Chalkboarding the past: liberos

Everyone ‘knows’ that Franz Beckenbauer was brilliant.  In a recent Guardian poll he was the first defender selected in their greatest team of all time.

I think everyone is right – Beckenbauer really was an astonishing player – but I wonder how many of the voters had actually seen him play before making their choice?

Football’s like this.  A certain few players become mythologised and others, who may not have been far off in quality but who for whatever reason lack a story/myth/defining moment, get forgotten.  So in England we all know about Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney and Billy Wright, the chosen few from the pre-1966 dark ages, but we’re not usually fed much more than that.   We are dimly aware that England one felt themselves the finest team in the world, but we don’t know which players made this team so good (and indeed, the Hungarian side that walloped us in 53 and again in 54 is probably better known).

This fuzziness also applies to the game’s greats.  Everyone ‘knows’ Beckenbauer was brilliant, but they know why?   Yes, he more or less invented the libero role, playing a defensive position with the penache of a number 10, but there has to be more to it than that.   What did he do on the field?  What was his role in the team?  I want to know more.

Not too long ago the Guardian (again) published something they called Chalkboards for Premier League fixtures.   A Chalkboard essentially shows everything a player does on a football pitch, his passes illustrated with arrows, his tackles and clearances with dots, and so on.

Chalkboards break down one of the walls between the football world and the casual fan.  When Fulham fans argue that Dickson Etuhu can’t pass, it is possible to pull up a series of chalkboards showing that while Etuhu’s passing may not be Hoddle-esque, in fact he rarely gives the ball away.  This can lead to further discussion about how useful it is to make 25 safe but dull passes in a game, but the key word there is ‘further discussion’ – thanks to Chalkboards we know more about football than we did before; the chalkboards show us what every player in a team actually does, and, just as importantly, where he does it.

As you know, I love Chalkboards, and I wanted to know more about football’s past, so it seemed sensible to me to go back and watch some of these matches with a pen in hand, and chart the performers I was most interested in.  Beckenbauer was on my mind so I decided to start with him, and furthermore, seeing as the sweeper/libero (to be referred to as ‘libero’ from now on for simplicity) role is shrouded in blusterous legend (we know what a libero is (or was) – but little more than that), I aimed my stone at two birds and wrote this, a profile of a position, the libero explained by looking at how some of the greatest players interpreted the role.

So part one of what could conceivably turn into a series is the story of the libero on the pitch.   We start with Franz Beckenbauer, so influential, so good; Daniel Passarella was Argentina’s libero in their 1978 World Cup winning side; Gaetano Scirea did the job in Italy’s 1982 side, which also won the World Cup; Jose Luis Brown won the World Cup for Argentina in 1986;  Matthias Sammer dominated Euro 96 from libero; Troianos Dellas was the spare man in Greece’s extraordinary 2004 European Championship win.

Some big names, some big teams.  Below we’ll see how they all played.

First, a bit of history.  For the full story You’re as well to read Jonathan Wilson’s indispensible “Inverting the pyramid”, but in (very) short, the sweeper system has been around for a while, and it’s always been somewhat mysterious.   Karl Rappan, an Austrian managing Switzerland, created a system he called the “Bolt”.  The “Bolt” was an early form of catenaccio, in which the defending team would retreat and allow the opposition possession.  The relevance here is that in a later variation of the “Bolt” system, one central defender would play behind the other, covering.  This player was known as the fireman, sweeper, or libero.  It was a natural reaction to the difficulties weak sides faced against strong attacking teams (England lost to Hungary in 1953 in part because Nandor Hidegkuti dropped back from the standard centre-forward position and no England defender knew what to do about it) – by having a ‘spare’ defender these teams gave themselves a better chance of keeping themselves in the game.

This system was adopted by smaller Italian teams, with Nereo Rocco of Triestina and Padova particularly noted for his work in refining the system.  Catenaccio was born, and by the mid sixties the libero was the norm.   At this point the libero was a defensive role, but then came Beckenbauer.

The great man explains:  “It was my idea.  I started to play from this defensive position, but to attack.  The inspiration I think came from (Giacinto) Facchetti.  He was the first one,  He played left back for Inter Milan, also for Italy.  He ran up and down.  At this time football was a very static game:  a defender was a defender; a midfielder a midfielder; and a forward was a forward.  Then he started to set this example.  he scored a lot of goals.  I said to myself:  “What he can do on the left side I can do much better because I am in the middle.  I can go left, or I can go right.”

(Backpass magazine, issue 12, summer 2010 – interview with David Owen)

In his book, “Franz Beckenbauer’s Soccer Power”, Beckenbauer expands on the role:

“I liked my role as the free man of both the defense and the offense, and I played the role the way I interpreted it.  I can best describe the sweeper’s assignments by putting them into five different categories:

1. To direct the defense and help your teammates to do their job by calling instructions to them.  As the last man in front of your own goalkeeper, you have the opportunity to see the total field and are able to recognize soonest the opponents’ plans as well as the development of their attack.

2. To intercept lead passes that the positioned attacker has his back to.

3. To cover for teammates.  If one of them is beaten by an opponent, you step in immediately.

4. To cover any opposition player who is free near your goal and not covered.

5. When the sweeper has control of the ball he immediately becomes an offensive player and participates in the attack.

The sweeper directs the traffic.  Above all, he must keep a clear head.  All defenders must know clearly what has to be done.  That is the responsibility of the sweeper, who is the Field General”

(Franz Beckenbauer’s Soccer Power, Simon and Schuster, 1978)

(Watching all these liberos, one thing you notice is that in great football sides, where possession is usually reasonably controlled, a team can (or at least could) easily afford to have a centre-back go wandering.   In all the games I saw for this project I can’t remember a centre-back getting caught upfield and a goal being conceded as a result.  True, I have a high proportion of great sides, and in lesser teams a vacant centre-back would presumably be lethal, but it must be stressed that the majority of many sweepers’ contributions were with the ball.  Yes, they needed to hold position in defence, but last ditch tackles and interceptions were the exception and a ballplaying defender in a good team surely makes more positive contributions than does a stationary stopper, whose overall involvement is likely to be limited.   I wonder why modern teams don’t see it this way (or perhaps the use of attacking full-backs is a sensible compromise towards the same goal).)

Enough – on with the show:

Franz Beckenbauer was nicknamed “Der Kaiser” but even that is probably underselling him.  I watched a few Bayern Munich games from the early 70s and some West Germany matches from the 1974 World Cup, and the man was unbelievable.  Perhaps it’s the way the balls are made, but these days you just never see a player nonchalantly flick a 30 yard aerial pass to the wing with the outside of his boot.  Beckenbauer always seemed to be doing that.   As you can see from the diagram below, he was everywhere on a football pitch; he had a supporting cast that was prepared to work with him on this, and his teams were so good that his raids never seemed to cause problems for his defensive colleagues.   Amazing.   One other thing that occurred to me: he never seemed to pass back to the goalkeeper (you could, back then), even when it looked like a good, safe option.

Franz Beckenbauer, Bayern Munich 1 Atletico Madrid 1, 15.05.74, Heysel Stadium, Brussels, European Cup Final

c= clearance, b=block, t=tackle, i=interception, x=misplaced pass, s=shot, !=goal/assist

While every care has been taken over their production, all diagrams are representations rather than factual accounts. Some passes may have been missed, inaccurately recorded, or attributed to the wrong person altogether.   All of these games were watched early in the morning.

Daniel Passarella was the most unpredictable player I saw.  He could play football, but wasn’t afraid to lump it either: in the first game I watched him play (v Italy in 1982) he made three hoofed clearances before his first pass to a teammate.   He was a huge threat from corners, and took his team’s attacking free-kicks (he scored from one of these in another game I saw, in the 1978 World Cup).   Against this, he was caught upfield when Marco Tardelli opened the scoring in this match, and eventually seemed to be playing pretty much wherever he wanted to.  He also committed several fouls that would be considered cardworthy today.

Daniel Passarella, Italy 2 Argentina 1, 29.06.82, Estadio Sarriá, Barcelona, World Cup Group C

Italian fans love Gaetano Scirea, and it’s easy to see why from the tapes.  Just as Beckenbauer’s excellence was supplemented by an unusual grace in possession, so too did Scirea have a certain otherworldliness about him.   I watched him in 1982 and his work was a bit more conventional than that of Beckenbauer and Passerella, but then look who popped up in the West Germany area to set up a goal in the final.   There was another surge up the left flank that surprised me.  He often took the ball short from the goalkeeper, building attacks from the back.  Against this, while he was rarely out of position, he didn’t seem to do all that much defending, which may be down to the quality of his teammates:  Claudio Gentile, for example, was great fun to watch, and gave Diego Maradona a hiding in the Italy v Argentina game, dominating him by fair means and foul.   Note that he almost never gave the ball away.

Gaetano Scirea, West Germany 3 Italy 1, 11.07.82, Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid, World Cup Final


Jose Luis Brown only played in the 1986 Argentina side because Passarella couldn’t make it, and here we see a much more functional approach to playing the position.  Brown was an old fashioned stopper, and might reasonably have surmised that given the quality of his teammates, there was no point in him trying to do much with the ball.  So he didn’t, winning it, clearing it, keeping it simple.  He cleaned out Peter Reid at one point in the England game, showing off that Argentinian steel; against Uruguay he made a fine Bobby Moore-style tackle, showing off that Argentinian class.

Jose Luis Brown, Argentina 2 England 1, 22.06.86, Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, World Cup Quarter Final

Matthias Sammer must have watched a lot of Beckenbauer at some point in his life, because the similarities are uncanny.  Sammer was more or less a deep-lying playmaker, and for long phases of games it seemed like every German possession had to go through him (even when he wasn’t in space).   He – like Beckenbauer – was well covered by sensible team-mates, but in the games I saw seemed more adventurous in his runs, if not in his passing (I kept making notes about how hard he was to pick up: at one point I was recording a pass he’d made in the centre-circle, then looked up to see him in the penalty area seconds later).   In Euro ’96 he was outstanding, and it’s surprising that this wasn’t more influential:  how many players tried to play like Sammer after the tournament?

Matthias Sammer, Germany 3 Russia 0, 16.06.96, Old Trafford, Manchester, Euro 96, Group C

Traianos Dellas completes the set, and shows again that there is more than one way to skin a cat.  If I may extend and twist an already bad metaphor, if Beckenbauer skinned his cat with sharp precision instruments, Dellas flayed his with a baseball bat.  The results were far from pretty, but given the way the 2004 tournament ended, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t effective.   Much of Dellas’ passing is of the “away!” variety, but he was presumably only doing what he was told, clearing the danger, allowing his team to regain its shape and repel another attack (which is not to say that nobody in that Greece team could play, but Dellas didn’t really try to).

Traianos Dellas, Greece 1 France 0, 25.06.04, Estádio José Alvalade, Lisbon, Euro 04 Quarter Final

I skewed this list by selecting players from good teams, so even the more defensive players here didn’t have to do all that much defending.  However, it’s instructive to see how these players varied in their approach to playing a position.  The idea of a gifted player attacking from (very) deep is an appealing one, and in some ways is similar to what Barcelona now do with Dani Alves, who is to right-backs of today what Beckenbauer and Sammer were to centre-backs of theirs (although both did frequently play in midfield).  Equally, it’s not hard to imagine someone like Daniel Agger or David Luiz playing a Beckenbauer type role, and certainly both resemble Scirea in style.  We may not see much of them in the future, but the sweepers of the past are an interesting bunch and worth our attention.

10 thoughts on “Chalkboarding the past: liberos

  1. At what stage are your thoughts on a player, memory or embellishment based on heresay?. For example Johnny Haynes,no doubt, our greatest player, but a player I saw late in his career.He was the Man,no doubt, but not the player he was before the car crash. Yet the the times I saw him and coupled with so much affection make me remember a colossus of the game, yet when I look at video of Haynes in that period, he seems to be having an off day. Duncan Edwards is another, a man, described by Charlton as the best ever. One of my business contacts saw Edwards and remembers a man blessed with talent, who ran the game, made numerous tackles and blocks , scored a couple of goals and was in a different league to everyone around him, yet calculation of the young fans age at that time would put him at 8 years of age. Bobby Moore, unquestionably the best defender I ever saw in the flesh, the man who on screen(against Brazil in 1970) played the perfect game, yet in a Fulham game against Chelsea (that I recently saw on youtube) he looked very ordinary.The mere thought of these 3 players playing for England in 62 (If the Munich Air Crash had not happened)and winning the World Cup 4 years earlier is something that I think about often, yet I know that is something that resides in my imagination, of that I am sure. They were all great players, but did I ever see them at their best? or is my memory being kind.?

  2. As discussed earlier on Twitter I think this is a great piece of work. Very impressed with the effort you must have taken to put it together.

    Fascinating to see the difference between players here.

    Those misplaced passes from Beckenbauer all back towards his own goal and mostly quite long. Why was he doing that?

    Passarella makes something like 8 misplaced passes all towards his own goal.

    I guess this is partly down to both players looking for that killer pass and maybe only sending those “home” balls when they’re under pressure.

    Smashing stuff anyway, keep going I can smell a book here!

    1. sorry, they’re not clear enough. The misplaced passes aren’t towards the goal, the ‘x’ is where they ended up. Woops! I couldn’t be arsed to go through them all putting arrow heads on. PErhaps I should have!

  3. Thanks for putting in the time, Rich. I hope the enjoyment you got from watching the games was worth the late nights.
    Liberos never caught on in England, did they? I remember Glenn Roeder was one of the few practitioners. And does Mark Wright in the last few matches of England’s 1990 World Cup count?

    And a chalkboard can never show the beauty of “a 30 yard aerial pass to the wing with the outside of his boot.” – although I can see they do have their value.

  4. Rich,

    Can’t believe I just got to this today. This is a phenomenal piece of informative and analytical journalism that, likely, should’ve been published. How many hours did you spend watching matches and graphing to put this together?

  5. Baresi-what about BARESI, WHAT ABOUT BARESI…how can you write an article on liberos and leave the best one out ??? How ????

  6. Sorry to be so late to the party; I must drop in here more often. About sweepers:
    1. They basically died once GKs couldn’t pick up a back pass any more. 90% of what a sweeper BEHIND the back four did, GKs do now. As for the sweeper IN FRONT of the back four, we still have them. We just call them defensive mids.
    2. As for never quite catching on in England, the coach on my last English pub-side team wanted me to pay libero. He thought my understanding of the game balanced out my dwindling pace — which was never much in the first place.

    As for Beckenbbauer:
    I saw him play many times, including in the flesh, and he is one of the very few players I’ve seen who wasn’t oversold despite the acres of rapturous prose devoted to him. Johann Cruyff is the only other who didn’t disappoint when I saw him in person. It’s generally a given that Alf Ramsey’s contribution to England losing the 1970 World Cup was his GK shift, but many have written that it was really his decision to sub off Bobby Charlton at the half. The West German coach was so terrified of Charlton that he told Beckenbaur to forget his game and just mark Bobby out of the match. He did so but, in the meantime, marginalized his contribution to the West German team. Once freed of defending Charlton, Beckenbauer went back to his old role and orchestrated England’s demolition. A brilliant player.

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