophy, it reaped huge dividends for Herrera’s Inter. 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. 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 – who was a much truer version of Rappan’s ideal – for Juventus and Franco Baresi at AC Milan. 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 – despite many considering it a sullen and strangulating progression – has, without doubt, justified itself in silverware, 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 the Netherlands, Rinus Michels’ development of Totaalvoetbal in Amsterdam was akin to Rappan’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, while still operating within their team’s system, would surely have been stuff of dreams for a farsighted coach such as Rappan, and it brought forward the development of one of the finest liberos of his era in the titan that was Barry Hulshoff.
In a career tragically diminished by injury, as well as winning three successive European Cups, he scored no fewer than six goals in a mere dozen international games for Oranje, many via surging runs from defence, as well as creating chances for others with the chaos his rapid advances from defence would create. If Catenaccio was the studious, effective child of Rappan’s philosophy, Totaalvoetbal was the flamboyant, favoured son.
In Germany at a similar time, another adaptation was created by the football 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 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 deeper position, both dictating the game for the teams he played in and fuelling another development of the libero. In the parlance of the NFL, Beckenbauer could well be described as a quarterback. An ability to ping long passes to drive his team forward, he also had 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.
While Picchi spawned a line of successors in Italy, so too did Beckenbauer in Germany. 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 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’ time in the role for Die 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 was evolving again, and it would spawn a number of different patterns of play where the role, 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 the pattern of play.
Claude Makélélé 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 Matthäus’ move forward.
Less defensively inclined perhaps, but Andrea Pirlo also retained elements of a libero as the playmaker. More Beckenbauer than Picchi, and a lot less dynamic than Hulshoff, there was 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.
Defenders, particularly centre-backs, that 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 – the likes of Manuel Neuer, Hugo Lloris and Ederson in recent years – also kept the philosophy alive and relevant. Having custodians that can almost play like a libero allows a team to push further up and enforce other styles of play, notably the high press.
Consequently, rather than say that the philosophy of the Libero has been cast aside in the modern game, it’s perhaps more apt to consider that it has been developed – like it has been since Rappan’s successful foray. Its 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 Rappan? 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.”
With the philosophy now dispersed among different elements of so many modern teams, is it folly to expect a reassembling 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 Piqué was often played in almost that role when partnered with Carles Puyol, and Javier Mascherano had the capacity to perform it when he played alongside the former. Was John Stones earmarked for a similar role at Manchester City?
Perhaps not, but never write off what has proven to be such an outstanding philosophy, one that extends far beyond just a position on the pitch. Let’s turn to our Greek historian friend once more. You may 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 Rappan’s original incarnation to the fore once more, and whoever that player turns out to be – and indeed whenever – perhaps he’ll start a new cycle in the philosophy of the Libero.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze