Tactics: Will 2010s see Rebirth of Libero?

7 05 2010

When Mark Wright lined up as Sweeper for England against Holland in the 1990 World Cup it could be seen as the final confirmation that the Libero was now all-conquering. England, that bastion of 4-4-2, would operate with either Wright or Terry Butcher in the role all the way through the knockout phases of the tournament until the misery of a Semi-Final shoot-out defeat. For the first time, much to Pele’s disgust, Brazil would experiment with the system on the grandest of stages. The final itself would be contested with Klaus Augenthaler and Juan Simon playing the role for Germany and Argentina respectively. Fait accompli.
Twenty years on, it would seem the Libero role is all but dead. Not a single team at Euro 2008 fielded a conventional sweeper. What happened?
The initial explanation is relatively simple. Football is a game of problems and solutions. In this case: the 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 emerged.  See below:

At one fell stroke, the 3-5-2 is matched in midfield and the wing-backs are pinned back. The 4-3-3 is able to create a damaging overload due to the ‘spare’ full-backs whilst the 3-5-2 has its spare men in the centre of defence: 3 vs 1. The Libero now finds himself virtually redundant in the least dangerous area of the pitch.
With no sign of the shift towards one central striker abating (indeed no striker is a more likely development than two) it is tempting to conclude that the Libero is finished. Well, no. The new Libero is surely the spare centre-back? A pair of ‘stoppers’  were always likely to have their place in the game whilst teams fielded 2 strikers and the main objective of the role remained winning the individual battle with the striker. Now the free man is the 2nd centre-back and the onus is on this player to be able to step into midfield and utilise the opportunities that being ‘free’ brings. Gerard Pique and Martin Dimichelis are good examples of defenders who are willing and able to move into the space in front of them and have done so with some success in this year’s Champions League. The semi-final between Inter and Barcelona promises to provide a fascinating insight into the importance of the new Libero. If Mourinho continues to attempt to pin back the opposition full-backs by using Pandev and Eto’o high, it could be vital for Barcelona that they carry the ball forward centrally… Gerard Pique, a Libero for the 21st century.