Thoughts On: a Defense of Catenaccio

90s Serie A footie journalist Pietro Cirri (pseud.) writes for the first edition of our Thoughts On column, where Phi Magazine invites established writers from different backgrounds to contribute their philosophical musings to our online segment.

Despite the bad press, the Italian-style counter attack philosophy is a fine art: Catenaccio – meaning ‘door-bolt’ – allows the underdogs to use their opponent’s strengths to their advantage, and ultimately emerge victorious. We have seen this with the Cinderella Story of Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016. Under the management of the Italian Claudio Ranieri, the Foxes won playing a modernised version of Catenaccio. It was a heretical rebellion against the orthodoxy of possession based soccer worshipped by super-rich clubs like Manchester City and Barcelona.

It’s not just clubs that worship tiki-taka, or possession style football, as the highest expression of the game: the mass media does too. Symmetrically, it labels any defensive tactic as ‘negative football’. Such a dogmatic position deserves to be debunked: in my observation, a pass from a distance of 30 metres requires more skills than a 3 metre pass. Nonetheless, in literature and the media, “long ball” is often synonymous with unskilled and archaic football.

One could echo Karl Marx in saying that the tiki-taka religion is the opiate of the masses as opposed to the rebellious Catenaccio, where David can challenge Goliath and come out on top. The tiki-taka ideology justifies the status quo: there is a huge gap between the elite clubs in Europe and the outsiders who make a living from the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. So why are underdogs not electing Catenaccio as their style? Ultimately, it is a cultural matter.

Let’s go back to basics.

Football rules read: the team that scores the most goals wins. You can succeed either because you score more goals than your opponent – for instance 3-2 or 5-4 – or because you prevent the opponent from scoring, therefore require only one goal to win. Both tactics are legal by the book of the game. Mr Ranieri would buy a pizza for his players for a clean sheet (i.e. not conceding any goals in a match).

More interestingly the very English Brian Clough, twice European Cup winner (‘79, ‘80) with the underdogs at Nottingham Forest would also prioritise a clean sheet. And Clough was arguably the exact opposite of a negative football tactician.

Most English pundits would prefer expansive football that prioritises attack instead of defence. This mirrors the English audience’s preference. If you see an Italian team playing, you may be surprised by the goalkeeper and defenders emphatically celebrating after denying their opponent a goal with the same joy and energy that an English player would only display after scoring a goal.

A typical Catenaccio style setup.

In order to protect their own goal, traditional Italian teams would adopt this Catenaccio style. The manager would line up 5 defenders, 3 (or 4) midfielders and 2 (or 1) striker/s. This formation looks like a pyramid; the defenders who are on the right and left sides have licence to attack as back wingers and cross the ball to the middle of the box for the striker. Counter attack teams would leave the possession of the ball to the opponent and would take advantage when the opponent lost possession. One or two passes, possibly at first touch, would move the ball quickly from one side of the pitch to the other to attempt a shot on goal. Often only 3 players attack the last quarter of the pitch while the rest of the team sit back in a risk averse fashion. A typical Catenaccio player would shoot on goal at any given opportunity without waiting for a silver bullet.

By contrast, a tiki-taka team has generally 4 defenders, 3 midfielders and 3 attackers. They pass the ball to each other often with a long string of short passes and move compactly from one side of the pitch to the other, almost like a snake dancing around the opponent’s box in a hypnotic fashion until they create the perfect opportunity to score.

A typical tiki-taka style setup.

I find that there is no superior way of playing football but only a diversity of styles that make the game more enjoyable to watch.

Ultimately a good coach should be able to master both tactics and have an eclectic style in order to succeed in contemporary football. But, in my observation, coaches are often ideologically set in their own ways. That mirrors the divides that trouble our society.

As a result, a coach may try and fit players into his system, getting worse outcomes that he would being more realistic, asset based and person-centred.

Not all players can fit in either styles. For instance a powerful but heavy centre forward such as Mitrovic is perfect for possession soccer while a less physical but quicker Vardy perfectly fits counter attack. That’s why Kane had a better fit than Vardy in Gareth Southgate’s England team at the last World Cup. It is also true that highly skilled tiki-taka players such as the Mancity stars don’t need a particular physical presence as they impose themselves with the quality of their feet.

But it is not only a matter of natural qualities. A preference for one style or another is strongly linked to culture. By culture, I don’t merely mean the upbringing of a footballer, the way he has been coached and the pressure from his peers – I also mean their cultural environment and the values rooted in their subconscious and imagination.

Italians have historically been invaded and dominated by foreigners and have ended up comfortably embracing their underdog status. Machiavelli’s pragmatism is perceived almost like cheating from the perspective of the English and Northern Europeans, while it is the Italian footballer’s cup of tea. Countries like Switzerland, Austria, Argentina, Ireland have been flirting with Catenaccio for a while. But the expansion of Catenaccio has been challenged since the late Seventies by the success of new philosophies such as those of the Dutch Total Football and the growing school of the Passing Ball. Crucially, modern tactics exploited the offside rule and doing so made obsolete one of the pillars of traditional Catenaccio: the sweeper.

The sweeper was positioned between the goalkeeper and the line of defenders who were marking the opponents man-to-man. If the defenders line failed, the sweeper would literally sweep the ball away to prevent the opponent’s shot in goal. But on the other hand, the sweeper would be at risk of keeping the opponent forward on side (on valid position to score). As a result, the libero or sweeper was eventually made redundant.

A higher level of creativity was required to reshape Catenaccio. The prophets of possession soccer became dominant and put a stigma on the noble art of Catenaccio, painted as a dark arts tactic. Counter-intuitively, Italy won the World Cup twice (in 1982 and 2006) against stronger opponents thanks to the new Catenaccio formations designed respectively by managers Bearzot and Lippi.

In conclusion, until the beautiful game is played, there will always be a tension between the tradition of Catenaccio and the legacy of tiki-taka.

Personally, I appreciate both styles when played well – but my heart beats faster for a well executed defence followed by an exciting counter attack. A bit perversely, I love to see my team defend stoically for 90 minutes and win the match with one successful shot on goal. But, as everyone who’s had the kindness of reading until here has already reckoned, I was born under the Tower of Pisa and not the statue of Admiral Nelson: so I am probably biased.

As the French say, Vive la difference!