As one of the greatest footballing nations to ever do it, it’s difficult to detach the Italian game from the notorious ‘Catenaccio’ system that for so long dictated the frameworks from which many in the Serie A abided by.
Even throughout the heydays of showman-like figures, such as Roberto Baggio and Ronaldo Nazário, the artistry behind defending, mastered by sons of the tri-coloured nation like Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta and the Baresi brothers, has never been lost. In fact, in the eyes of many, it’s always been the main currency of “calcio”.
Deep into the 90s era, 22 clean sheets from a possible 34 enabled Fabio Capello’s AC Milan side, also en route to UEFA Champions League success, to clinch the 1993/94 league title, despite scoring just 36 league goals all season. To many, this was simply the culture, laid out by ‘Catenaccio’.
The term ‘Catenaccio’, meaning “door bolt,” owes its origins to Swiss football, but it wasn’t until the 1960s, under Helenio Herrera’s command of Internazionale, that the style of play projected itself to stardom.
Herrera’s influence was felt in the fashion capital in more ways than one, from the winning mentality invoked in his players, to strict guidelines on dieting and social life, but it was definitely the discipline and unification beaming from Inter’s 5-3-2, complete with a sweeper, that was catching all the attention as they ruled supreme in the European Cup in 1964 and 1965.
The system has been replicated many times before, right through to José Mourinho’s 2010 treble-winning outfit, also with the Nerazzurri, so we can certainly thank Herrera for the defensively-geared, chess-like feel often tagged to Italian football.
As any good follower of the Serie A will tell you, however, long gone are the days of militantly occupying the 18-yard-box, fighting tooth and nail for a 1-0 à la Milan and preying on the slightest lapse in concentration that every great Mourinho side has been able to capitalise on. The game is free, more frenetic and, contrary to popular belief, replenished with goals and attacking play.
But even the adopted father of the ‘Catenaccio,’ the late Herrera, never distanced himself from football’s true currency – goals – stating that whoever followed on with the system and neglected the attacking facets to the game simply wasn’t applying it correctly.
History backed the Spanish manager up. At the ‘Grande Inter,’ as they were coined, it was Armando Picchi’s anticipation and passing range from the sweeper position that gave the Italian giants the stability and platform to progress up the pitch via the flanks, through their full-backs. From left-back, in 1965/66, Giacinto Facchetti hit ten goals in the league – a record for many a year for a defender.
Lines of comparison can be drawn with this season’s iteration of Atalanta, with Robin Gosens, also from left-back, raking in nine Serie A goals at the time of writing, decorating his statistics further with an additional eight assists.
However, Atalanta are way more than a stone throw away from being your average ‘Catenaccio’ side, despite still favouring a variation of the five-at-the-back look. They’re a long way away from being the antithesis of that too – your more methodical, ball-hogging outfit that reigned supreme in the 2010 era.
For the mind behind the radicalisation of the two go-tos, the journey started at Serie C side Crotone, that Gian Piero Gasperini would soon turn into a Serie B side. The big introduction for the Italian manager came at Genoa, however, pulling more promotion tricks, this time up to the top flight, before securing Rossoblu’s highest ever league finish with 5th in the table.
Mourinho himself was full of praise for the ex-Palermo and Pescara player at the time, peaking Inter’s attention once the job vacancy opened up in June 2011. But life soured for Gasperini and his oft-criticised attacking 3-4-3 formation, landing him on the managerial causality list after just five games in command of the Guiseppe Meazza outfit.
The short-lived adventure led him to Palermo, replacing Giuseppe Sannino, coming across Paulo Dybala and current Atalanta star Josip Iličić for the first time. Sicily would play an even wilder part in Gasperini’s story, losing his job in February 2013 before being rehired just 20 days later. Then he was sacked again, after just two weeks and replaced by his predecessor Sannino, of all people.
Thankfully, for his own sanity, Atalanta were on hand to offer Gasperini a steadier project to sink his teeth into, with the Italian repaying the Bergamo outfit with a top four finish early doors.
From the get-go Gasperini captured hearts with his side’s urgent ways and man-made superiority on the pitch, geared towards reaching the opposition’s goal as quickly and cleanly as possible. Along the years, the goals have come en masse, none more so than the 93 already hit in the Serie A, this season, after 33 games, turning Atalanta from midtable regulars into one of the most adored quantities to watch on the continental sphere.
At Atalanta, the defending starts from the front with a high line in support, rather than the deep blocks of the past. Via a willing worker up top, flanked by more creative inside forwards, the wing-backs push right up the pitch too, staying on top of fellow full-backs to cut lateral options.
The front three take the back three centre backs in the press, or split to form a front two in the event of facing a back four, with the spare attacker complicating matters further back to mark out the defensive midfielder.
Similar intricacies are found within the back three, spread out high to man-mark a traditional three-pronged attack, or, in the case of coming up against a two-striker formation, enabling the central centre-back to push on further and track a more advanced playmaker.
From marauding centre backs to inverted creatives, Gasperini places the responsibility of inventiveness on those at the base of the squad and the three leading the attack, leaving the wing-backs and central midfielders to carry Atalanta physically.
Industry is favoured in the centre, opting for more energetic and combative players like Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler to lead by example. More refined figures, such as Alejandro Gomez and Ruslan Malinovskiy, then aid the build-up in occasional retreats from the attacking third, meanwhile the likes of Iličić pop up in pockets to other a more direct route between lines.
The wing-backs follow the central midfielders’ lead, bombing up and down and keeping as wide as possible to open new passing routes, stretch opposition defences and unlock backlines with the reception of quick switches of play. As a consequence, ‘La Dea’ are often able to outnumber defences on the break in a devastating manner, with wing-backs, in particular Gosens, popping up frequently at the back-post to contribute with goals.
Atalanta aren’t alone in their approach – Lazio have followed the model very closely and, with the third-best attack, rivalled the staggering amount of goals hit by Gasperini’s side, meanwhile 8th-placed Sassuolo have attracted praise for their like-minded progressive approach.
But for all the plaudits, the pragmatic half of the footballing world will always point towards the true barometer of success – trophies. This Atalanta side, ultimately going against Catenaccio’s rich heritage so valiantly, doesn’t have any. The league, despite a fine push, should be Juventus’ to lose with a seven-point-advantage over Atalanta and five games to spare. The Champions League is also anyone’s to pick up, but even as quarter-finalists, they’re far from favourites. Nor should they be, coming from humble beginnings.
That raises harsh questions, not just for Atalanta, but any side that places an attractive brand of football before lasting results. In 20-30 years, just how many will remember the heroics of Gasperini, Gomez et al. if their efforts aren’t complete with a trophy?
Maybe not everyone, but the people of Bergamo, marvelling at every minute of their side’s ventures as the most-talked about Serie A side, now a Champions League outfit too, will.
Their new-found fame, considered as everyone’s second favourite team, is a source of great pride to those who’ve been there every step of the way in the Gasperini era. Within it lies beauty, liberated from the viral obsession of winning trophies. It promotes the love for the game, powered by enjoyment, which should, and hopefully always will be the true essence of the game as long as team’s like Atalanta are around.