Tactical Tale | Tactical Tale of Helenio Herrera

Touted as one of the best coaches of all time, Helenio Herrera is synonymous with the term “Catenaccio”. The tactics, used by Herrera as a manager especially at Inter Milan between the years 1960 and 1968, are considered to be notorious, negative and cynical by many even now. Serie A is considered predominantly as a league that focuses on defense till date and the basis for all that started off with Herrera’s Inter Milan. While he may have not started the trend of playing pragmatic and defensive football, he definitely laid the foundations for its success which brought the widespread acclaim to such an approach.

The tactic of using extra men in defense was actually started by Karl Rappan in his time at Servette. He experimented with the tactics in a club which was fighting for its survival. In such a case it was necessary to bolster the defense. However, he later achieved great success with it when he implied the same during his time as the Swiss National Team coach in the 1930s. The idea did not get widespread acclaim right then and was used sparsely here and there. It was not until the early 60’s did Catenaccio take center stage as an out and out philosophy or model of playing football.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Herrera who initially brought the use of this idea to Italy. Rather it was the Salernitana manager, Giuseppe Viani who achieved success of some sort using such tactics after having overseen his side to a promotion. This inspired others especially Nero Rocco to use the system at AC Milan and they landed the European Cup under him in 1963. It was just delaying the inevitable as La Grande Inter became the hottest topic in and around Europe for the next few years to come. Catenaccio would become legendary and definitely never to be forgotten.

Helenio Herrera was the first of many things. Herrera introduced the idea of collecting credits for the team’s performance. The Italian club achieved tremendous accolades under the Argentine manager and was termed “Grande Inter”. Herbert Chapman, inventor of the W-M and Karl Rappan along with Herrera became the most notable persons in the field of football tactics in the early stages of the game’s history. Herrera’s Grande Inter became the first defining era of football as they were the first of the line in which Sacchi’s Milan, Pep’s Barca and other such dominating eras which came through.

“I’ve been accused of being tyrannical and completely ruthless with my players.”

According to the famous book from Jonathan Wilson “Inverting the Pyramid”, Helenio had quoted the above. Often he was criticized of pushing his players to an extent where he would do anything to achieve success. Hererra was a pure pragmatist and was very practical about things that were supposed to happen and how he could change it to achieve the most beneficial result out of it for him and his side.  The players though were very much devoted to Herrera’s words and believed in his theoretical ideas. After landing the first Scudetto with Inter Milan the players, who were a bit lacking in language proficiency, happily called him “Signor Mr”.

He said, “But I merely implemented things that were later copied by every single club: hard work, perfectionism, physical training, diets, and three days of concentration before every game.” Herrera was a disciplined man according to his daughter. His mornings would start with yoga and his food was mostly limited to parmesan and olive oil.

During his Barcelona days, Herrera found a book on ‘mysticism’ which contained details about the physical exercises from the 16th century. This gave him the idea of football retreats. As mentioned earlier, Herrera became the first of something again when he introduced these retreats in football. For the first time in the history of football players were sent for relaxing their time in green, serene places to attain peace within them. They were encouraged to be in silent spaces, think from the inside, studying tactics and leading a solemn life.

The ideas of spending holidays as a team and the rehabilitation programs after injuries or slump in form have branched from the tree for which the seeds were sown by Helenio Herrera to his Barcelona side in 1959. In the next year, Herrera took charge of Inter and the rest is history they say. His defensive counter attacking was highly criticised and was not appreciated for the way his Inter side was able to create and occupy spaces brilliantly in the opposition territory during counters.

“Who doesn’t give it all, gives nothing.”

Herrera was obsessed with the mentality of the players and everyone involved with the team. He wanted everyone to give everything. Positive and winning mentality was of more importance to Helenio Herrera. Even in press conferences, the players were not allowed to express how they felt rather they were encouraged to deliver positive messages to the media. They would be fined if they had deviated from the script. As said earlier, the players’ diets were carefully watched and controlled.

On the training field, Herrera was the first manager to deviate from the previous methods. He brought in drills and exercises no one had ever dreamt of before. He had a vision which none ever had before. He talked about his philosophy during the drills and explains about lightning quick attacks from the deep and about the value of overlapping full backs. The players were well drilled athletes, clean living and open minded as stated by the book, Road to Lisbon: A Novel.

Herrera was even the first manager to motivate his players like no other. He would pin motivational quotes and phrases in the walls of the dressing room and made sure that it was easily visible for everyone.

“Fighting or playing? Fighting and playing.”

“He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team, plays for himself.”

Herrera’s style at Barcelona was scintillating and it spoke of his self-confidence. He deployed inside forwards in the wide midfield areas which gave them the creativity in midfield. In the 1958-59 season, Barcelona had won the league by four points under the Argentine amassing 96 goals in 30 games. In the next season, Herrera won his second league title with Barca only on goal difference however he lost the European Competition to Real Madrid as they were thrashed for an aggregate of 6-2. This made the powers of Barcelona to sack him and the destiny happened that he chose Inter which was a lucrative offer of the lot.

The tactics at Inter was very rigid and precise at the same tie to say the least. The players would defend deep and once the defenders win the ball, the ball would be played to Jair who would bomb up in the right channel or to Suarez who was the conductor of the orchestra. Suarez was adept at finding the players in the wide areas. Corso and Mazzola often were deployed behind the striker. Picchi was the libero of the team, the deep lying free centre back. The positioning of the libero is more free and fluid when compared to other defenders as he was the last man before Sarti’s goal.

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Facchetti was one of the key players of the Grande Inter squad he was the one who supported Herrera when many accused the Argentine gaffer of negativity. “I invented Catennacio. The problem is that most of the ones who copied me, copied me wrongly. They forgot to include the attacking principles that my Catennacio included.”

There were tweaks in the team here and there whenever a player got injured or there was a change in approach. The change in philosophy though was never to be seen. Herrera’s team proved their doubters wrong and played as well as achieved accolades and none were able to question them. They won the Serie A in 1963, 1964 and 1966 and two consecutive European Championships in the years 1964 and 1965.

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The breakdown of the tactics of Grande Inter mainly revolved around the following factors:

1. The Libero – Picchi

2. High Flying Side Back – Facchetti

3. The Dynamic wingers – Jair & Corso

4. The Stereotypical Number 10 – Suarez

Picchi

Picchi, the player who taught everyone the Libero role, was the back bone of the Catennacio performed by La Grande Inter. Their collective defensive performances provided attacking players the platform to be ruthless in attacks. Picchi can be termed in many ways as the sweeper or libero, he is the one who stands for the term ‘bolt’. Use of the bolt meant that the attacking centre half was retained however the wing halves were withdrawn into the defensive line. The centre half remained as the attacking focal point in the team and it was Luis Suarez in most occasions.

Though Picchi lacked flair, he made sure that his Goal Keeper was left undisturbed with his positional discipline. According to Kenneth Wolstenholme, the author of The Pros, “If a player got beyond the line of four backs, either by dribbling his way there or by creating space with one-two passing movement with a colleague, he would be confronted by Picchi. Any player who ran through to pick up a long pass would be confronted by … Picchi. Any high lob or centre which was floated into the Inter Milan goalmouth would be picked off by … Picchi.”

Facchetti

Often recognized as the first attacking full back of his kind, Giacinto Facchetti is one of the best players Italy has ever produced. He showed pieces of brilliance in the game and what defenders could do than just defend. The full backs of that era and before that were constrained to a specific zone and were just asked to play the ball to the forward players. Maybe the first defender to ever have possessed the skills to push forward, it should be said that Herrera utilized him brilliantly.

Armando Picchi, captain of the Internazionale or Inter football team, celebrates his team’s win in the World Club Championship at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid, 26th September 1964. Holding the cup is teammate Giacinto Facchetti.

Facchetti was a winger initially in his career before Herrera made Facchetti  undergo his metamorphosis. His attacking instincts and the goal scoring exploits up front were down to his being a winger in the former parts of his career. Facchetti’s irrefutable work rate and his desire to work for the team were valued above his technical skill set and this made Herrera convert him into the wing back he would envision Facchetti to be. The ideal high flying side back in his master plan.

On Facchetti, Herrera said, I had Picchi as sweeper, yes, but I also had Facchetti, the first full back to score as many goals as a forward.

Jair & Corso

“In attack, all the players know what I wanted: vertical football at great speed, with no more than three passes to get to the opponent’s box. If you lose the ball playing vertically, it’s not a problem—but lose it laterally and you pay with a goal.”

Jair da Costa was an attacking Brazilian winger who was capable of playing as a second striker when his team needed. He was an extremely fast express on the right, possessing brilliant technique. He was also known for his amazing striking ability. He was a brilliant specimen of a winger and very successful for Inter. He spent two stints and the first was under Helenio Herrera. In the 119 appearances for Grande Inter, the Brazilian scored 39 goals.

Mario Corso on the other hand spent most of his entire career for the Black and Blues. Akin to Jair, Corso was lightning fast on the flanks with pace on the ball. He being a left footer was renowned for his astute passing and ability to distribute the ball. He was able to play in both the flanks however his crossing ability from a stronger left foot limited him to left flank in most occasions. However some of his traits were not similar to his wing partner. Jair was a typical winger whereas Corso wasn’t. The Italian is known for his ability to give him a free role and played between the lines. His left foot earned him the nick name “God’s Left Foot” as his stronger foot was very deadly. He was also a very good free kick taker especially his bending knuckle-ball free kicks.

Luis Suarez

“There have been truly great players who have never won that award. It’s not that big a deal.”

Suarez on the Balon d’Or

Luis Suarez is remembered for a variety of purposes. The only Spaniard to win the Ballon D’Or till date, he was the catapult of the La Grande Inter side.

Nicknamed as the ‘Architect’, Suarez was at the centre of things for the Black and Blues. He was utilized as an attacking player/ inside forward at Barcelona but upon his arrival to Inter, Helenio had different ideas. Herrera pulled him back and deployed him as the deep lying play maker. He had the vision to find players wide and in front of him. His wide range of passing and skills on the ball made him pivotal in Herrera’s plans.

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Herrera’s La Grande had negated almost all the vulnerabilities as a defensive unit and were brilliant on the counters. The versions which came later were never equal to what Herrera’s team had used. However the centre of the defense was often a problem when they faced an attacking team and it proved costly when the Scottish Club Celtic beat Inter in the 1967 European Cup Final and showed the world that an attacking side can find its way past a defensive team.

Legacy:

Despite the great success Herrera achieved with his Inter side, there was a sour feeling amidst all that. Jock Stein’s Celtic ended Inter’s supremacy in Europe in the 67’ final with Bill Shankly famously quoting that football won that day. Inter were brilliant on the pitch no doubt, but it was not without its fair share of misdemeanors off the pitch. Reports of vandalism, hooliganism and bribery were always prevalent when Inter played. Their opponents were never allowed to sleep and rest peacefully in their hotels before the match days while there were numerous reports of favoritism in the refereeing.

Rash fouls went unnoticed on the pitch while the levels of obsession amongst his players grew to such an extent that many of them threw up before the 67’ final match against Celtic. It was said that Armando Picchi asked the goalkeeper Sarti to let the ball go in after a point during the match claiming that it was pointless to keep defending and Celtic would eventually score. The players were left in disbelief that Picchi himself was saying this but that was the mental agony that the players had to undergo in order to comply with the demands of Helenio Herrera.

He left Inter to coach Rome after that season and it was hard to find a stellar period thereafter. In the later stages of his life, Herrera involved himself in journalism and started writing for Newspapers. He could never replicate the same levels of success due to the demands and the concentration that went into creating such a model. Even at Inter, as was prevalent in the match against Celtic, Inter declined and this was down to the methodologies adopted by the Argentinian. The fact that the players were not allowed to see anyone else other than their teammates in between the matches was counter effective after a point. The nervousness and the tension it built before the matches would be unbearable even for the strongest of the players.

Such blips should not and cannot take away the success and the greatness achieved by Helenio Herrera. He left a legacy which could not be mirrored by anyone and in doing so he left an identity for football and its culture not just in Italy but to all parts of the world and it was justified when Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan won the treble with a similar sort of philosophy. Many may misunderstand his ideas and mistake his philosophy, but he was a very different kind of a manager and the first of his kind. In La Grande Inter, the Franco-Argentine not only created a dominating team but also a team which revolutionized the game. Helenio Herrera is one of those souls which can never be paralleled and the man is rightly one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Saiguhan Elancheran

Saiguhan Elancheran

Co-Founder and Manager here. An ardent Manchester City fan. Loves Pep Guardiola as well as Mourinho, with an affinity towards defensively brilliant teams. Idolizes Julian Nagelsmann.
Saiguhan Elancheran