Saturday, January 23, 2010


Pyramid Power, Part 3

In the last instalment of these ruminations on Jonathan Wilson's excellent book: the question of perhaps the most important tactical innovation of all, namely the sweeper.

Wilson's coverage of the topic is extensive, beginning with the birth of the idea in Switzerland in the 1930s, when Karl Rappan introduced his verrou system. Throughout the book, Wilson makes reference to "the right of the weak" - the legitimacy of an overtly defensive strategy when one is faced by stronger opposition. More on this later.

After his habitual digression on similar developments in Russian football, Wilson moves to Italy and the famous catenaccio sides of the 1960s, especially Helenio Herrera's Inter Milan. Although Herrera's side is broadly despised these days (and in some ways justifiably), Wilson is right to include a discussion of the attacking innovation that the Inter of the mid-60s introduced, namely:

[Giacinto] Facchetti was the key, and it was he who gave Herrera his best defence against the accusations of negativity. "I invented catenaccio," Herrera said. "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 sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full-back to score as many goals as a forward."

Check out the end of this for an example of Facchetti's scoring prowess...and two rather unsavoury examples of nerazzurro gamesmanship prior to that.

It was partly the success of Facchetti as an attacking force (see Wilson's diagram on page 185) that precipitated the development of the aggressive sweeper. Wilson justifiably gives pride of place to Velibor Vasovic, the elegant captain of the Ajax side of the late sixties and early seventies, whose mobile, adroit play at the back made a fine foil to the technical virtuosity and tremendous acceleration of Johan Cruyff at the other end.

When watching matches from the seventies, I am always struck by how fluid the defensive units are, compared with contemporary ones. Yet fluidity does not necessarily equal disorganisation, and many sides of the era boasted forward-striding sweepers who managed to contribute in defence as well.

Wilson describes in some detail the return of the four-in-line defence to Italian football under the impetus of Arrigo Sacchi's great Milan sides, but in my view the return to static rather than dynamic sweepers predated that, and actually accelerated the return to vogue of a flat back four.

A comparison between the 1982 and 1986 World Cup finals is instructive in this respect. Italy in 1982 had a very mobile libero in Gaetano Scirea, and West Germany's Uli Stielike was likewise willing to join in attacks. Fast forward four years, and the respective free men at the back, Jose-Luis Brown and Dietmar Jakobs, were resolutely negative. Denmark's Morten Olsen, who played so magisterially at that 1986 tournament (and just prior to it), was perhaps the last of the great attacking sweepers.

And sixteen years on, the sweeper had virtually vanished. Again, two teams with three at the back contesting the World Cup final, but it is essentially a three-in-line defence (even if Carsten Ramelow occasionally operated as an old-fashioned sweeper for the Germans).

"A sweeper? How quaint!" quipped a wag on one of my football forum haunts, in response to some criticism of the FFA's 4-3-3 mandate on the grounds that it would exclude talented sweeper-style players. Yes, it seems to be a thing of the past now. Yet the "right of the weak" still exists, and who has exercised that right most effectively in recent years? Surely Greece, who won Euro 2004 against all odds with...the anachronism of a sweeper system.

Traianos Dellas was the man on that occasion, and he was a negative (if extremely effective) libero. But is there still room for a return of the attacker from deep? I think so, and I hope so. The current rigidity of defensive systems is making football increasingly bland, and some inventive manager may decide to spark a new system into life. There are still occasional goals scored when defenders surge through the middle, and they are a joy to watch; may Micah Richards' enterprising goal against Blackburn last weekend (25 seconds into this) start a trend.

Great series of posts.

How necessary would it be to go to three at the back to deploy an attacking libero? When I watched the 1999 Russia vs. Ukraine ECQ recently, the full-backs in Russia's back four were very defensive minded to cover for Viktor Onopko when he went forward (which he did a lot). As it is I think the value of attacking full-backs of today would make that difficult to implement.

I think Gerard Pique promotes the role of an attacking central defender in great fashion and would be even better in this regard if he was set out as a true libero. But when Dani Alves is going forward like mad (and for Spain, Sergio Ramos is being an arrogant and irresponsible right-back), it's a bit of a compromise.

That said, I'm not totally sure that Dani Alves and Ramos aren't better suited to being midfielders in the first place. If Barca and Spain played more balanced right-backs like Puyol and Arbeloa respectively (both of whom aren't overly defensive-minded ones, so you're still getting decent attacking service from them, look at Puyol's '09 CL final performance...), then you might have Pique getting forward more and some really nice variation coming from the back.

From Barca's POV, you'd then have people saying that Messi doesn't have an extremely aggresive right-back helping him out on the right (which is a problem for Argentina). But again, I'm not sure if Messi's perfectly suited to the right in the first place and ultimately isn't destined for a more central/free roaming role in which I think the absolute best players in history operate (and I think Messi is playing more and more of under Guardiola). In that case, with Pique as a libero and Messi ahead of him, you might get back to something like Vasovic and Cruyff.
got the book. read it. loved it.

i dunno if it was in the book, or on his blog, but i think i saw wilson writing somewhere about the continued evolution of the central defender.

with lone strikers becoming more common, having 2 central defenders marking one man while you are in possession seems excessive. eventually we can expect one of those central defenders to provide support to the attack when your team has the ball, but track back to that single striker when your team doesn`t have the ball.

sounds sweeperish to me.

yup, pique is a very interesting player. his work last season in the games against chelsea (i think barcelona was a man down in one of the games?) was very sweeperish.

Maybe it was simply a case of necessity being the mother of invention when Pique played that way against Chelsea towards the end of last year's UCL semi, but it certainly was effective. Would like to see him become a true libero...I suppose the advantage at Barca is that the rest of the team is so good that you could probably risk a tactical eccentricity like that!
And Mike, Celtic with all eleven players born within 30 miles of Glasgow put paid to the "innovative" Inter Milan side in the 1967 Euro Final.

Jock Stein out thought him?

Yes we Celtic fans are still living in the past...but you can bet your life no such "local" side will ever win a Premier trophy again.
In the A-League:

"But is there still room for a return of the attacker from deep? "

Ljubo, one of the best, seems to have severely shackled by Branko from his initial Jets appearances. Clearly Branko doesn't think he's up to it, or the style doesn't work.
ummm, last time i watched newy, ljubo stayed back, but hyphen had a licence to roam and push on.

that was the 10 man win over the vic.

so newcastle have used the attacker from deep recently. just not ljubo.

...And Mike, Celtic with all eleven players born within 30 miles of Glasgow put paid to the "innovative" Inter Milan side in the 1967 Euro Final....

Many moons ago Eamonn, I made that very same point in a piece for tribalfootball. ;-)

First time that a genuinely local side won the European Cup, and as you say it'll never happen again. Still haven't seen a video of that game, I'd be keen to.
Globalisation has diluted, to the point of virtual annihilation, the unique differences between the various major European and South American styles that categorised each nation.

They all seem to play the same these days.

This familiarity plus is factor but more importantly is what I consider the more lenient (and deservedly so) refereeing in favour of attackers, has meant that teams MUST push their defenders further back because the OFFSIDE trap is just not effective anymore.

Savvas Tzionis
Matthias Sammer Euro 96?
...Matthias Sammer Euro 96?...

Was he a real "attacking sweeper" though? I don't remember Euro 96 all that well, but I thought Sammer was more of a mighty leader at the back. Wilson has a diagram for that German Euro 96 side as well, incidentally (p.323).
I remember as well as I can from 14 years ago - I remember Sammer as an attacking sweeper. But more as in sitting behind the defenders while defending but coming forward to try and cause some havoc, which he did not necessarily do all the time. As, like a full-back coming forward, it can be more effective if only done occasionally.

He did score 2 goals in the tournament (one vital goal against Croatia as well).

I always think of Sammer being the last, great sweeper and this German team being the last time a sweeper was used to good effect.
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