The great myth of Italian soccer is the catenaccio – the door bolt strategy, where a powerful three man powerful defense, back up by an east-west ranging libero, shut the door on the opposing forwards. But coming into the 2014 World Cup, the catenaccio seems to be only a memory. Defense in Italy simply isn’t what it used to be.
Part of the change is not strategic at all. Italy simply no longer has the great defenders of the past. Even the recent past. Cannavaro, forty years old, has been playing in the Emirates for the past four years (code for retired). The fiery Materazzi is also forty, and also retired. Maldini, perhaps the greatest defender who ever lived, has of course been gone for years.
But it’s in large part a sign of shifting times. The emphasis is now up-pitch: Balotelli, Europe’s enfant terrible, and the burly Pablo Osvaldo will be spearheading a strong, even world-class offense. The defense can’t compare. It’s not bad, though. Maggio, the Napoli winger capped thirty three times for the Azzurri, will be worth watching. Barzagli of Juventus, veteran of the 2006 World Cup, will get the fans on their feet. Ranocchia of Inter merits mention, as does Milan’s fast, aggressive Ignazio Abate.
But of these four, only the youngest and least-known, Rannocchia, is a traditional Italian defender. Look at him. He’s tall and powerful, rather than light and speedy; a sharp tactician, he commands the near half of the pitch from his position right in front of the keeper, and seldom ventures out toward the half-way line. If not quite as Homeric a hero as Maldini, he’s certainly a player in the same vein.
Contrast Ranocchia with Abate. Abate is fast moving, daring, unconcerned with being a strict defender. His movements are much more north-south than Ranocchia’s. He’s as comfortable backing up the forwards and midfielders as tackling the opposition on his own side.
If the traditional Italian defender is a door bolt, Abate is willing to leave the door ajar if and when it suits him. Barzagli plays the same way: Antonio Conte, Juve’s much-beloved and much-reviled coach, prefers a light, three-man defensive line rather than the powerful, old style catenaccio. And Maggio seems particularly adverse to getting marooned on the back end of the pitch, and scores like a striker. Players like Ranocchia are increasingly a minority.
And it’s tempting to say that they have to be a minority. The style of play that has dominated international soccer is the opposite of the conservative catenaccio. Prefigured by Johan Cruyff in the 70s and perfected by the Spaniards, the modern style is loose, fluid, long-passing. Positions on the pitch have meant less and less over the years; the 21st century’s defender per excellence is Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos.
Ramos runs far and scores goals; both clever and powerful, he might appear anywhere on the pitch to pick up the ball, and only when he’s tackling some unfortunate forward on Madrid’s right flank do you remember that he is, at least in theory, a defender. Italy’s own Maggio is another such not-quite-defender; so is Ashley Cole, and Javier Zanetti, and countless others of this generation’s giants.
So perhaps the end of the catenaccio is not the end of Italian defensive prowess. Perhaps the great defenders that Italy has always produced are simply turning into midfielders. We mentioned Balotelli and Osvaldo above; the men in the midfield who follow them deserve mention: De Rossi, Florenzi, the stalwart Pirlo, Marchisio, Motta…. The talent has moved forward.
The old defense has adapted to a world dominated by managers like Mourinho and players like Ramos. The question now is whether catenaccio and solid Italian strategy can shift forward as well.