What is the libero position in football
The Libero(Italian for ‘free) in football is a term used for a player at the back essentially a “sweeper” who is asked to move horizontally across the defence and act as a safety net.
They say history repeats itself and it certainly applies for the beautiful game too.Our generation of football fans never got to see the Libero in action and half of them have never even heard of that position.Strange considering the fact that one of the greatest players to have ever kicked the ball was a highly accomplished sweeper-Franz Beckenbauer..
Origin of the Libero
The Libero was perfected by Italians especially with AC Milan’s success in the sixties.But it was an Austrian coach named Karl Rappan who first came up with the idea of playing three at the back so that one of them didn’t have any man marking to do and could sweep the balls which were played beyond the two center backs.Rappan’s philosphy when he was the manager of the Switzerland national team was that if you didn’t have the flair and creativity of say the brazillians then tactics and discipline becomes really important to you.If you cant score many goals then ensure that you dont concede many.This philosophy became the base of the notorious Italian system of Catenaccio.The Catenaccio‘s main aim was that to stifle the opponents and prevent them from scoring,so here the sweeper or the libero as it was known in Italy was more of a defensive player.He never really left his position and generally used to hoof long clearances down the pitch.
Many teams realized that the sweeper could do much more than just being the last line of defense.He was a free player,he didn’t have a player to mark so some coaches realized this potential and gave the sweeper the license to step into midfield when required.This changed the type of player required for this position,they had to be good with ball too combined with their defensive capabilities.Beckenbauer was a prime example of the second more attacking type of the Sweeper.He was comfortable with the ball at his feet and made runs deep into opposition territory.Beckenbauer clearly had extraordinary intelligence,as he could decide with atmost perfection on when to go forward and when to stay back and this was essential for a player in his position.His wonder goal against England in 1970 World Cup when trailing 2-0 suggested that this man was a perfect sweeper if ever there could be one.Whenever the sweeper made runs forward,the opposition was confused on who is supposed to track him and so the sweeper often managed to find space and time and someone like Beckenbauer could utilize this effectively.This was the time and age when the attacking sweeper was considered the most important position.But as the clock ticked,the coaches of the top teams realized that having an extra man at the back meant that you gave up space in some other area on the pitch and there began the demise of the attacking sweeper.The defensive sweeper lived on for some more time as teams lower down the leagues still needed to have an extra man at the back.
Modern football teams usually have a flat back four and much hasn’t changed,although we have seen many systems come and go usually the flat back four remained the same.The 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 are the most commonly used formations these days,and they only have a single player leading the line which leaves one of the center backs free without any marking to do.As Jonathan Wilson says,
[quote]The history of tactics is the history of the manipulation of space. Space is created – or emerges – for one player, and he begins to have a disproportionate influence on the game. Then a way is found to block him, and in turn space will appear somewhere else on the pitch.[/quote]
The 4-2-3-1 effectively counters any space available for the attacking players,the only player who is free and has time and space in this formation is the center back.So a ball playing center back could be the new libero in the modern game.Gerard Pique of Barcelona is a very good example,he is good with the ball and often goes into marauding runs down the pitch.
With most of the top European teams employing a holding midfielder(The Makelele role) who is just there to break down play and provide cover, the free center back will have the freedom to go forward. Van Gaal has converted Daley Blind to a center back for Manchester United because he wants his team to build play from the back. As more and more attacking players are being assigned defensive duties maybe the defensive players will be more of a threat in the days to come.Only time will tell whether the modern libero will be widespread phenomenon,but given the trend of 4-2-3-1,it is sure to be used.As the most defensive position in the team is likely to become an attacking outlet,maybe we will have an another “Inversion Of The Pyramid” as Jonathan Wilson calls it.
Note- This article has been updated multiple times since it was first published