Everyone with a modicum of football knowledge has heard of Catenaccio – the system synonymous with generations of Italian defenders. Yet very few remember its finest practitioner Armando Picchi, the man around whom the system of La Grande Inter was built. The first of the famous Liberos made an indelible mark on the game’s tactical history.
The memory of Picchi presents football historians with an obvious contradiction. Italian teams since the 1960s have been associated with a pragmatic, safety first approach to the game which was founded on the beauty of the 1-0 victory. Meanwhile individual Italians have long been seen as stylish exponents of the Beautiful Game. From Gaetano Scirea in the 1980s to Franco Baresi in the 1990s and Alessandro Nesta in the 2000s, the best Italian defenders have always personified the idea of La Bella Figura that dominates popular perceptions of Italy with their composure on the ball and trademark swagger.
Picchi though was different. He defined the Libero role in the team which created the legend of Catenaccio, and yet this was no ordinary team, no ordinary Italian defence. He was an atypical Libero in an atypical team. For while Inter are forever remembered as a primarily defensive side, the truth was that their defensive brilliance was a platform for a host of attacking stars to shine. Picchi meanwhile was far from fitting the image of the classical Libero in his style of play.
The ideas of Catenaccio started in Switzerland. With the rest of Europe making clear tactical progress the Swiss designed a system to get the very best out of more limited players. The man that came up with the plan, Karl Rappan, was not actually Swiss himself but Austrian and the system he created became known as the Verrou (or “the bolt” in English).
Both the pyramid formation (2-3-5) and the WM (3-2-2-3) which had been dominant through the footballing world since the 1880s had obvious defensive frailties. Rappan’s bolt aimed to combine the best of both formations and provide greater defensive strength which would suit his more limited players. The bolt retained the use of an attacking centre-half which had been the cornerstone of the pyramid, but withdrew the wing-halves into the defensive line. This allowed the centre-half (who had been forced into a defensive role in the WM) to remain as the playmaker and organiser of the team.
Rather than playing a flat-back four as in the modern game, Rappan asked his central defenders to line up behind each other, so that as one went to challenge for the ball the other would be in place to act as a spare man (or Libero in Italian). This “sweeper” would then be well placed to deal with any second balls or to act as a second line of defence if his partner failed to win his challenge.
Helenio Herrera was not the first manager to use a system derived from the Verrou, but his Inter Milan team were certainly its most famous exponents. While both Gipo Viani of Salernitana and Nereo Rocco, first at Triestina and then with AC Milan, could lay claim to being the godfathers of Catenaccio in Serie A, it is the Argentine-born Herrera that remains inextricably linked with the system.
The side that Herrera developed in Milan was special in a number of respects. The link between midfield and attack in particular stood out, with the combination play between Luisito Suarez and Sandro Mazzola the key to so many goals. Mario Corso and Jair were a sublime pair of wingers, who despite suggestions of inconsistency were capable of turning the tightest game. Giacinto Facchetti could lay claim to being the first attacking full-back in the modern sense as he rampaged down the left touchline.
Yet the foundation of the team’s greatness was unquestionably the defence. When Herrera won his first Scudetto in 1962-3 both Bologna and Roma scored more goals than Inter, but they finished fourth and fifth respectively due to leaky defences. Inter’s was watertight. That in turn provided the security for the team to include the likes of Corso, Mazzola and Suarez whose genius necessitated a protective shield in the backline.
The man that this defensive solidity was founded upon was Picchi. While he might have lacked much of the grace which defined later Italian defenders he made up for it with positional discipline and a sense of anticipation that allowed him to pick off opposition attacks before they could trouble keeper Giuliano Sarti. Whereas most teams required the goalkeeper to act as the last line of defence, Inter had Picchi in position to mop up any potential threats.
As Kenneth Wolstenholme wrote in 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.” Indeed it seemed at times, such as in 1963 when Inter held Everton to a goalless draw at Goodison Park, that Picchi was everywhere in the defence and that the Inter fortifications were impenetrable.
Real Madrid were in something of a transitional phase by the time that they faced Inter in the European Cup final of 1963-4. Although Di Stefano and Puskas remained, they were both 37 and the Ye-yé team that would win the 1966 edition was yet to emerge. They did though know how to score goals, having hit 83 of them in winning the 1962-3 La Liga title, while Puskas and Di Stefano had 12 between them in the European Cup prior to the 1964 final. In that game in Vienna, Inter strangled the Madrid attacks at source but when threats did arise Picchi was there to snuff them out. By the time that Felo netted for Madrid to make the score 3-1 there was never any hope of a Madrid fightback. The team that had put seven past Eintracht Frankfurt four years earlier was nullified.
The following season Inter triumphed again in a match that perhaps epitomised Herrera’s approach while in Milan. Played against Benfica, the European Champions of 1961 and 1962, Inter took the lead through Brazilian winger Jair after 42 minutes and then proceeded to shut the Portuguese side out with ruthless efficiency. A team that had been rampant against Real Madrid in the 1962 final (arguably the finest club match ever played) were forced to live on scraps and Picchi did not allow them any chances.
While Inter’s 1967 European Cup final defeat against Celtic has been hailed in Britain as a triumph for attacking football (Bill Shankly whose Liverpool team had suffered some rough justice at the hands of Inter in the 1965 semi-finals famously told Jock Stein “John, you’re immortal now” in recognition of the achievement), it also underlined the fallibility of the Inter system under pressure from numerous attackers. Celtic’s full-backs, Craig and Gemmell, both attacked with the brio of Facchetti in his prime and while it seemed for a time that Inter might hold out, the sustained ferocity of Celtic’s forays forward left an unbearable burden on the Libero. Picchi dealt with wave after wave of attacks but he could not sweep up after so many attackers.
That match marked the beginning of the end for Inter, Herrera and Picchi. Following that defeat Inter began to disintegrate and Picchi moved to Varese in late 1967. The following summer after finishing fifth in the league Herrera left for Roma. La Grande Inter was no more.
Picchi though had marked himself out as the defining Libero for the combination of attributes that he brought to the role. Criminally underused by Italy, he won only 12 caps for the national side and was sorely missed in the catastrophic 1966 World Cup campaign, Picchi did enough in his club career to leave an enduring legacy. While the 1970s saw central defenders effectively split into elegant sweepers such as Franz Beckenbauer and hardened stoppers such as Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Picchi was an amalgam of the two, the first and effectively the only stopper-sweeper.
What made him such a fine player of his type was his love of defending coupled with the patience to stay in position throughout a match. Many players in a team as dominating as Inter might have been tempted to venture forward in order to get more involved. Picchi was aware of where his strengths lay and was content to serve the team by providing the platform from which they could launch their attacks. Brian Glanville in Champions of Europe recalled Picchi’s unstinting will to win and how, when playing in a casual game in Battersea Park, he had berated a friend for his constant errors on the wing. This desire to be the best, coupled with a love of clean sheets, made Picchi the ideal man to be Herrera’s voice on the pitch.