Italian-Style Manchester United: Sir Alex and his Catenaccio Tactics

catenaccio m. (plura; catenacci)
1. a bolt (for a door)
2. a system of defensive play in football

Catenaccio is a tactical playing scheme in the game of football. It consists mostly in a 5-4-1 formation alignment characterized by its defensive propensity.

Under the definition of catenaccio lie a series of modules and tactical schemes that define the main philosophy of the team’s defensive unit. The latter’s mission is essentially that of preventing the opposing team from scoring, an objective which is achieved by closing down (or precisely, “locking” or “bolting”) the area around the team’s own net.

The word ‘catenaccio’ has given origin to the term ‘catenacciaro’ in the Italian language (nowadays almost always employed with negative connotations), which is used to describe a manager or a team who, above all, are dedicated to all-out-defense tactics, to the destruction of the opponent’s plays and the renunciation to construct any type of attacking game, simply in order to prevent opposing strikers from getting a shot on goal.

Source: Italian Wikipedia (translated by Marco Pantanella)

The question all of you are now asking: how on Earth can the term ‘catenaccio‘ be applied to Manchester United? Sure, all they did against Barcelona on Wednesday was defend (hell, even Rooney and Tevez were playing center-backs at times) but the Red Devils are a team also capable of very attractive attacking-style football, a characteristic which they’ve demonstrated many times over in the Premier League this season. So… what gives?

Stefano Cantalupi (the same author of the excellent “Is Defence the Key to English Success in the UEFA Champions League This Season?” article) has the answer in today’s Gazzetta dello Sport:

Gazzetta dello Sport website logo

MILAN, 24 April 2008 – Roma manager Luciano Spalletti had said it on April 1, as he commented on his team’s defeat in the UEFA Champions’ League Quarter-Finals first leg: “Manchester United beat us 2-0, but they’re even more Italian than we are…“. A clear reference to the mentality shown by Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, victorious at the Stadio Olimpico of Rome through paying close attention to defensive play before launching fast counter-attacks. Last night, the Red Devils repeated the same tactic at Barcelona’s Nou Camp: they shut up shop in front of Van der Sar for most of the game, and allowed the Dutch goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet. In fact, if Cristiano Ronaldo hadn’t missed from the spot, perhaps United would have taken home another away win.

BARRICADESWayne Rooney tracking back as far as the corner flag, Owen Hargreaves playing as right-back, Carlos Tevez battling it out in centre-midfield, Cristiano Ronaldo isolated up front. “Catenaccio” is an obsolete term which no-one uses much any more, but how else to define the tactics chosen by Sir Alex Ferguson (and his loyal deputy Carlos Queiroz) for their trip to Catalonia? With ten men always playing behind the ball, this team looked less like Manchester and more like Rafael Benitez’s first glory-bound Liverpool side, the team which reached the UEFA Champions League final in 2005 and defeated AC Milan in Istanbul (under circumstances all-too-familiar for Rossoneri fans).

Samuel Eto\\\'o (center) sees his shot blocked by Wes Brown (left) and Rio Ferdinand (right) (Barcelona 0-0 Manchester United, UEFA Champions League Semi-Finals Leg 1, April 23, 2008)

ENTERTAINMENT IN THE PREMIERSHIP – However, before talking about Manchester Utd as “catenaccio merchants”, a few points should be made:

  1. Firstly, it is very likely the current Prem champions will play a very different game at Old Trafford next Tuesday, attacking with much more conviction and with the clear objective of scoring goals. This attitude should be greatly amplified, when one considers the added factor of home crowd support.

  2. With respect to traditional catenaccio tactics, Sir Alex Ferguson’s version has evolved: having won back the ball, the Red Devils always seek an immediate and concerted counter-attack, never completely abandoning the offensive. In contrast, catenaccio-style football’s main creed is that of preventing the opponent from scoring, even at the cost of one’s own offensive tactics.

  3. Finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Manchester Utd have frequently offered great entertainment this season and that Cristiano Ronaldo & colleagues are capable of playing very attractive football. The problem is that while the red-shirted superstars put on a show in the Premier League, they seem like a different side in Europe.

STATISTICS – Sir Alex got his fingers burnt last season: does the defeat to AC Milan in the Semi-Finals still weigh on his mind? Let’s look at some figures: in the 2006-07 Champions’ League, United had already conceded 10 goals by this point in the competition. This time around they have only conceded 5. Also, the United defence will finish better than last year in the Premier League as well, provided that in the last 3 games of the season they concede less than 8 goals. With players like Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic in top condition, this shouldn’t be too hard, should it?

Man Utd\'s center-backs Nemanja Vidic (left) and Rio Ferdinand

LENIENT PRESS – ‘Negative when playing away, braver at home’ seems to be the dominating characteristic of Man Utd this season. The European press hasn’t criticised the Red Devils’ attitude however. The English tabloids have concentrated only on Cristiano Ronaldo’s unexpected error from the penalty spot, while the Spanish press (including El Mundo Deportivo and Sport, the leading Catalan sports papers) have praised Barcelona and focused on United’s “ordenada defensa” (well-organised defence). Would they have used the same measured tones to describe a similar performance from say… an Italian side? Or would they have talked about “extreme defensiveness”?

Let’s be clear: the Serie A sides were basically failures in this edition of the UEFA Champions’ League, and the quality of the top ranks of English club football is, at the moment, clearly superior. But if even a big side like Manchester Utd resorts to closing down in defense from time to time, shouldn’t it be pointed out? Admitting it with honesty shouldn’t be a problem, perhaps even praise the humility of champions like Rooney, Tevez etc. who are willing to work so hard and sacrifice themselves in uncommon roles. There’s no shame in it, surely?

Marco Pantanella features on the Editing team of Soccerlens and is the Author & Chief Editor of the mCalcio blog.

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