“Inter are showcasing an ancient style of football, revisited by someone with clear ideas. In some countries, this style of football would not be appreciated, but it’s fine in a country like Italy where winning is everything,” he further said. “In many countries, football is a spectator sport. Here though, it’s not a spectacle because there’s no aesthetic beauty. There’s no sport, because the rules aren’t respected, as demonstrated by the many scandals.”
In case you missed it, these are the words of Arrigo Sacchi. The jockey who wasn’t a horse won two European Cups and a Serie A title in his four years with Milan. More notable background information is that Arrigo Sacchi is not like a lot of men in Italy. No sir, Italy’s love affair with defensive football is deep rooted, going all the ways back to the 1960’s with Helenio Herrera’s infamous Catenaccio, and even further back to Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy side of the 1930’s.
But Sacchi saw something, something that could be exploited “I saw that all the big teams, in order to be great, had something in common. They all looked to dominant on the pitch, dominant play and control the situation at all times. That was my goal but my greatest goal was to make people have fun.” These words are not far from those of Johan Cruyff, and Pep Guardiola. In a country where defensive play was the status quo, Sacchi smashed the status quo with his Milan sides playing free flowing, attacking football that left the status quo toothless in a gutter.
It’s no wonder a man who prided himself on such principles is lashing out at Mancini’s Inter Milan. The Nerazurri have won half of their games this season by a scoreline of one-nil, with their league leading defence (only seven goals conceded in 14 games) meaning a goal is normally enough to win the game. Inter’s attack currently ranks seventh in Serie A, which is not a terrible ranking, but the attacking displays of Roma and Napoli, should put Mancini to shame.
I’m getting myself into a bit of a knot here, but we’ll go to the roots of football and say, what is the point of football? Why do you play, coach or watch football? Is it used an as ego release, a la Jose Mourinho, is winning your drug and you’ll get there by any means necessary? Or is football simply a game for you? A way to gain enjoyment and express yourself solely for entertainment purposes. It’s clear that Sacchi falls under the latter, and Mancini falls under the former (right now, his Manchester City played some very entertaining football under his reign).
But why does Italy resonate more with the former, with winning at all costs, with little consideration to the fan’s entertainment? Well, the truth is that Italians also resonate with the former, just as aesthetically pleasing football pleases those residing in Catalonia, winning is the thing that pleases most in Italy.
Take a trip back to the 1950’s, Ferenc Puskas’ Real Madrid are at the peak of their powers, winning five European Cups in a row, defeating two Italian sides, Fiorentina in 1957 and Milan in 1958. Also consider the strength of the Italian national side, after winning World Cups in 1934 and 1938, the beautiful game was then interrupted by World War two and then resumed in 1950. Italy failed to impress in any World Cups up until 1970, even failing to to qualify in 1958. An Italian side would not reach a European Cup final until five years later.
Then came a system that could be considered Italy’s savour – Catenaccio. Influenced by the Switzerland coach of the 1930/40s, Karl Rappan and his Verrou system. Catenaccio first made it’s way to Italy with Nereo Rocco, who finished second in Serie A with a variation of Catenaccio, the club’s best ever finish. Rocco also then guided Padova to a third placed finish, using a more polished version of Catenaccio, also the club’s best ever finish.
The Rossoneri used a variation of Catenaccio during their 1963 European Cup run, managed by Nereo Rocco but it was the blue side of Milan that would firmly stamp Catenaccio into footballing history.
The controversial yet immortal figure of Helenio Herrera joined Inter Milan in 1960 and immediately overhauled the club from top to bottom, from nutrition and dieting to the tactical identity of Inter Milan.
La Grande Inter
Catenaccio is synonymous with defensive football and Italy as a footballing nation. But was it that defensive? Well, no. As Herrera said himself “The problem is that most of the ones who copied me copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my Catenaccio included. I had Picchi as a sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward.”
In the 1962/63 season, the Nerazzurri scored the most goals in Serie A, 56, and conceded the least, 20. This also occurred during the 64/65 season, by an absolute landslide. Herrera’s team scored 68 goals, second place belonging to their cross town rivals and Fiorentina. They did boast the best defensive, however, that did belong to their cross town rivals, as AC Milan conceded 23. Herrera scored back to back Scudettos, scoring 70 goals, while Bologna scored 60, and again, Inter Milan did not boast the best defence in Serie A, Fiorentina were the sturdiest team.
Catenaccio is chained to the label of ‘defensive football’ for as long as football exists, but why? If anything, Italy was a defensive league, but at their best Inter were not the best defensive team statistically. It’s arguably due to the fact that Herrera’s Inter were the team of Serie A, a notoriously defensive league, for most of the league’s history. Of course on paper the tactical set up looks defensive, with a libero deployed and key defensive line instructions. For whenever Facchetti bombed forward, Picchi would step up and Bedin would step down, creating a flat back four of almost all centre backs, aside from Bedin. When Bedin stepped up into MF to aid Suarez, Jair would drop deep to help maintain defensive structure. This one of the reasons Catenaccio gained a defensive reputation.
Within this defensive structure, Facchetti could then counter attack, with Suarez, A Balon D’or winner in 1960 and runner up in 1964, distributing to Mazzola, Corso or Peiro, this is actually what Herrera prided himself on.
Italy’s obsession with defensive football does not stop there, as most of Italy’s prestigious players have been defenders, Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta, Nesta, Materazzi, Gentile, Chiellini, Gentile and of course, the only defender to win the Balon D’or,
Daniele Bonera Fabio Cannavaro. Defensive football has become synonymous with Italy, and the Italians have welcomed this reputation with open arms. But is it healthy? As Serie A falls massively behind La Liga and the Premier League in TV ratings despite renewed contracts, are fans just not finding Serie A entertaining?
Fans like goals, it’s really that simple. They’re the most enthralling thing in football, the game wouldn’t work without them. And Serie A lacks behind the other leagues in this department. Defensive football is so deeply routed in Italy, that it’s almost impossible to ever unroot it.
Is defensive football a bad thing, though? Jose Mourinho said Italy was ‘the tactical league’, while it’s a great label to have, fans simply don’t enjoy a tactical set up more than a well worked goal.
Is this style accepted in other leagues?
Well, it depends. I’m English and our footballing culture is horrendously backwards. Winning at all costs is promoted, with severely outdated footballing assets such as physical play and ‘passion’ emphasised over technical ability, something that has been the dominant force in football for over four decades.
However in the Bundesliga, horrible football is not tolerated. As now Liverpool coach and then Dortmund coach summed up in an interview with the BBC’s Football Focus “We want to enjoy our own game. If we lose okay, we like to win. If we lose with our way, it’s ok, but if we lose with the way of someone else, we cannot do this.” There’s a premium of aesthetic and entertaining football in Germany, thanks to the 50+1 rule. Fans have a bigger stake in the club and what the club does actually affects them. There’s a continuing disconnection between the fans and boardrooms in Italy and it’s showing on the pitch. Boring football is not tolerated.
In Spain, I probably do not even need to say this. There is a huge premium on aesthetically pleasing football, arguably the modern home of beautiful football, fan entertainment is at an all-time high thanks to the technical ability of La Liga. Tiki taka, smhiki smhaka, it’s entertaining.
What can we do about Sacchi’s comments? Should Mancini be bothered?
What’s Mancini’s goal? It’s to win a Scudetto in due time. That’s what Thohir wants, that’s what the fans want. Everyone likes entertaining football, everyone likes a silky one-two between attackers, everyone likes goals, however everyone likes winning. In Italy failure is not even remotely accepted, as shown by Italy’s absurd managerial sack record, the highest in Europe. Mancini will not be bothered by Sacchi’s comments, not in the slighest.
As a footballing purist I appreciate Sacchi’s comments as a way to try and influence more aesthetically pleasing football. I adore Sacchi’s Milan, but I also appreciate Mourinho’s Inter Milan side as a defensively structured juggernaut. Unfortunately, defensive football is Serie A and Italy’s identity, and one that’s deep rooted. This hurts Serie A’s marketing and fan pleasure, but that’s what it was getting into when it accepted the identity.