The Italian Roles: The Libero

The Italian game, for all of its glory and importance, is also one of great contradictions. Less than 20 years after Vittorio Pozzo’s double-world-cup-winning side aimed to become the epitome of muscular, warrior-like football, Gianni Brera, the most influential Italian sports journalist ever, argued that Italians were physically weaker than their rivals, and should look to out-fox instead of out-muscle the competition. In a historically divided land, fractured by the fierce defence of local traditions of the campanilismo, it’s only those who succeed with the Azurri who achieve truly historic status. And even when it comes to Catenaccio, Italian football’s most iconic system, it’s the player who breaks from the tactic’s overall negativity and defensiveness who became truly memorable. We begin our trip down Football Manager’s Gioco di Calcio influences with Italy’s least defender-like defender, the Libero.

A man free from the chains

The origins of the Libero as a concept are less clear than it would often appear. Austrian coach Karl Rappan is often credited with the use of what would come to be the Libero. While coaching Swiss side Servette in the 30s, he decided that the best way to compensate for his team’s weaknesses was to drop his wing-halves into defence, with one of his fullbacks closing in on the attackers and the other dropping behind to provide cover. As the coach of the Swiss National Team in the 1938 World Cup, he employed the system, beating Germany in the First Round and going out to eventual finalists Hungary.

It was, however, only one of the multiple instances in which appeared the concept of a player relieved of the duties of man-marking to help the defence by dropping deeper and clearing the ball or aiding a teammate. Russian coach Alexander Kuzmich Abramov used a similar tactic that became known as the “Volga Clip” with Soviet club Krylya Sovetov Kuybyshev in the 1940s. Around the same time, Giuseppe Viani developed the “vianema” system with Salernitana. With little to no proof that either Abramov or Viani took inspiration from Rappan or each other, the Libero seems not to have a proper inventor other than the circumstance that the three examples share, a struggling, limited team looking to punch above its weight. As Jonathan Wilson points out in “Inverting the Pyramid”, the concept at work, that of dropping a midfielder to increase numbers in defence, “was no different to Herbert Chapman’s at Northampton in 1907”.

Karl Rappan went on to manage the Swiss National Team a total of four times between 1937 and 1963, as well as having spells in Grasshopper Zürich, FC Zürich and Lausanne-Sport, winning a total of six Swiss league titles and eight Swiss cups.

That being said, the inception of the Libero as a footballing term and the rise to popularity of the concept are far more clear. The first is the work of the aforementioned Brera. During the Italian championship of 1949/50, the leader Juventus, who played a WM, was defeated 7 – 1 by Milan. Brera thought the intensely physical brand of football favoured by Chapman’s system was “a forbidden luxury” for Italians. Instead, he argued for the use of a difensore libero da impegni di marcatura, that is, a defender free from the work of man-marking an opponent, who played behind the fullbacks, ready to mark down any opponent who escaped from his teammates.

It’s no surprise then that he became friends with Nereo Rocco, who, taking inspiration from Viani, was at the time implementing that very same idea at his Triestina side. The man he used as his “free defender”, Ivano Blason, became the first-ever iconic Libero. Far from the elegant, skilful players that would come to symbolize the role, Blason was a rugged, physical defender who had been a clumsy fullback. Sitting behind the backline with time and space, he became a ball-clearing machine. It was like putting a chain (una catena) across the goal. Catenaccio was born.

Gianni Brera coined not only football terminology, but nicknames, most famously calling Gianni Rivera Abatino (“Little Abbot”) and Rombo di tuono (“Rolling Thunder”) for Gigi Riva.

Rocco’s time at Triestina and Padova made him a top coach, but it was his time at Milan in the early 60s that transformed Catenaccio from a small-side tactic into the top system in European football. When Rocco’s Milan won the European Cup in 1963, however, their Libero was not an unyielding presence like Blason, but Cesare Maldini, an elegant defender capable of moving the game forwards. Even Catenaccio’s most iconic (and infamous) team, Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter, played with Armando Picchi as the Libero, a player who excelled at reading the game and conducting his team’s play. As Brera said, “Picchi was a defensive director … his passes were never random and his vision was superb”.

Amongst all the men who came to typify these aspects of the Libero’s game, none perhaps does so quite like the man who inherited Picchi’s mantle with the Azurri: Gaetano Scirea.

The golden standard

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the myth of Gaetano Scirea. The precision of where and when I came across his name, though, now eludes me. In my younger years, when I first became captivated by football after what was at that point a lifetime of ignoring it, I became like a sponge, absorbing concepts, ideas and stories. Somewhere along the way, Gai found me. I was instantly enthralled by his image, his myth, even his name spelt mystery. A defender, I was told, elegant like no other, with a cultured passing foot and an iron will. In an age of brutal defenders, this guy had retired without seeing a red card; in my eyes, he stood with Maldini and Baresi as the golden standard of defending.

Gaetano “Gai” Scirea, played for Juventus from 1974 until his retirement in 1988.

Yet, for all my reading and fascination, I had never actually seen Scirea play. He was way before my time to see him live, and the archive footage was at the time harder to come by, not that my 14-year-old self was about to watch a match almost twice as old. Investigating for this article was a chance to take a deep look at why I was so fascinated with Scirea. I came to understand his life story, the tragedy of his death, and his mastery of the defence. 

The son of a Sicilian factory worker, Scirea was born in May 25th, 1953, in Cernusco sul Naviglio. Not wanting to follow his father’s footsteps in the Pirelli plant, he started playing from a young age on his local team, Serenissima di Cinisello Balsamo. Soon enough he joined the Atalanta youth team, aged 14, where he’d catch the eye playing as a fullback with the elegance of his touch and his excellent reading of the game. He was then moved into midfield before cementing his spot on the youth team as a Libero under coach Ilario Castagner, who gave him the freedom to carry the ball forwards and organize the game of the team.

Scirea managed 58 apps for Atalanta between 1972 and 1974, abd scoring a goal.

After a couple of solid seasons for the Bergamo outfit, Scirea caught the attention of Juventus in the 1974/75 season. With veteran Sandro Salvadore about to retire, Bianconeri coach Carlo Parola made Scirea the new leader of the defence; he played 28 of the 30 games in the 1974/75 Italian Championship as Juventus was crowned champions.

The silent leader

It was, however, Scirea’s extraordinary human qualities from a young age that many of his teammates admired, almost overshadowing his technical and athletic virtues. He held an exemplary conduct, an untarnished sense of professional behaviour. Legendary Italy and Juventus goalkeeper Dino Zoff immediately took him under his wing. “Gaetano? An extraordinary man and an extraordinary footballer. An example of style and class both on and off the pitch”, he recalled. “We shared many moments with him, in retreat we were always in the same room. I remember that during the World Cup in Spain, Tardelli couldn’t sleep the night before the games. He would come to our room to relax; he called it ‘Switzerland’ because it was the quietest place in the retreat. In our way of being together, we didn’t need too many words, a look was almost always enough”.

Dino Zoff (left) didn’t hesitate to call his friend Gaetano Scirea (center) as his assitant when he was named Juventus coach. His tragic death in a car accident denied us the chance to see how Scirea’s game reading ability would’ve translated into as a coach.

It was perhaps this way of being from Scirea that so different from other defenders of the time; while his teammate from Juventus and the Italian National Team Claudio Gentile was known as a “master of the dark arts” due to his way of imposing himself physically in a match, Scirea was different. As Stuart Horsfield commented in a recent article for These Football Times, “the typical theatrics associated with Calcio at the time weren’t for Scirea, with his silence on the pitch deafening”.

Juventus lost the 1975/76 title to city rivals Torino, the first and last Toro side to claim the Scudetto since the Superga air disaster. Only two points split the teams, but for the Bianconeri that wasn’t good enough. Carlo Parola was sacked and Scirea met the coach who would come to define his career: Giovanni Trapattoni.

Scirea with the manager that would bring the best out of him, Giovanni Trapattoni. Il Trap called his former captain “the greatest Italian player ever, with Gianni Rivera, and a example for life and the game”.

Playing Trapattoni’s Zona Mista system, Scirea became the archetype of the modern Libero, fully released from the chains that tied down the likes of Blason and (particularly) Picchi and given license to orchestrate his side’s play. “Scirea was deployed by Trapattoni as a new breed of libero”, points out Stuart Horsfield, “given licence to carry the ball out of defence and into midfield”. It was a role that he would largely replicate under Enzo Bearzot as the Azurra won the 1982 World Cup. 

Un gioco al’italiana

Reading about Scirea’s game almost makes it feel like he was always at the attacking third of the pitch, spraying passes and finishing moves, and that of course wasn’t the case. However, if Riquelme’s game was all about bursting into life at the key moments, Scirea’s was about knowing when to do it, when to lead the deep line and when to charge forwards, when to spray passes into teammates in space and when to just clear it out of danger.

Scirea would regularly be the key man in his team’s playing out the back. Defensive as the Catenaccio of Trappatoni and Bearzot was, it wasn’t unrefined. Their teams were expected to soak up pressure and counterattack, but not just kick and rush. Scirea would often receive the ball from the midfield or the goalkeeper and look for players in space either out wide or dropping off. Platini in particular would regularly drop from his position in attacking midfield into the space to receive unmarked and look for Rossi, Boniek or Cabrini; Antognoni or Tardelli would usually play a similar role with the Azurri.

Scirea plays a long pass (1) for Graziani at the start of the 2nd Half vs Brazil in the 1982 WC (2). Against Germany in the final, he plays a 1-2 to build from the back (3&4), He was regularly used as to recycle possession as well as building up from the back and then look to find teammates in space or charge forwards with the ball at his feet.

Another hallmark of Scirea’s reading of the game and space was his ability to find gaps from where to bring his teammates into play, both rushing forwards but also figuring out where he should move to either provide a passing option or organize play unmarked.

Scirea (shirt no.6) attacks space from deep and asks his teammate Paolo Rossi for the ball (1), then controls and proceeds to get a shot on goal (2&3). A characteristic of his game, one of those runs forwards resulted in Italy’s 2nd goal in the 1982 World Cup final.

And yet for all of his qualities with the ball, he wouldn’t have been such a brilliant Libero if his defending wasn’t up to standard. It felt surprising when analyzing his play how it seemed like those teams always had another line of defenders behind the ball. Part of it was the 80s television footage, often too zoomed-in and lacking a wide view of the pitch, but it was also Scirea’s knack for being on the right spot at the right time. Against Brazil during the 1982 World Cup (arguably that tournament’s most iconic match), he regularly switched positions with Gentile and Collovati, to a degree where it was almost impossible to determine which was his starting spot. Scirea was where the defence needed him.

In the 1982 World Cup final, Scirea reads the play from the German playmaker (1) and closes down Breitner who was looking to run into space (2). Much of his game was about being one or two steps ahead of the game, closing down spaces and covering for teammates. Graeme Hogg from Manchester United attempts a cross from the attacking third during the 1984 Cup Winners’ Cup semi-finals (3). Where are the defenders? Inside their own box, ready to clear the danger (4). Trapattoni’s Juventus wasn’t exactly a pressing side.

The Libero on FM21

We’ve learned from one of the best, but how can we take Scirea’s game and make it work in Football Manager? As always, it starts with the right player. The game takes as a basis for the role not the players that (either through limited skill or following the instructions of cautious managers) discredited it into some sort of enforcer, but in its most unrestricted and inventive conception. FM’s Libero is, essentially, not Blason, but Scirea. It takes then a footballer with the right attributes to perform the role because you’re not only giving him the lead of the defence but also making the fulcrum around which attacks are developed.

From a defensive standpoint, the Libero needs to be ahead of the game, looking to clear potential threats before they are born, and to always cover for his teammates. It also needs to be the model of defensive effectiveness, being able to deal with moves that come his way. We’re looking for a player with high Heading, Marking, Tackling, Anticipation, Bravery, Concentration, Decisions, Positioning, Teamwork, Jumping Reach and Strength.

With the ball at his feet, on the other hand, the Libero must have the technical capabilities to perform at a high level as an organizer of the game, as well as having the ability to read the game and execute the necessary actions. We’ll require proficiency on attributes like Dribbling, First Touch, Passing, Technique, Composure, Determination, Vision, Agility, and Balance.

Luckily for us, however, the Libero as a role might seem like a relic from old times, but the demand for defenders with a high skill with the ball on their feet has (arguably) never been higher. The rise of Pep Guardiola and the press-and-possess sides that have (by inspiration or imitation) followed in his wake means that it is no longer enough for a world-class Centreback to be great at recovering the ball; they must now also be great at using it. People like Virgil Van Dijk, John Stones or Aymeric Laporte are (at least in-game) perfectly capable of playing the role of a Libero at the highest level. 

We, however, are going with a different player, Bologna’s Takehiro Tomiyasu. The reason for this is simple: I don’t like trying out tactics in an environment where the quality of the players is more likely than not going to make it succeed. Scirea played at the highest level, yes, but if we’re going to explore how the Libero works on FM we need a true test where its failings will come through as easily as its virtues. With our choice ready, it was time to get into the game; Tomiyasu had the skills to emulate Scirea, but what about Bologna? 

From Bianconeri to Rossoblú

Immediately after choosing Tomiyasu for the role, I started a game with the Rossoblú and set about replicating Trapattoni’s system in FM21. I was very lucky that fellow Dictate the Game writer CrusaderTsar has recently published a series of articles on Il Trapp‘s tactics; I took some of his ideas and combined it with a few of my interpretations, resulting in this system.

We start with a regular shot-stopper under the posts; no fancy sweeper-keeper nonsense, we’ve got an actual sweeper for that. The back four accommodates a Centreback on Stopper duty to mimic Claudio Gentile’s rather aggressive marking style on the right, with a much more average offering on the left. Between them, the Libero as the star of the show. On the left WB spot, we have a Wing-Back on Attack; a Complete WB could also be used. On the right midfield position, a Defensive Winger on Defend completes the “back five”; it’s hard to get the ala tornante role right on FM, but I feel this offers the closest possibility. 

The midfield trio is comprised of a Roaming Playmaker, a CM-D and a Mezzala on Support. I was hesitant between the RPM and an AP-A for Platini’s role on Trapp’s Juve, but I decided the first would offer a bit more to the team. The CM-D was originally a BWM to imitate Bonini’s movement, but I found he was overlapping a bit too much with the Libero. Finally, the Mezzala is meant to occupy the spot vacated by the WB-A’s runs. A BBM could also prove a worthy option, but I remain undecided.

Up top it’s where I feel the least confident. I found the AF to be the best at replicating Paolo Rossi’s role in the team but I also feel he’s dropping way too much. I tried using a Poacher, but he wasn’t as mobile as required; if something like an in-between role existed, it’d be perfect. Zbigniew Boniek’s role was the hardest to replicate; his extreme mobility, hard work rate and cleverness proved tricky to mimic. I tried a variety of possibilities, but I suspect that it comes down more to the skill set of the players than a specific role. As a DLF-S he at least offers a link between the midfield and the AF, and some interesting combinations are going on with the Mez and the WB-A.

A Japanese Libero

So, how did Tomiyasu work in this system and as a Scirea stand-in? I have to say, rather well. His overall rating takes a hit thanks to some appaling team defensive performances (to be expected of a lower mid-table side) but when it’s been good, he’s been brilliant. 

He’s been providing excellent long passes to open up play both on the counter as well as a possession-recycling movement. Bologna often used him as a passing outlet during build-up as well, as his movement meant he was often in an unmarked position.

However, a Libero is not only a passer; defending must also be part of his repertoire. Ironically, one of his best performances in that regard came when facing Scirea’s very team. In an iconic victory vs. the Bianconeri, Tomiyasu provided several defensive key actions as well as his usual passing performances, probably aided by Juve’s control of possession.

Where I did find his performance lacking was in terms of runs forwards. Scirea’s most famous play probably revolves around taking the ball forwards for Italy’s 2nd goal in the 1982 World Cup final, but Tomiyasu showed no such inclinations, rarely staying long on the ball. My suspicion is that shifting him to a Libero on Attack duty will aid this, but I doubt Bologna’s defence can take it. A more elite performer in a top team no doubt will be better equipped to show the full range of the Libero’s qualities.

To Conclude

In today’s modern football, the Libero seems like a myth from a legendary time. I’ve read several people questioning why it’s even still available in Football Manager, as hardly any team nowadays uses a pure Libero in the mould of a Scirea o a Picchi. But I think if it was removed it’d a lost opportunity; a missed chance at building the side that finally brings back the great marshal of Italian football and rekindle the spirit of the great Gaetano Scirea. I think football certainly deserves it.

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