Roberto Mancini won seven trophies in four years and Jose Mourinho notched five in two, but neither left a legacy at Internazionale that can match Helenio Herrera’s. A tactical innovator and a pioneer of motivational techniques, Herrera managed Inter on two separate occasions: it is his first spell, from 1960 to 1968, that he’s most fondly remembered for.
It took a couple of years for Herrera to fully impose himself on Inter. His first two seasons were trophy-less, but Herrera did guide the Nerazzurri to third and second-place Serie A finishes. Things really started to heat-up in 1962-63: Inter won Serie A for the first time in nine years thanks to a watertight defence that conceded just 20 goals in 34 games.
The best was yet to come, and Inter won back-to-back European Cups (and Intercontinental Cups) in 1964 and 1965 to establish themselves as the most dominant side in Europe. Herrera’s side won Serie A again in 1965 and 1966 and became known as La Grande Inter (“the Great Inter”): one of the peninsula’s greatest ever club sides.
But Herrera’s success wasn’t restricted to Inter. He was already a well-established coach before arriving in Milan, having already won Spanish league titles with Atletico Madrid in 1950 and 1951. Mixed spells with Malaga, Deportivo, Sevilla and Belenenses followed, but Herrera really came to prominence at Barcelona.
Joining the Catalans in 1958, Herrera won a league and cup double in his first season. Winning a second league title the following season, Barcelona also added the Fairs Cup (equivalent to today’s Europa League) to their trophy cabinet that season but Herrera’s tenure came to a premature end just a few months later. A disagreement with star player Ladislao Kubala, the Hungarian-born striker, lead to Herrera’s arrival in Italy.
Herrera enjoyed only moderate success after leaving Inter. He lead Roma to a 1969 Coppa Italia win and won the Spanish cup in 1981 during his second spell at Barca, but he never recaptured the magic of La Grande Inter. A heart attack in 1974 cut his return to Inter short, and a short spell with Rimini preceded his Catalonian return in 1979.
Born in Argentina to a Spanish mother and an exiled anarchist father, Herrera’s exact date of birth is unknown. It’s often accepted as April 10th, 1910, but some speculate that he changed his year of birth to 1916 sometime in the fifties. He was therefore either 87 or 81 when he passed away in 1997.
Managers weren’t given enough credit for their success before the sixties, but that La Grande Inter changed that. Previously managers had been seen as more of a guiding hand than genuine influences, with teams known more for their star players (a la “Di Stefano’s Real Madrid”). Herrera’s successes and innovations brought the manager’s role to the forefront for the first time.
If it wasn’t for Herrera’s Inter, we’d probably be referring to Messi’s Barcelona and Rooney’s Man United: Guardiola and Sir Alex would hardly get a mention.
There are plenty of reasons for this shift in credit. Herrera was one of the first managers to make extensive use of (then) advanced motivational techniques. Inter were so well drilled by their manager that, during training, they’d chant the slogans and sayings he often promoted. Some of his more famous quotes, like “who doesn’t give it all, gives nothing,” are still repeated today.
It might sound cheesy today, but this approach was seen as revolutionary back then. Billboards with mottos like “Class + Preparation + Intelligence + Athleticism = Championships” were plastered on billboards around the stadium and training ground. Herrera recognised the worth of a motivated squad, and his ability to inspire determination played a big part in his success.
He was big on togetherness and team spirit, often taking his players to remote, country hotels on Thursday nights to prepare for Saturday morning games. Also a promoter of self-discipline and clean living, Herrera regularly had club officials visiting players’ houses at night to make sure they were in bed and well-rested for the next day’s work.
Herrera made sure his players looked after themselves. Alcohol and cigarettes were strictly forbidden, and diets were controlled to ensure players were consuming the right balance of nutrients for optimum athletic performance. Herrera had no time for slackers: if you played for him you’d be a consummate professional, otherwise you’d be sent packing.
Aside from being an innovative man manager, Herrera also had a big impact on the game’s tactical evolution. He was a big proponent of catenaccio: one of the game’s most significant (and misunderstood) tactical developments, even if he didn’t invent the system himself.
Catenaccio was derived from the Swiss “verrou” (door-bolt) system, invented by Austrian manager Karl Rappan during his managerial spells with Servette and the Swiss national team in the thirties and forties.
Catenaccio's precursor, the Verrou.
The verrou’s shape looks highly unorthodox today. It relied heavily on collectiveness and workrate to compensate for Rappan’s amateur players’ lack of technical ability, and was a much more fluid system than the then-popular “WM” formation. It was one of the first systems to utilise a four-man defence, with the most significant role being that of the sweeper (“verrouilleur”).
In Rappan’s system the sweeper was a highly defensive. He was a support player who acted as the “security bolt” of the other three defenders. Sitting between the centre-back and goalkeeper, this player would “sweep up” the ball before it reached the goal. Some sweepers (like Franz Beckenbauer) became famous for driving forward and adding an offensive element to the role, but the verrou and catenaccio employed mostly defensive sweepers.
Nereo Rocca brought the system to Italy with Triestina in 1947, but it was popularised by Herrera in the sixties. Herrera tightened the formation to allow for more counter-attacks, and many long balls were played forward for Inter’s skilled forward to run onto. This isn’t to say that the midfield were bypassed, however, as Spanish playmaker Luis Suarez Miramontes played a big role in La Grande Inter’s success.
The verrou employed a mixture of zonal and man marking, but Herrera’s defenders were strictly man markers. Each stuck to an opposing attacker like glue and the sweeper (or “libero”) was free to mop-up any through-balls that eluded the defence. Armando Picchi was particularly effective in this role, and the Italian is typically seen as the blueprint for the liberos who followed.
Herrera’s version of catenaccio died with the advent of Rinus Michels’ Total Football in the 1970’s, but it left a huge mark on calcio. Focusing on defence has seen Italy produce some of the world’s greatest defenders in Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Claudio Gentile and countless others. It’s no coincidence that Italy hasn’t produced a defender of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta’s quality since the death of the libero in the nineties.
Catenaccio has had its share of critics over the years, and today the word is synonymous with hyper-defensive play and often accompanies the ludicrous term “anti-football”. Criticising catenaccio for its poor entertainment value is quite fair, but the system and its variations have brought great success to the Italian national team and various club teams over the years.
Smaller sides still employ catenaccio’s principles to grind-out results against bigger teams, and Otto Rehhagel’s Greece used it to great effect at Euro 2004. I’d rather watch attacking football most of the team, but defensive tactics can be used to great affect in certain circumstances.
That’s why I find “anti-football” such a nonsensical term. Defensive football (and catenaccio) is, in my opinion, a perfectly acceptable way to win. Of course everyone would like to play an expansive, possession-based game, but most teams lack the resources and personnel to play like Barcelona and Arsenal.
Look at England’s game with Spain last week. Fabio Capello conceded the battle for possession and employed a defensive, catenaccio-lite gameplan. They snuck a goal from a set piece and defended well to hold onto their lead. The performance has attracted plenty of neutral criticism, but England would have been slaughtered if they’d tried to match Spain for possession and been more attacking.
Pure catenaccio is dead, but the ideas behind the system live on, and for that we have Herrera and Rappan to be thankful. Sure it’s produced some turgid games over the years, but, in football, pragmatism usually topples idealism. Successful managers work with a system that suits their players: just look what happened when Gian Piero Gasperini tried to forcefully impose his philosophies on Inter this season.
Herrera might be known as a defensive tactician, but he had a winner’s mentality that rubbed-off on everyone he worked with. He once suspended a player for saying in an interview that “we (Inter) came to play in Rome,” instead of “we came to win in Rome.” That, if anything, should tell you all you need to know about Helenio Herrera.
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