Tactical Evolution: Could 2014 Welcome Back the Legend of the Libero?

Jonathan WilsonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2014

Franz Beckenbauer
Franz BeckenbauerGetty Images/Getty Images

The evolution of football tactics is rarely entirely logical. Even when the game is ripe for a particular change, it takes a manager with the right set of players and the right circumstances to enact it, so predicting what the innovations or trend to come may be is always a risky business.

What can be said, though, is that there is one development that is overdue. Football seems ready for the defender as playmaker, the second coming of the libero.

We’ve become used in recent years to seeing full-backs attacking, particularly given the possibility of overlapping inverted wingers who cut infield. Although we may designate formations as having a back four, it’s often the case that the full-backs are less defenders than wide players, with responsibility for patrolling the whole of the flank (in this sense “lateral,” the Spanish term for the position, which conveys an idea of width but not depth, often seems rather more apposite than the English “full-back”).

As Jack Charlton, then the Republic of Ireland manager, pointed out after the 1994 World Cup, when 4-4-2 was still the predominant mode, the full-back was the one player who had space in front of him and so time to dictate the play.

With the modern prevalence of 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations meaning wide players often play high up, tight against the full-back, that means the key tactical battle in games
these days is often that scrap on the flanks. The full-back no longer has the space he would have had when 4-4-2 met 4-4-2.

When a 4-4-2 met a 4-4-2, full-backs were blessed with space.
When a 4-4-2 met a 4-4-2, full-backs were blessed with space.Tighe B/R

That space that Charlton spoke about does still exist, though, it’s just not in the same place it used to be. Although the strike pairing has begun to make a reappearance over the past few months, there are still a large number of teams who play with a lone central striker. 

Given very few teams play with a back three, that means most teams counter that single presence with two central defenders: one to mark and one to cover.

That has come to seem natural, but it’s not so long ago that two central defenders picked up two centre-forwards. The spare defender is a modern luxury. He should, in theory, have space in front of him and that means he should be able to advance, to step up into midfield, changing the angle of attack, adding a body to that central area and thus potentially drawing markers away from other players.

If he has the confidence to step forward, as the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Gaetano Scirea used to, he can even be an overtly attacking presence, who is almost impossible for opponents to pick up because he comes from so deep.

When a 4-2-3-1 meets a 4-2-3-1, the space is now in front of the spare centre-back
When a 4-2-3-1 meets a 4-2-3-1, the space is now in front of the spare centre-backTighe B/R

To an extent we’ve already seen the playmaking defender begin to make a comeback. Pep Guardiola often used Sergio Busquets as a centre-back at Barcelona, and part of the point of dropping Javier Mascherano back to play as a central defender was to introduce a passing presence at the back.

Javi Martinez did much the same, first for Athletic Bilbao and then for Bayern Munich. At the same time, there are increasing numbers of central defenders who are comfortable on the ball: Daniel Agger at Liverpool, Leonardo Bonucci at Juventus and Mats Hummels at Dortmund to name but three.

Bonucci, of course, has the advantage of playing in a back three and so having additional cover, and that may be the way the change is most easily effected.

Will the libero return in 2014? What is certainly true is that there’s a general shift towards universalism, towards players being able to fulfil more than one function. Football is ready for the playmaking centre-back, but whether he will emerge this year, in five years, or not at all before the tactical environment changes and the opportunity is lost, is impossible to say.