Extremis mali extrema remedia is a Latin proverb with a correspondence in both English and Italian. The fielding of Daniele De Rossi in central defence indeed seemed like a desperate measure called for by desperate times. And yet, as is sometimes the case, the solution thought for the crisis turned out to be optimal, as De Rossi put in a superlative performance against Spain this Sunday.
A great deal of debate has surrounded this choice, especially in the aftermath of the game. One of the discursive threads has regarded whether De Rossi’s new positioning suggests a rebirth of the defensive role of the libero, an old position that is now a football archaism. This article means to examine the plausibility of these suggestions by briefly considering the history of the role and by comparing it to De Rossi’s present game.
The word libero means ‘free,’ and it is an abbreviation of battitore libero, meaning ‘free kicker.’ It denotes a particular type of defender playing in the space between the keeper and the central defence. From this position, the libero acts as a sort of last line of defence, keeping an eye on those strikers who free themselves of the man-marking. His play is unconstrained by the usual requirements of clamping down a specific opponent, and he is free to play wherever he deems necessary (hence the title). His privileged viewing point makes him adept at directing the rest of the defence, and traditional liberi (the Italian plural is liberi, not liberos, which sounds Spanish) have developed strong skills of leadership and distribution of the ball.
The role of the libero was first employed in the thirties, by Austrian coach Karlo Rappan, as part of a potent defensive system that he organised around this role. The French named this system verrou, meaning ‘lock,’ and this is the tactical and semantic precursor of Italian catenaccio (‘bad chain’). Rappan managed to take the modest Swiss team to the quarter-finals of the 1938 World Cup, but his system only became popular once it was picked up by the Italians. The coaches most directly responsible for the introduction of the catenaccio (and its cardinal role, the libero) in Italy were Nereo Rocco, with Triestina, and Gipo Viani, with Salernitana. The model spread quickly and became dominant in the fifties and sixties, leading to the success of such teams as Rocco’s own Milan and Helenio Herrera’s extraordinary Inter side. It was the beginning of the legend of Italian defence.
The decay of the libero corresponded with the rise of total football, which would be worth an article in and of itself. Though we do not have the space to also describe the anti-catenaccio system developed by the Dutch, it will suffice to say that emphasis shifted from man-marking to zonal marking, rendering the libero rather obsolete. Other systems involving the libero lived on for some time, culminating in quite possibly the greatest ever interpreters of the role, Gaetano Scirea for Juventus and Franco Baresi for Milan. Eventually, however, the need for a safety lock against failed man-marking became redundant once man-marking itself was abandoned, and the libero slowly vanished from the general football scene.
Fast-forward to 2012, and we find De Rossi in the middle of two central defenders, playing in a role which brings fond memories of Scirea and Baresi. Does this imply the resurgence of the libero? There are some clear similarities between the old role and De Rossi’s new style of play, the primary among these being the emphasis on game construction from a defensive position. De Rossi is not simply a central defender. He also acts as the mainspring of midfield play from the defence. In essence, he is a second playmaker, positioned further back. This is something in which Scirea and Baresi were also excellent.
But there are several reasons why we cannot talk of a genuine tactical resurgence of the libero. The first is that De Rossi, despite showing us a similar type of play coming forward, is not really in the position of a libero. The latter plays behind the main line of defence. De Rossi, by contrast, plays right in front of it. He is the first rather than the last defensive line. This is only natural, as playing behind the lines would keep any adversary striker onside when on the run, and the dangers of this are self-evident.
The second main reason is that in order to have someone play like De Rossi you need someone who plays like De Rossi, and this is very hard to find. The Roman mediano is a truly unique player, a well-rounded midfielder with a tremendous tactical awareness compounded with some exceptional defensive skills. If the role itself were to gain new blood on the Italian fields, you’d need a small generation of players like De Rossi, and this is not really plausible.
De Rossi covered an atypical role on Sunday, no doubt, but he acted more like a third central defender with extra midfield duties than like a back-lying libero. Granted, it was a fresh and interesting tactical solution, and it was certainly effective. But the question of whether it can be repeated or reproduced is already critical for la nazionale, as there is no-one to substitute the man should he be suspended or injured. If the national team has trouble finding players like this, imagine what it will be like for the clubs.