Al Volo: Jose, Facchetti and The “C” Word

What we saw in Camp Nou last night was, without doubt, a remarkable display of defensive resilience by the ten men of Inter, standing defiant against what is widely viewed as the greatest collection of attacking talent ever assembled.

“I’m so special I won without a sweeper”

Messi, Xavi, Ibrahimovic and the rest of Pep Guardiola’s “Dream Boys” tried and failed to overturn the Italian Champions 3-1 lead.  Thiago Motta’s red card after just 28 minutes filled them with hope, but Inter we just too good.

In England,  defensive displays are “brave” and “heroic” “rear-guard actions”, usually coming in a “superb backs-to-the-wall” performance. That is of course, until they are executed by an Italian team.

It was bad enough when Italian football was simply derided as boring, negative and defensive. Then, as the coverage tried to become more cosmopolitan, those words were no longer enough, so suddenly all Italian teams played “catenaccio”, the Italian word for a deadbolt.

A dark and mysterious word, invoking foul play and used to describe any kind of defensive play, tactical foul or even the substitution of a striker in the last five minutes. Capello, Lippi and Ranieri’s Juventus teams, Ancelotti’s Milan and even more bizarrely, the victorious Italian National Team of 2006.

What this does is “educate” everyone else to use the word in the same context. Not only is it wrong, it does a disservice to what was, in its time, a revolutionary and highly effective tactic, used to nullify the opposition and was actually more attacking than the system that preceded it.

El Paron Unbolts The Trophy Cabinet

Way back in 1932 an Austrian coach in Switzerland, Karl Rappan, moved two of his midfielders into defence, creating the role of sweeper behind four man-marking central defenders, a 1-4-4-1 system known as “verrou” – the French for bolt.

Nereo Rocco was coaching Triestina in the 1940’s and modified the tactic, moving one of the defenders and one of the midfielders into attack, thus deploying a 1-3-3-3 formation, and the true Catenaccio was born. This in turn gave birth to one of the most successful spells in European football as Rocco led Milan to two league titles, two European Cups, two Cup Winners Cups and an Intercontinental cup.

“The Master” left Milan in 1973, and a year later he retired from coaching altogether. This is where Catenaccio died, but the myths and misjudgements had begun even before then, as Helenio Herrera’s “Grande Inter” are often credited with using it in the 1960’s.

Yet the Inter system was a revised replica of Rappan’s, once again with four defenders and a sweeper behind, but he also had Giacinto Facchetti as an attacking fullback. This went directly against Rocco’s Catenaccio, where defenders defended and left the attack to others.

As brilliant as Inter’s showing was last night, in no way did it resemble a Nereo Rocco side. Zonal marking, three strikers and a right back in Maicon who was caught offside on more than one occasion, all three would give El Paron palpitations.

Catenaccio, and the other formations it spawned were eventually killed off by the invention of “Total Football” which had players switching positions and rotating so much that it rendered the four man-markers and sweeper useless. Now Total Football, there is another oft-abused term…

The Author

Adam Digby

'Al Volo' Serie A columnist on BPF, and Italian football journalist, contributor and Calcio Italia magazine. Co-founder of

One thought on “Al Volo: Jose, Facchetti and The “C” Word

  1. Phenomenal approach, gritty, defiant and insanely stifling. Lucio and co. are defensive revelations.

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