Gaelic football can learn from the way catenaccio was prised open

The legendary Italian football journalist Gianni Brera, regarded as the chief propagandist for the notorious catenaccio system of defensive play, once wrote that “the perfect match would end 0-0”. 

He died in 1992, but perhaps if he were alive today La Gazzetta Dello Sport would have a healthy section devoted to Gaelic football.

So much about modern Gaelic football, and the debate which has led to experimental rules changes being sanctioned this week, brings to mind the philosophical trauma wreaked on 20th century soccer by catenaccio. 

The idea of an ultra-defensive game-plan which attempts to lure opposing teams forward only to counter-attack swiftly — basically modern Gaelic football in a nutshell — wasn’t even new when the Italians popularised it in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jonathan Wilson’s seminal history of soccer tactics, 

Inverting The Pyramid details how Herbert Chapman, future title-winning manager of Huddersfield Town and Arsenal and one of the most influential figures in the game’s early development, essentially invented counter-attacking in 1907 while manager of lowly Northampton Town. 

Reasoning that ‘a team can attack for too long,’ Wilson writes, “he began to encourage his team to drop back, his aim being less to check the opposition forwards than to draw out their defenders and so open up attacking space.”

But it was in Italy that the idea really took hold. They often referred to it as ‘the right of the weak’ and there were theories that it thrived on an inferiority complex brought on by widespread malnutrition in the post-war years. Wilson ascribes the actual invention of catenaccio to Gipo Viani, coach of little Salernitana, who, walking by the Mediterranean town’s harbour noticed how fishermen employed a reserve net, to catch fish that wriggled out of the main net when it was hauled ashore.

“This is his eureka moment,” writes Wilson, “he realises that what his side needs is a reserve defender operating behind the main defence to catch those forwards who slip through.” 

And so the sweeper was born.

If all this has parallels with the development of Gaelic football in the past two decades, then so too does the anguish it provoked. Catenaccio dominated Europe in the form of the Inter Milan team coached by Helenio Herrera, winning the European Cup in 1964 and 1965, but when Celtic beat them in the 1967 final it was seen as striking a blow for how football should be played. In the moments after Celtic’s exhilarating victory an elderly Portuguese official approached their manager Jock Stein.

“This attacking play, this is the real meaning of football. This is the true game,” the man said. Stein slapped him on the shoulder. “Go on, I could listen to you all night.”

 

But the very title of Wilson’s book sums up the underlying trends in how football was played: from the game’s early days when the prevailing formation was 1-1-8, with a battalion of forwards charging up and down the field, to the W-M formation of the first half of the century which saw a more even distribution between attack and defence, to the back fours and fives with defensive midfield screens and just one striker commonplace today.

Again, Gaelic football’s move from its classic 6-2-6 formation to multiple sweeper systems and defensive minded half-forwards is akin to soccer’s evolution, just compressed into a shorter time period.

The laws of soccer were tweaked to keep pace with the changes — for example, the offside rule was changed in 1925 to reduce the required players between the attacker and the goal from three to two — but by the 1990 World Cup the defensive impulse had morphed into an ugly, all-encompassing negativity.

That tournament saw what remains the lowest goal-per-game average (2.21) in any World Cup and a then-record 16 red cards accompanied by widespread cynicism and negative tactics. If there is a corresponding point in the development of soccer to Gaelic football’s current debate then it is in the decisions taken around this time.

Lawmakers acted partly over concern for the soul of the game, and partly in an effort to make the sport a more entertaining product for the 1994 World Cup’s American hosts. Immediately after the 1990 tournament, the offside law was changed to make players level with the second last man onside. 

Over the following years the law stopping goalkeepers picking up back-passes was introduced and the tackle from behind was banned, while red cards were to be awarded for cynical fouls preventing a goalscoring opportunity.

The remarkable success of these changes has shaped the game we see today. Improvements in pitches, equipment and player fitness have helped, but its unlikely the great Spanish and Barcelona teams would have thrived without these measures, nor would the goalscoring tallies of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been possible. Defensive systems still exist, but the balance is satisfactorily tilted towards attackers.

So can Gaelic football, dealing with many of the same agonies, learn from what soccer did? The first lesson is that there is nothing to fear from change.

Some have said that Gaelic football should be allowed to evolve naturally with innovations from rival coaches acting as an invisible hand shaping its development. But all sports tweak the laws to smarten up how they are presented. Take rugby rule-makers, for example, who are like a fussy gardener constantly trimming his privet hedge as they twiddle with ruck and scrum laws season upon season.

The laissez-faire approach aside, some clarity on the precise purpose of the changes would be good. 

“What would be really helpful is if the GAA came out and completely stated what exactly they are trying to achieve,” said Dublin footballer Jack McCaffrey in an interview with Off The Ball this week. 

The proposed changes apparently aim to make the game a more exciting spectacle by encouraging more contested exchanges and fewer periods of skull-crushingly dull possession retention.

McCaffrey, though, points out that the proposal to limit sequences of handpasses is attacking a symptom of defensive play and not the cause. In addition, limiting the options available to forwards in tight situations is hardly helping the attacking side, nor is the rule that sidelines must be kicked forward, which gives defensive teams less reason to leave players up the field.

Whether motivated by a desire for more exciting play or what Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien dismissed as a wish to return to “1940s, catch and kick, and wear your flat cap,” it’s unlikely Gaelic football’s rule changes will halt the broader evolution of the game. 

‘The right of the weak’ will still apply, but if the new measures are to work it must be hoped that they will check that defensive trend just enough. Soccer’s experience suggests that will come through a combination of disciplinary measures as well as rule changes, tilting that balance in favour of the spirit of the game.

And at least, no matter how bad things get, there won’t be too many perfect 0-0s to enjoy.

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