Long Reads

Helenio Herrera: Perfector of Catenaccio and Architect of La Grande Inter

Helenio Herrera

Among the most iconic dynasties of Italian football lies the Inter Milan of the 1960s, known by many as “La Grande Inter”.  Manager Helenio Herrera and his team, led by Giacinto Facchetti, Amando Picci, and Sandro Mazzola, among others, won Serie A three times, the European Cup twice, and the Intercontinental Cup twice.

Herrera’s tactics and his players’ talent created an era that influenced the whole of European football. While many know what the team achieved and how it played, less is commonly known about how the team came together.
Herrera’s adaptation and modification of the defensive “catenaccio” system either positively or negatively affected football, depending on who is asked. The system’s 5-3-2 formation lent itself to the neutralization of opposition attacks and encouraged swift counter attacks.

To many, Herrera became the first superstar manager, oftentimes outshining his players. At Inter, it did not hurt that he coached many of the club’s legends of the time. For La Grande Inter to come together, it took a perfect combination of circumstances. Herrera’s fallout at Barcelona, the appointment of Italian oil tycoon Angelo Moratti as Inter chairman, and a team of generational talents hitting their prime all contributed to creating the team.

To better understand the team, the manager, the tactics, and the legacy that was left behind, it is important to understand how the team was born.

Inter Before Herrera
After World War II, Inter regained their pre-fascist “Internazionale” moniker after being branded with multiple variations of “Sportiva Ambrosiana” to appease the pre-WWII regime. However, the name changes did not spur much success. Between 1946 and 1960, Inter won only two Serie A titles, coming in back to back seasons in 1952-53 and 1953-54.

Legendary Hungarian attacker Istvan Nyers led the line for Inter in the late 40s to mid-50s, including the championship seasons. During his time at Inter, Nyers scored 133 goals in 182 games. However, besides the two championships, Inter finished in Serie A’s top three only five times.

Turbulence prevailed in the 1950s for Inter, as the club made 11 managerial changes in the decade. The changes included bringing in all-time record goalscorer Giuseppe Meazza for two separate stints at the helm.

Angelo Moratti became chairman of the club in 1955, just after the two championships. Moratti’s Inter only managed two top three finishes from 1955 to Herrera’s appointment in 1960. In the same time, Moratti ran through 11 managers in just five years before the opportunity to appoint Herrera emerged.

Herrera to Inter
After falling out with players and management at Barcelona, including star striker Laszlo Kubala, Herrera left the club in 1960, making the move to the city of Milan. The move came after he led Barcelona to two consecutive La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey, and two Inter-Cities Fairs Cups, a predecessor to the UEFA Cup and Europa League. With Herrera, Barcelona’s key midfield cog and Ballon d’Or winner, Luis Suarez, made the move to Inter a year later.

The Tactics
In making the move to Inter, Herrera used the change of scenery as an opportunity to make a change in tactics. At Barcelona, a club known for its uncompromising philosophy of attacking play, Herrera’s teams looked to attack. However, moving away allowed him the freedom to experiment. These experiments resulted famously in catenaccio, Herrera’s defensive masterpiece.

The system did not spring up overnight, though. Its roots actually lie in Austrian manager Karl Rappan’s “verrou” system, implemented in the Swiss national team of the 1930s. Just as catenaccio translates to door bolt or lock in Italian, verrou translates to roughly the same in French. Catenaccio in Italy began with Padova and manager Nereo Rocco. The Italian manager earned the Veneto club promotion to Serie A from Serie B, then finished second place in the top flight in the late 1940s and early 50s. Just as Rappan had before, Rocco’s system implemented three defenders with a fourth, sometimes called a sweeper or libero, behind them. Rocco also found success with his system at AC Milan in the 1960s and 70s.

The big change in the system came when Herrera adopted and modified the system to go from four defenders to five. Like the previous iterations, the defence consisted of a line of defenders with a sweeper behind, usually captain Armando Picchi. However, Herrera’s line had four men in it instead of just three. The extra man allowed for more freedom on counterattacks, especially for left back Giacinto Facchetti, who regularly tallied double-digit scoring seasons from defence. The rest of the team relied on quick, vertical attacks after winning the ball, adding a rapid attacking threat on top of the tightly woven defence.

The Players
The core of Herrera’s La Grande Inter made it to the club in three waves. The first wave consisted of inherited players, including defender Aristide Guarneri and winger Mario Corso.

The second arrived the same year as Herrera, 1960. The moves included a teenage Facchetti and the libero of Herrera’s defence, Picci. Another teenager, Sandro Mazzola, broke into the team in 1960 as well, moving through the club’s youth system. The third wave arrived in the years leading up to the club’s first European Cup in 1964. Herrera’s midfield leader at Barcelona, Suarez, swapped Spain for Italy in 1961 for 250 million Italian Lire, equivalent to €175,000, making him the most expensive transfer at the time. Inter then plucked Brazillian winger Jair da Costa out of his home country in 1962. The goalkeeper for La Grande Inter, Giuliano Sarti, swapped Fiorentina for Inter in 1963, solidifying most of the team that went on to capture consecutive European Cups.

The Buildup
Despite the lasting legacy, success for Herrera’s Inter did not come overnight. The 1960-61 season, his first, ended with a modest third-place finish. The following season resulted in a slight improvement. Inter finished, second behind city rivals AC Milan. Despite the change in position on the table, Inter found themselves five points off of the top spot, the same distance as the season prior.

The Trophies
Inter found their breakthrough in the 1962-63 season, winning the league for the first time in nearly a decade by four points over Juventus in the era where wins only earned two points. As a result, Inter qualified for the European Cup for the first time in club history. However, because AC Milan won the competition in the 62-63 season, Inter found themselves in the qualifying round for the following season.

The extra round did not pose a problem to Inter, who stormed to winning the competition at the first time of asking. After defeating Everton 1-0 over two legs in the preliminary round, Inter beat Monaco, Partizan, and Borussia Dortmund over two legs each, not losing a single match, en route to the final against Real Madrid. Inter won the final 3-1, with two goals from Mazzola coming on either side of an Aurelio Milani goal. Eleven days later, Inter narrowly missed out on a European Cup-Serie A double, losing a Serie A tiebreaker 2-0 to Bologna, crowning them champions over Inter. The following season, Inter completed the double, winning Serie A and the European Cup. The consecutive European Cup wins meant Inter had gone two for two in their appearances in the competition. Perhaps even more impressive than the season before, Inter did not even draw a single of their European Cup matches in the two legged rounds or the final, winning all seven. Jair scored the only goal in the final in Milan, beating Benfica 1-0. On top of the two trophies, Inter added a third, the Intercontinental Cup.

In their third season of European Cup football, Inter finally tasted defeat in the competition. They lost the first match of their first round tie against Dinamo Bucuresti 2-1, but turned the tie around in the home leg 2-0 to advance. In the semifinals, Real Madrid exacted their revenge from 1964, winning the first leg 1-0 and drawing the second 1-1 to sink Inter on their way to winning the competition. Despite the European Cup heartbreak, Inter managed to claim the 10th Serie A title in the club’s history and repeat as Intercontinental Cup champions.

The Decline
The 1966–67 season became Inter’s first season without a trophy since 1961-62 and indicated the beginning of the end. Inter endured two heartbreaking results that season. On May 25, 1967 Inter lost 2-1 in the European Cup final to Celtic’s iconic “Lisbon Lions”. Just three days later, losing 1-0 to Mantova on the final matchday by way of a goal scored by former Inter attacker Beniamino Di Giacomo doomed Inter to second place in Serie A, just one point behind arch rivals Juventus. The results meant a trophy-less season for Inter, with no European Cup football for the next season.

In the next season, Herrera’s last with the club, Inter sank to fifth in Serie A, thirteen points behind league champions AC Milan.

After a successful and illustrious decade, Herrera and Inter parted ways. The manager moved to Roma, where he became the highest-paid manager in the world at the time. His stint in the capital city did not bring the same level of success as his time in the city of Milan, though he did bring them a Coppa Italia in 1969.

The Legacy
Inter bounced back in the 1970s, winning Serie A in 1971 but losing the European Cup final to Johan Cruyff’s Ajax. Despite brief spells of success in the coming decades, including three UEFA Cup wins in the 1990s, the combination of both domestic and European success created by Herrera with his Grande Inter side went unmatched at Inter for decades. Only the successes of manager Roberto Mancini’s Serie A titles from 2005 to 2008 and the subsequent Serie A titles and the unprecedented Serie A, Coppa Italia, and Champions League treble of Jose Mourinho in 2010.

Helenio Herrera’s achievements, revolutionary tactics, and larger than life persona created an era at Inter that changed the landscape of European football. Whether you love or hate the defensively pragmatic legacy that he left behind, it is impossible to dispute his legendary status. At Inter, he will be forever remembered for spawning the careers of many legendary players, fostering a winning mindset that every Inter team after seeks to emulate, and for putting the bolt on Inter’s packed trophy cabinet.