L'inventore del catenaccio

Karl Rappan (Vienna, 26 settembre 1905 - Berna, 2 gennaio 1996)
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Da Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid

There is no tactical system so notorious as catenaccio. To generations, the word - which means ‘chain’, in the sense of a chain on a house door - summons up Italian football at its most paranoid, negative and brutal. So reviled was it in Britain that when Jock Stein’s Celtic beat Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale, its prime exponents, in the European Cup final of 1967, the Liverpool manager Bill Shankly congratulated him by insisting the victory had made him ‘immortal’. It later emerged that he had instructed two Celtic coaches to sit behind the Inter bench and abuse Herrera throughout the game. Herrera would always insist he was misunderstood, that his system, like Herbert Chapman’s, had acquired an unfavourable reputation only because other, lesser sides attempting to copy his team’s style implemented it so badly. That remains debatable but, sinister as catenaccio became, its origins were homely.
It began in Switzerland with Karl Rappan. Softly-spoken, understated and noted for his gentle dignity, Rappan was born in Vienna in 1905, his professional career as a forward or attack-minded half coinciding with the golden age of Viennese football in the mid-to late twenties. So rooted was he in coffee-house society that later in life he ran the Café de la Bourse in Geneva. He was capped for Austria and won the league with Rapid Vienna in 1930, after which he moved to Switzerland to become player-coach at Servette. His players there were semi-professional and so, according to Walter Lutz, the doyen of Swiss sportswriting, Rappan set about devising a way of compensating for the fact that they could not match fully professional teams for physical fitness.
‘With the Swiss team tactics play an important role,’ Rappan said in a rare interview with World Soccer magazine shortly before the World Cup in 1962. ‘The Swiss is not a natural footballer, but he is usually sober in his approach to things. He can be persuaded to think ahead and to calculate ahead.
‘A team can be chosen according to two points of view. Either you have eleven individuals, who owing to sheer class and natural ability are enabled to beat their opponents - Brazil would be an example of that - or you have eleven average footballers, who have to be integrated into a particular conception, a plan. This plan aims at getting the best out of each individual for the benefit of the team. The difficult thing is to enforce absolute tactical discipline without taking away the players’ freedom of thinking and acting.’
His solution, which was given the name verrou - bolt - by a Swiss journalist, is best understood as a development from the old 2-3-5 - which had remained the default formation in Vienna long after Chapman’s W-M had first emerged in England. Rather than the centre-half dropping in between the two full-backs, as in the W-M, the two wing-halves fell back to flank them. They retained an attacking role, but their primary function was to combat the opposition wingers. The two full-backs then became in effect central defenders, playing initially almost alongside each other, although in practice, if the opposition attacked down their right, the left of the two would move towards the ball, with the right covering just behind, and vice versa. In theory, that always left them with a spare man - the verouller as the Swiss press of the time called him, or the libero as he would become - at the back.
The system’s main shortcoming was that it placed huge demands on the centre-half. Although on paper the formation - with four defenders, a centrehalf playing behind two withdrawn inside-forwards, and a string of three across the front - looks similar to the modern 4-3-3 as practised by, say, Chelsea in José Mourinho’s first two seasons at the club, the big difference is how advanced the wingers were. They operated as pure forwards, staying high up the pitch at all times rather than dropping back to help the midfield when possession was lost. That meant that when the verrou faced a W-M, the front three matched up in the usual way against the defensive three and inside-forwards took the opposition’s wing-halves, leaving the centre-half to deal with two inside-forwards. This was the problem sides playing a libero always faced: by creating a spare man in one part of the pitch, it necessarily meant a shortfall elsewhere.

Against a 2-3-5, the situation was even worse. The side playing the verrou had a man over at both ends of the pitch, but that meant the centre-half was trying to cope not only with the opposing inside-forwards, but also the other centre-half. That was all but impossible, so Rappan’s team tended to drop deep, cede the midfield to their opponents and, by tight marking, present a solid front to frustrate them so they ended up passing the ball fruitlessly sideways. As the system developed, the burden was taken off the centre-half as an inside-forward gradually fell back to play alongside him, but the more striking change was that made to the defensive line as one of the two full-backs (that is, the de facto centre-backs) dropped behind the other as an orthodox sweeper.
Rappan won two league titles with Servette and five more with Grasshoppers, whom he joined in 1935, but it was his successes with the Switzerland national side that really demonstrated the efficacy of his system. Rappan became national coach in 1937, with a brief to lead Switzerland into the 1938 World Cup. At the time, Switzerland were regarded as the weakest of the central European nations, and their record in the Dr Gerö Cup was correspondingly poor: played 32, won 4, drawn 3, lost 25. Using the verrou, though, they beat England 2-1 in a pre-World Cup friendly, and then beat Germany - by then encompassing Austria - in the first round of the tournament itself, before going down 2-0 to Hungary. That was an honourable exit - far more than Switzerland had achieved.