The word ‘libero’ has all but evaporated from the footballing vernacular in modern times. In its glory days of the 1970s, it was a position glamorised and pioneered by the incomparable Franz Beckenbauer. It is somewhat curious, then, that the position played by one of the greatest defenders of the last century, has all but disappeared from the game a mere 30 years later. In this article I will examine the demise of the libero and the modern semi-incarnation, the ball-playing centre-back.
The libero’s parentage is diverse and far-reaching. The word comes from the Italian for ‘free’, but the idea of a spare defender did not originate in Italy. Various coaches had flirted with the idea of a sweeper, a defender who sat as the deepest outfield player, relieved of his traditional man-marking duties. This player would be tasked with roaming horizontally across the back-line and acting as a safety net for his team. It was the Austrian coach Karl Rappan who first employed this system on a regular basis, during the 1930s. Rappan had enjoyed success at club level with his system, given the name verrou (meaning ‘bolt’), and it’s sweeper (verouller) was key to it’s efficacy. The verouller was the forefather of the libero, and Rappan’s system was the forefather of the infamous Italian system of catenaccio, which would follow later. Rappan’s philosophy as the Swiss national team manager in the late ‘30s was that if a team does not have eleven naturally gifted players (he cites Brazil as an example), then discipline and tactics become extremely important. This philosophy would become hugely influential over time, with managers of so-called weaker teams setting out to stifle and frustrate their more talented opponents.
This is the point where philosophy defines a position. Under verrou or catenaccio the sweeper was generally given little licence to move up field, instead hanging back and sending long clearances upfield. However not all teams accepted this as the sum of the libero’s potential. Beckenbauer is a perfect example of this other style, a player at ease with the ball at his feet and capable of marauding forward from the back. This ‘attacking’ libero could be a deadly weapon if a team had a player capable of its demands. A knowledge of the game was key, the player had to know when to move forward and when to hang back. With the opposition not anticipating a defender arriving in their half, the libero would find himself unmarked, as confusion reigned amongst the ranks of the opposition defence. A defender striding forward to carry the ball out of defence allowed a quicker transition into attack.
This was the libero’s peak, it began to diminish in usage from the 80s forward. Coaches recognised the system’s major flaw, creating a spare man at the back required removing a player from another position. This allowed a team playing a libero to be overrun in midfield. This development effectively destroyed the ‘attacking’ libero but the more naturally defensive sweeper lived on under catenaccio. As a system mostly employed by weaker sides, the concession of midfield superiority was irrelevant – since these sides were unlikely to control possession anyway. Thus having an extra defender remained a viable option, allowing the team to sit deep and invite the opposition forward and rendering them vulnerable to the counter-attack.
And so to the modern game, where the vast majority of teams operate a flat back-four. Football may have witnessed the demise of the libero, but the idea of a defender who seeks to join and support attacks lives on. A ball-playing centre-back is a generic term for a style of defender who doesn’t solely concern himself with defensive responsibilities, though they remain his priority. There are a number of examples in the modern game; Lucio of Inter Milan, Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United, Daniel Agger of Liverpool (though heavily hampered by injuries, he is a good example of this concept). Perhaps the most obvious example though is Gerard Pique of Barcelona. A supremely gifted player with the ball at his feet, Pique is given significant licence to move forward out of defence and create a more fluid style of play. Without a defender capable of such play, a team often requires a central-midfielder to drop deep and collect the ball from his centre-backs. As Newton informs us, this action has an equal and opposite reaction. If a midfielder drops deep, then his team mates must follow in order to be in position to receive the ball. This reasoning is predicated on a team’s desire to play short passes, some teams may prefer to allow the midfielder to drop deep and then play long, sweeping balls to the flanks or directly to the striker(s). Xabi Alonso was often employed in this way during his first years at Liverpool, which is why I thought to include Agger in my earlier examples. Agger’s presence in the Liverpool team allowed the midfield to push on further and pen the opposition deep.
With so many teams employing a holding midfielder these days, a centre-back can be allowed more freedom. Modern managers are loathe to sacrifice such space at the back but a holding midfielder, by nature a deep-lying and often not technically gifted player, can slot into the space left by his advancing colleague. Sergio Busquets is often employed in this manner at Barcelona, dropping back to cover Pique’s forays forward.
Only time will tell if this more dynamic breed of centre-back flourishes and becomes a mainstay in modern systems. Given the emerging trend of teams employing a lone striker and therefore leaving a spare man at centre-back, perhaps we may see a return to the days of the libero.