Der Kaiser: The arch libero.

Peter Carey celebrates a time when defenders were deep-lying and cultured.

The origins of the libero have its roots planted firmly in 1930′s Austria and Switzerland – Karl Rappan who coached both sides is widely excepted as the forefather of the libero but in his earlier incarnation of the role described it as ‘verouller’. The system is based on the ideal that not every team will possess 11 naturally technically gifted individuals and thus the need for tactical discipline becomes extremely important. This philosophy become incredibly influential over time and still can be seen today as weaker teams will consistently deploy methods in which to stifle the quality of their opposition without looking to outplay them.

This is where Rappan’s ‘verouller’ was so effective at the time; it terms of its positioning it was the first manifestation of what we now know as the sweeper. The ‘verouller’ was given very little license to move up the pitch and instead was freed of their marking duties in order to roam horizontally across the back line from a deeper position acting as a safety net in the eventuality of an attacker breaking through the line of defence. This type of role was later characterised with great success by the Italians in their infamous ‘catenaccio’ system which was in application a very similar system to the ‘verouller’.

However not all teams saw the sweeper role as a purely defensive endeavor and instead saw the role more so for its attacking benefits. This is where the libero was born, the most well known example of the Libero was Franz Beckenbauer. As a player he was excellent on the ball and despite his defensive role was more than capable of marauding forward when required. This is what the blueprint of the libero was based on – The ‘attacking sweeper’.

During the years of its peak in the 1970′s this was seen as very deadly not in stifling the opposition as Rappan had originally intended it in the 1930′s but in fact as a devise to spark a new kind of attacking threat. The role required a strong knowledge of the game, athleticism and superb decision making in order to pick the right moments to hang back like the archetypal sweeper or burst forward as the libero role intended. With the opposition not anticipating a defender arriving in their half, the libero would find himself unmarked, as the unprepared ranks of the opposition defence scrambled desperately to pressure the free man thus leaving holes else where to be exploited. The benefit of a defender striding forward to carry the ball out of defence is that it allowed for a quicker transition into attack as well as the obvious benefits that can be had from a spare man in those forward areas.

Its effectiveness was apparent, it created an unmarked ‘free’ player arriving deep into midfield with the capacity to spark counter attacks or help overload the oppositions midfield. The role however began to die out after its peak in the 1970′s  as coaches began to discover the fatal flaw of the role; 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 essentially destroyed that incarnation of the libero as teams became more and more concerned with midfield security and control of possession. The catenaccio lived on however, the more defensive older brother of the libero which continues in use by Italy sides (particularly less gifted ones) even today; this is because the concession of midfield superiority is irrelevant – since these sides are unlikely to control possession anyway due to their obvious inefficiencies. 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.

Alessandro Nesta: One of the more modern exponents of the art.

Although the libero in its attacking form has seemingly died out there has been evolution’s in the modern game that have been likened to that of Franz Beckenbauers libero role – the common term in the modern game however is ‘ball playing defender’. This rather unspecific term is one used to describe a defender, usually a centre back who isn’t solely concerned with his defensive duties but instead opts to create a greater sphere of influence over the game with more creative tendencies being applied. The most telling example of this in the modern game is Gerard Pique at Barcelona, particularly during Guardiolas time at the club. 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 – one very typical of Guardiolas Barcelona. Another great example would be David Luiz at Chelsea; the forward runs he makes are quintessential of the 1970′s libero and thus is much likened to that role in the modern game.

If a team does not possess a defender capable of such play however, a team often requires a central-midfielder to drop deep and collect the ball from his centre-backs. If a midfielder drops deep, then his team mates must follow in order to be in position to receive the ball. A team’s desire to play short passes however isn’t always apparent, 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). The result of a ‘ball playing defender’ accompanied by that approach to the game would allow 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 as a more discipline but less creative midfielder is capable of plugging the gaps defensively without sacrificing attacking intent. 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 as expressed and so negates one of the flaws of the previous libero system of the 1970′s that relied on a willingness to sacrifice a player in another position in order to field a libero. Sergio Busquets is often employed in this manner as the deep-lying midfielder at Barcelona, dropping back to cover Pique’s forays forward as described.

No one can really predicted if the libero style is really gone from football forever, but it is certainly not forgotten with adaptations of the system living on in the modern game. Perhaps with the while scale employment of the lone striker there will one day be room once again for the libero but for now we must only be content with less costly imitations as unfortunately innovation only survives dependent on its overall success. Flamboyance and originality sadly do not warrant 3 points on their own.

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