Franco Baresi is one of the first names to come to anybody’s mind when you mention the Libero (or sweeper) position, simply because he was the on-field general and symbol of Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side in the late 1980s; a side that arguably boasted one of the greatest defences of all time. Bearing in mind that the libero position seems to have all but died at the top level of European football, it perhaps seems a little farfetched to compare Sacchi, the man who utilised this position almost like no one else in modern day football, with Jose Mourinho, who many believe to be fairly rigid, conservative and conventional in his tactical systems. However, dig your snout just below the surface and you’ll soon begin to realise that the two aren’t as far apart in their ideals as you or I may first have first believed.
Whilst it is true that genuine Liberos are few and far between at present, there are growing murmurs that we are on the cusp of another period of free-moving, ball-playing central defenders being commonplace within the game. Gerard “Piquenbauer” Piqué’s free-roaming role this season at Barcelona can easily be used to demonstrate this, but Mourinho has been exploring the idea since the dawn of time…well, for a while anyway. At Porto and Chelsea, Ricardo Carvalho was afforded the freedom to charge merrily forward as he pleased, in the knowledge that he would have open space ahead of him and the protection of a defensive midfielder in behind. With a lot of defensive attention now being focused on restricting marauding full backs such as Maicon, Patrice Evra and Daniel Alves, Mourinho quickly recognised that there was room for central defenders to once again become an attacking influence in the game.
At Internazionale, however, he has taken the Sacchi influence to a whole new level. Christian Chivu was the first Inter player to operate in the ball-playing defensive role before Brazilian defender Lúcio was eventually signed to take over, presumably because of his extra pace and drive in possession, with Chivu moving out to left back. In a way, I see this as a tremendous tribute to Baresi, simply because Mourinho feels it takes two of his technically-gifted defenders to have the same sort of influence that Baresi did back in the 80s and early 90s, or at least that he’s really struggling to find the perfect player for that role. It is also worth noting that Inter are currently being strongly linked with Miguel Veloso from Sporting Clube De Portugal – a player who twenty years ago would almost undoubtedly have been used as a Libero, with his positional awareness, composed playing style, impressive vision and vast array of passing. Perhaps Mourinho believes he could develop into the perfect creative defender/sweeper.
The question is, though, why is it so important to the self-confessed special one (and Sacchi before him) for his defenders to influence football matches with the ball at their feet? The same answer applies to both managers – they want to physically dominate the midfield area. AC Milan primarily used Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit to aggressively press and overrun opposition midfields, which then allowed the likes of Baresi and Van Basten a greater level of freedom to dictate the flow of the game either side of the midfield. At Inter, it is the likes of Esteban Cambiasso, Thiago Motta, Dejan Stankovic, Javier Zanetti and Sulley Muntari who are expected to fulfil a similar pressing role when selected. It has often been a criticism of Mourinho that he’s too keen to sign big midfield destroyers in favour of the more cultured option, but there you have the clear reason for this – he feels there is very little need for them.
Ahead of such a physical, nullifying midfield, it is absolutely vital that the centre forward is able to hold the ball up and create chances out of very little. Van Basten was the ultimate prototype for modern centre forwards with incredible awareness, devastating power and a highly impressive knack of popping up with breathtaking volleys and drives from range. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Internazionale’s pride, talisman and inspiration until his recent move to Barcelona, seemed to fit that description almost down to the tee. He may be a player that divides opinion amongst many, but the way he carried Inter, at least domestically, cannot be denied even by the harshest of cynics. His basic attributes and abilities resemble those of Van Basten closely, whether he utilises them as effectively or not. In parallel to the task of matching Baresi’s influence with both Chivu and Lúcio, it’s taken not only the goalscoring efforts of Samuel Eto’o and in particular the highly impressive Diego Milito to replace Ibrahimovic, but also the creative influence of the Dutch playmaker behind them, Wesley Sneijder. Ibra was more than just a goalscorer – he was able to operate as a lone targetman, a playmaker or on-the-shoulder striker whenever required.
The similarities between Sacchi and Mourinho actually stretch beyond the tactics they implement, although these further similarities can still be linked to the systems as well. Just like Sacchi’s great team, Mourinho is now building an imperious, solid, consistent and highly stubborn side at Inter as they look set to stroll to another Serie A title despite the best efforts of an AC Milan side inspired by a revitalised Ronaldinho. Should Inter win the league again this year, and you have to imagine they will following their second comfortable win over their Milan rivals this season, they will have won five Serie A titles in a row – something which has only ever been achieved once before in Italy, by Carlo Carcano’s legendary Juventus side of the 1930s. This record has not been built on a foundation of dazzling free-flowing football, but rather the old Milanese mentality of “We shall not be beaten or intimidated”. Purists may not be convinced, but whilst Inter continue to win titles, the Nerazzurri following will be prepared to sacrifice attacking football as they gradually claw away at Juventus’ total of twenty seven Serie A titles (Inter currently have seventeen).
An especially interesting fact is that neither Sacchi nor Mourinho had particularly spectacular playing careers. In fact, they barely even scratched the surface of the world football scene, and you’d do well to even find someone outside of their respective home towns who can honestly claim to vividly remember them as footballers. Mourinho had a short, modest paying career in Portugal with Rio Ave (a club his father coached at the time), Belenenses and Sesimbra but never did he threaten to make a genuine impact at any of these clubs. Sacchi, meanwhile, had spent the majority of his playing days with Italian amateur side, Fusignano CF. Indeed; it is true that many of today’s top tacticians have come from pretty uninspiring playing backgrounds, from Sir Alex Ferguson to Guus Hiddink, and Unai Emery to Walter Mazzarri. The common theme is that these coaches are genuine students of the game, often with a solid education in the game outside of their playing career, and develop a passion for the deeper, more intricate side of football long before they even approach the typical retirement age for a footballer. To quote Sacchi himself, “A jockey doesn’t have to have been born a horse“.
The one key difference between the two coaches’ sides is the relative gulf in quality in key areas. Baresi to Lúcio, Van Basten to Ibrahimovic and perhaps to a lesser extend, Rijkaard to Cambiasso – whilst Mourinho employs players who fulfil similar roles, their inferior quality, particularly in midfield, is the one thing holding them back from regularly challenging for the European Cup. Their domestic record of late has been astonishing (in an admittedly troubled time for Italian football), but Inter aren’t yet the finished article by any means, and will have to continue to progress if people are to mention them in the same sentence as Sacchi’s great Milan side more often.
Photo credit: Joker_milanoo