Welcome to Formation Renovation, where we figure out which modern players would best fit into some time-honored styles. The idea behind Formation Renovation is simple: It’s an attempt to figure out who today could do what they did back then. It’s not a suggestion that these formations and tactics, some of them 30, 50, or 70 years old, could thrive or even work in the modern era, but a thought experiment meant to help us look at differences between teams and players then and now.
In this edition: Internazionale of 1964-1967, the pinnacle of catenaccio.
Catenaccio predicated itself on always having a spare man in defense. It accomplished this by using man-marking; each Inter player knew who he was meant to be keeping tabs on in his half of the field. The spare man was the sweeper, for those Inter teams, Armando Picchi, cleaning up anyone who slipped their marker long enough to provide a threat.
Nowadays between formations with two deep-lying midfielders and deep-dropping wingers defenses always have a spare man or two at the back. But what will still set our modern catenaccio apart is the aggressive man-marking, something Greece used to propel themselves to the Euro 2004 championship (as explained more than capably here).
The above is what everyone knows about catenaccio, what they think when they hear its name. But we’re renovating that entire Inter team, not just its defense. Many of the more pertinent details can be found below in the player selections themselves, but to give a sense of their overall offensive philosophy, we’ll use a quote from their coach and the system’s mastermind, Il Mago, Helenio Herrera: “In attack, all the players knew what I wanted: vertical football at great speed, with no more than three passes to get to the opponent’s box.”
They weren’t just launching balls forward with English vigor; they were picking out their passes and playing them long, something they could do with the time on the ball they were afforded in that era. In that way they’re not unlike the Ajax team discussed in this column’s last installment. The Golden Ajax squad followed close on the heels of Inter’s dominance and is credited with killing catenaccio by showing conclusively that, as Jonathan Wilson quotes it “massed defenses can be undone by massed attacks.” (Ajax also help eradicate that kind of long passing by introducing pressing to Western Europe, denying players even in deep regions time on the ball.)
The vertical passing half of Herrera’s offensive philosophy is apparent in video of their goal in the 1965 European Cup Final against Benfica, but not the speed. In the video, the team plays slow on a soggy pitch at the San Siro. Their one goal seems quintessentially Italian, even though it was scored by the Brazilian Jair. A long ball out of the back is gathered, passed once, then again, then one more time to Jair, unmarked on the edge of the box. His shot is poor. It skips across the pitch directly at Benfica keeper Costa Periera, who bobbles it, then allows it to squirt through his legs and into the goal. Jair himself slipped on the shot attempt and ended up in the mud. Compared to the Ajax teams, Inter looks like they’re playing in slow motion.
Which was probably fine by them, so long as the other teams were playing slowly too. In 1964-1965 they gave up just 29 goals in the league and lost only twice. The year before, when they won their first European Cup, they allowed only 21. (That year they finished second.) The year after, 1965-1966, they let in just 28.
A word on the methodology:
1. There will be no Messi and no Cristiano Ronaldo on any of the teams in this series. We can all agree that the former would make any team you placed him on better, and since I’m not factoring in personal characteristics, like level of arrogance or how far a player’s head is up his ass, so probably would the latter. Using them would be cheating — they’d go on every team somewhere.
2. Given the choice between one or another player, odds are I picked the less obvious one, for reasons similar to those stated in #1. Every team that calls for an attacking right back can’t have Dani Alves or Maicon.
3. Any gaps in my knowledge of particular characteristics of current players were filled via printed reports, scrounged YouTube clips, and, for comparison purposes, Football Manager stats. When I say, for instance, that my selection at right back is a “dangerous crosser,” it’s either because I’ve seen it myself, or got it in one of those three sources.
Here’s our model:
Goalkeeper – Petr Cech
The knock on Cech is that since his skull fracture, he’s become tentative challenging for balls in the air. But with a deep defensive line and three central defenders to make clearances, we’re hoping he doesn’t have to do that all that often. What we need is a keeper who can save long shots, someone who can get to the firecrackers ripped from long-range by teams frustrated by our deep defending and marking. Cech is large and lanky and quick, and so he gets the nod.
(Of course, I would write all that praising him, then the Saturday before the post goes up he’d allow exactly the kind of goal I’m talking about him stopping. I’m going to chalk it up to that shot being ridiculous more than anything.)
Sweeper – Cristián Zapata
The problem with choosing a purely defensive sweeper (as opposed to an attack-minded sweeper, like we used Sergio Busquets for when we renovated the Golden Ajax squad) is either the absence of qualified candidates or the preponderance of them. Few teams play with a true sweeper anymore, and usually only as part of a three-man defense. But on the other hand, as has been written about in too many places to cite any one of them, all center-backs today play to an extent as sweepers, with one dropping to provide cover as the other moves forward to engage the ball.
Zapata, however, fits the characteristics we’re looking for — he’s fast and intelligent in his positioning — and actually plays as a sweeper behind Udinese’s other two centerbacks in a defense that as of this writing has allowed fewer goals in Serie A this year than Roma, Juventus, or Inter.
Left Fullback – Gareth Bale
The PFA POTY award has seemed to put the handbrake on the Gareth Bale bandwagon. Were we all collectively overrating him? Is he really that good, or did he luck into having his two best games when they mattered most?
No matter, he’s still the ideal man for this job, even if it means pushing him back into a position he’s left behind this year. Giacinto Facchetti was a big, fast attacking fullback who scored 75 total goals during his Inter career. He got up the line to provide width in attack and got back to mark the opponent’s tornante. Bale’s got the speed for that, plus the crossing ability to provide the width, plus the knack for goal-scoring.
Center Defender – Nemanja Vidic
Ideally catenaccio should be a system that’s not just difficult to play against, but that opponents dread playing.
Vidic’s like a professional wrestling heel; It’s tough to think of anyone center forwards would less like to drag up and down the field on their back. Vidic’s the right combination of strength, aerial ability, and ruthlessness to be our left-central defender.
Center-Right Defender – Sergio Ramos
One of the interesting wrinkles of Herrera’s system is the narrow positioning of its right back, a player who is literally a center-right defender. This was important in the Serie A of that period, because the dominant formation called for a winger on the right side — see where Jair is playing in our example — but no corresponding presence on the left. So defenses shifted away from that part of the pitch to fill in gaps in more dangerous areas.
It’s an interesting concept to consider in modern times, with the profusion of inverted wingers looking to cut inside onto their stronger foot. Some coaches have dealt with this by playing left-footed players on the right side of the defense (or vice versa). For us, we have someone comfortable both in the center and on the right coming out from the middle of the field to meet them as they cut inside.
Ramos is the man for the job because he meets both our positional requirements, and because he’s got the speed to slide out and cover the right flank when that’s needed. Since catenaccio calls for man-marking, he can play further out on the right in a four-man defense when needed, or slide in and become the second center back in a three-man defense.
Defensive Midfielder – Javier Mascherano
Fortunately for Mascherano, he doesn’t have to master off the ball movement and one-touch passing in this system. All we’re asking him to do is stick to the opposing playmaker and make him pay every time he touches the ball. I have faith he could handle that.
Regista – David Pizarro
The search for a deep-lying playmaker to replace Inter’s Luis Suarez has two names at the top of the list: Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso. Instead we’re choosing door number 3, Pizarro, because I believe him to be sturdier defensively than the aging Pirlo (Pizarro, to be fair, is also aging) but with more close control than Alonso. Because of the distance between our defensive and attacking central midfielders, our regista’s not always going to have the option of playing the easy pass forward through the opponent’s midfield. Pizarro has escape artist instincts and the ability to take the ball around, through, or over pressure, which will help buy him time to play his killer long passes to our target forward or breaking flank players.
Tornante – Simone Pepe
Inter used Jair here, and depending on what source you read he either dropped deep to help cover the right side of the defense or because his dribbling style required him to create space between himself and the defender to build momentum so he could pass his marker on the run. Likely it was both, so we’ll be looking for a player who can do that, a hard-working midfield type. There are obvious candidates — Dirk Kuyt and Park Si Jung appear in the dictionary next to “hard-working midfielder” — but they lack the creativity and dribbling ability Jair brought to those Inter teams. In Pepe we’re going to opt for someone with a little more creativity, who has something to offer other than just his running and flexibility to play multiple positions. He’s not what you’d call consistent, but he’s more than capable of stretching the play on the right side or coming inside when needed, and his deployment as an emergency defender for Juventus suggests someone who can tackle when we need him to.
AM — Wesley Sneijder
Mario Corso is described as a left winger who would come inside. Sneijder’s a center midfielder whose natural tendency is to push slightly leftwards. He’s our choice here for his dead-ball ability — one of Corso’s nicknames was “God’s Left Foot,” for his free-kick taking — and because he’s a playmaker who can also score goals, a useful trait since so much of our squad is going to be focused on defense.
There are a lot of Sneijder free kick videos to choose from, but this one is one of the shorter and better ones:
Deep Forward – Luis Suarez
Between Pizarro and Sneijder, we don’t really need a deep forward who’s going to unlock opposing defenses with his passes. Instead, we’ll go for one who can cause havoc with his runs, drawing defenders out of position then finishing himself or finding the open man with simple balls back or across the goal.
Plus, how could we possibly pass up the chance to put modern Luis Suarez on the team that the original starred for, albeit from a different position?
Center Forward – Fernando Llorente
Bigger is better here. If we’re going to play a deep, compact defensive scheme then we’re going to need someone up top who can help us break out of it by winning long balls and waiting for support. Goal-scoring is almost secondary to that, but Llorente’s tallies have grown in each of the last three years, so he should be able to contribute there too, especially with Suarez and Sneijder buzzing around him and Bale and Pepe feeding him crosses.
Here’s the final product: