There are very few eras in football history than can be summed up by simply combining a manager’s tenure at one club. ‘Pep’s Barca’ may be the most recent example of this, while ‘Sacchi’s Milan’ is another instance of a manager-club combination that just worked. These managers created a team that went beyond merely enjoying an impressive period of domestic success and became the standard-bearers of European football for a period of time.
Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale side of the mid-1960s is arguably the first team to become so successful and memorable. Prior to ‘Herrera’s Inter,’ not many coaches received the ‘box-office treatment’ or maybe even the appropriate amount of credit for their side’s success. It was only the star players often receiving the vast majority of the plaudits for a team’s success.
However, Herrera was a coach who would have settled for nothing less than star treatment. He left Barcelona in 1960, after leading the Catalan club to two-straight La Liga titles in addition to two Fairs Cups. He commanded a high wage upon arriving at the San Siro to take charge of Inter, a sign of the leading role that he would go on to take in the club’s near future.
Herrera’s Inter holds a special place in football’s history books for a variety of reasons. Firstly, just a quick look shows us how successful they were during Herrera’s tenure as the club’s manager. With that success, it may not come as a big surprise that this era of Inter’s history is arguably their most memorable.
The Milan-based side won three Scudetti – finishing in one of the Italian top-flight’s top two places for six years straight between the 1961/62 campaign and the 1966/67 campaign.
In addition to that, two of Inter’s three European Cup/UEFA Champions League triumphs came under Herrera. He guided them to European Cup glory in the 1963/64 season and the 1964/65 season. Furthermore, Inter also claimed the Intercontinental Cup in both 1964 and 1965.
The Argentina-born coach’s name is synonymous with the word ‘winner.’ Few personalities in football history have as many stories told about them which indicates a willingness to do whatever it takes and go to extreme lengths to secure victory, as Helenio Herrera did.
One of the ways in which the manager guided this Inter side to domestic and European glory was with his tactical ideas. This brings us onto the next reason that explains why Herrera’s Inter holds a special place in football’s history books – their prominent and notorious use of the ‘Catenaccio’ tactical system.
Catenaccio, an Italian word which translates to ‘bolt’ is a tactical system that was popularised at the highest level during the 1960s by Herrera’s side
The system had been around for decades prior to Inter adopting it in the 1960s. Its invention is generally credited to Karl Rappan – an Austrian coach, who first utilised a system that would form the basis of what would become known as ‘Catenaccio’ in the 1930s, during his time as player-coach of Swiss side Servette.
In order to try and gain an advantage over his opponents, Rappan turned away from the poplar 2-3-5 formation of the time, adapting it in an attempt to give his Servette side an advantage via numerical superiority in their defensive third of the pitch.
Rappan’s Servette side used a tactical system that was known as ‘Verrou,’ which is a French word, similar to Catenaccio, which also translates to ‘bolt’ or ‘lock’. This system saw the two wide half-backs that typically made up the ‘3’ in the 2-3-5 formation, drop back into a position similar to the one the full-back position in the modern game. As the wide half-backs dropped deep, the two inside forwards would also drop into what we would call a central midfield role. This created a midfield three alongside the centre-half or modern-day holding midfielder.
These alterations to the 2-3-5 created a back four, which would go on to become the most popular amount of players to sit in the defensive line. A back four formed the base of formations such as the 4-2-4, the 4-4-2, the 4-2-3-1, and the 4-3-3, the latter of which is the formation in the modern game which may have most closely resembled Rappan’s Verrou system.
Some key elements to this system that also carried over into the Catenaccio system was the significant attacking roles of the two wide half-backs. Despite their deeper positioning, one of the two traditional full-backs, who occupied a similar position to a modern-day centre-back, would act as the ‘stopper,’ while the other one would drop off slightly and perform a covering role.
These elements of the Verrou system were also key elements to Herrera’s Catenaccio system at Inter.
While the term Catenaccio undoubtedly has plenty of negative connotations to it with regard to a negative style of football, one of the most significant aspects of Herrera’s Catenaccio system was the significant offensive role that was played by left-back Giacinto Facchetti.
An attacker when Inter brought him to the club, Facchetti’s role in the attack was so pronounced under Herrera that he once hit double-figures for goals in a Serie A season. Not bad for a left-back.
In order to free up Facchetti to attack like this, Herrera had to sacrifice an attacking player in another part of the pitch. So, essentially, the manager started out with a back four system similar to the one that had been used by Rappan, with Facchetti and the more defensive-minded Tarcisio Burgnich lining up on either side of the central defender Aristide Guarneri. At the same time, defensive midfielder Gianfranco Bedin would perform a ‘screening’ role just in front of that defensive line, but still sitting quite deep, with his role out of possession somewhat resembling that of a slightly more advanced central defender.
Bedin would anchor the team’s midfield defensively and provide support in the right-sided position in between Guarneri and Burgnich in defence.
On top of that back four, Herrera then replaced one of the two advanced central midfielders with a ‘libero’. Their job was to sweep up behind Inter’s back four and essentially act as an additional safety, behind what was already a defensively solid outfit.
The captain of this Inter side, Armando Picchi, usually operated in this role and excelled in this position, thanks to his defensive acumen. From there, he could start off a lot of his side’s attacks and make use of his range of passing to aid the side.
As well as that though, even Picchi just positioning himself here behind the regular defensive line had a lot of attacking benefits for Inter. One of which was the addition of an extra safety net behind the defensive line. This allowed Herrera to get more creative and permit his left-back, the former forward Facchetti, to burst forward and attack at will in possession.
This was a key element to this Catenaccio system. While the addition of a Libero behind the defensive line does sound like a defensive switch at the expense of the team’s attack, all great teams have a balance between defence and attack. Herrera’s Inter was no different. For all of their defensive solidity, and they were known primarily for their ability to shut out opponents – conceding just 20 goals at what may have been their peak in the 1962/63 Serie A campaign- they would never have earned such a prominent place in the history books had they just been an incredibly difficult puzzle for the opposition to try and solve.
They also had to pose questions of their own in the attacking phase of the game. Herrera’s use of a marauding left-back in Facchetti was an excellent early example of how much of an effective attacking role a full-back could play. This was, of course, decades before the playmaking potential of the full-back would truly be realised in world football. While not many may have grown up wanting to be Gary Neville, it’s easy to see why many young Inter fans of the 1960s would’ve have idolised Facchetti.
Luis Suárez, who followed the legendary coach from Barcelona to Inter, lined up in the centre of midfield, where he could creatively pull the strings from a slightly deeper position, but with an undeniably attack-focused role.
Ahead of him, almost resembling the line of three that one would see lining up behind the centre-forward in a modern 4-2-3-1 system, was right-winger Jair da Costa, skilful left-winger Mario Corso, and attacking midfielder Sandro Mazzola, who played in offensive positions just behind Joaquín Peiró.
This 11 would go down as the most famous starting 11 of Herrera’s Inter and this was the side that dominated Europe helping Inter to win the first two European Cups of their history (they had to wait until 2010 for a third European Cup to join those two in their trophy cabinet, courtesy of a team led by José Mourinho.)
This team are generally credited as lining up in a 5-3-2 or even 5-4-1 shape out of possession. The attack-minded players placed just behind Peiró would track back and take their place in a patient defensive system, designed to draw the opposition out. This was so that they would leave enough space behind them when they inevitably lost possession, having failed to break down the Catenaccio-practitioners, and were subsequently on the receiving end of a fast-paced counter-attack.
However, this Inter side also had a lot of quality in it, so they wouldn’t always need to drop deep to lure the opposition out in order to start their attacks. This could lead to them showing a much more attacking side of their game than they are typically given credit for. The formation that they used could very easily transition into a 4-2-4, or even an early example of a modern 4-2-3-1. Neither of these are formations that are often associated with an offensive style of play, and certainly doesn’t align with the principles one associate with Catenaccio.
This simply demonstrates the versatility of this side. While Herrera’s Inter is infamous for some due to the perceived ‘negative’ style of play that it is often associated with, this team offered a lot to the tactical side of the game, via its use of the libero, its use of full-backs, and its adaptability.
The manager was undoubtedly aware of the importance of balance and while the team did boast impeccable defensive statistics at times, keeping goals out is only half of the job. You can only win games by scoring goals, which is something these two-time European Cup winners also knew a thing or two about.
One more thing that has to be mentioned when discussing Herrera and the influence and legacy of this historic Inter side; the way in which this team would set new standards in terms of training and running a football club like a regiment.
Herrera is often credited with being one of the first football coaches to make use of training camps, which are now a staple of a professional team’s preparation for the start of a season or for a particular game.
He is also credited with being a pioneer in terms of the focus that he placed on coaching. Not just the physical or technical side of the game, but also the mental side of his players’ game. For example, he is said to have plastered motivational quotes all around the dressing room, as a means of motivating his players not just to give all of their effort, but also to know where to apply that effort.
One of the famous quotes that Herrera is said to have been a fan of is: “He who plays for himself plays for the opposition, he who plays for the team plays for himself.” This quote shows us how important Herrera believed it to be to have 11 players all reading from the same page, as opposed to 11 individuals.
He ran a tight ship, planning any and every aspect of not just his players’ performance on the football pitch, but also their daily lives. He is said to have maintained tight control over his players’ diets, and this too has gone on to become the norm in the professional game.
The influence of Herrera and this Inter side was immense tactically but it goes beyond that. This coach and this team were pioneers in terms of training, and are crediting with popularising some of the methods that went on to become common-place in professional football.
It’s sometimes said that great teams tend to be representations of their coach in terms of personality and values. If so, then it may be fitting that this team’s legacy could be summed up by their willingness to innovate and their desire to win, regardless of how they had to play or how they had to train.
It was all about the end result for Herrera and his Inter side. Many of their contemporaries loathed them, and their perceived unwillingness to play football in the style that was generally deemed ‘acceptable’. However, there may be a simple beauty in the fact that they went to such great lengths in pursuit of victory, despite their ideals not entirely aligning with those typically promoted by advocates of the beautiful game.