18/01/2024 06:13



A classic World Cup encounter was that of Manchester United’s deep lying England center forward, Bobby Charlton, and sweeper in defense, Franz Beckenbauer, who though he’d often reprise his earlier role as a central midfielder, found his niche in soccer history in the role of libero, as it’s called in Italy, for Bundesliga club, Bayern Munich, and the German national team.

 The role of the 'free' back is to ‘sweep up’, that is, take the ball away from the opponent, usually as a last ditch defense, but turned into a counter-attacking position by Beckenbauer, allying his almost prescient ability to know where to intervene, with the ball distributing vision of a playmaker behind the forwards, and who in support would often score remarkable, often seemingly impossible goals, after dispossessing his antagonist, moving up field, exchanging quick one-touch passes in midfield, and one-twos again with the attackers, getting into a place from which to strike.

 In English soccer, known as sistema, ‘the system', in Italy, the role of the ‘sweeper’ arose from the half-back line, for example, the United team that won the league titles of 1908 and 1911, and the 1909 F.A. Cup Final, 1-0, against Bristol City, with a strike from inside left, Sandy Turnbull, from the rebound, after inside right, Harold Halse, hit the bar, had a half-back line of Dick Duckworth, Charlie Roberts and Scot, Alex Bell, across the middle in front of ‘keeper, Harry Moger, as well as wing backs, which became full backs in the modern game.

 The half-back line lasted a long time in soccer, for example, the 1948 United side that won the F.A. Cup, 4-2, against Blackpool, had John Anderson at right half, Allenby Chilton at center half, and Henry Cockburn at left half, while the side that won the F.A. Cup in 1963, 3-1 against Leicester City, had Scot, Paddy Crerand on the right, Bill Foulkes in the center, and Maurice Setters on the left. Whereas the less wealthy Italian clubs adopted the libero to counter a man-to-man marking system pitting players positionally against each other, which favored the strongest individuals, soccer in England moved towards a pair of central defenders and an additional ‘hard man’ in midfield, there to break up attacks before they started, a role filled to perfection for United and England by Nobby Stiles, playing against Germany in the 1966 World Cup Final at London’s national Wembley stadium with center forward for West Ham United of Stratford, East London, Geoff Hurst, scoring a ‘hat-trick', 3, as England won, 4-2, and Beckenbauer finding Charlton too difficult to control.

 The same was true in the 1970 World Cup quarter final at Estadio de Guanajuato, La Martinica, León de los Aldama, Mexico, with England leading, after a cross on the right from Everton full back, Keith Newton, turned in at the near post by midfielder, Alan Mullery of Tottenham Hotspur, on 32 minutes, 1-0, and a goal on 49 minutes, after the break, from another cross by Newton, ran into the net at the far post by Spurs forward, Martin Peters, 2-0, and cruising. However, England’s Chelsea ‘keeper, Peter Bonetti, allowed a long range Beckenbauer shot to slip through, 2-1, on 69 minutes. Manager Alf Ramsey took Charlton and Peters off, reportedly saving the pair for the semi-final, but having the unintended effect of freeing Bayern’s Beckenbauer from defense, and captain and center forward, Hamburger SV's Uwe Seeler, equalized with a back header from a long 76th minute ball forward into the area from Italian club A.C. Milan’s left back, Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, 2-2, before left winger, Hannes Löhr of FC Cologne in the 108th minute, a.e.t., near post, left, headed a cross from substitute Jürgen Grabowski of Eintracht Frankfurt back across to where goal poaching Bayern center forward, Gerhard Müller, was lurking at the far post to lash it right footed into the net, 2-3.

 Franz, nicknamed ‘the Kaiser’, that is, ‘the Emperor’ by the German media, had antecedents with Bobby, who was a survivor of the Munich air disaster of February 6th, 1958, when the airliner, British European Airways Flight 609, taking the team back to Manchester, crashed on the snowbound runway at its third attempt to take off from Riem-Munich airport, Munich. The flight was scheduled to refuel in Munich, because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the range of the ‘Elizabethan’-class Airspeed Ambassador. The injured, some unconscious, were taken to Munich's Rechts der Isar Hospital, where 3 more died, total 23 with 21 survivors. Reserve full back, Geoff Bent, England captain, and left back, Roger Byrne, right wing-half, midfielder Eddie Colman, left half, Duncan Edwards, who died 15 days later, center half, Mark Jones, left winger, David Pegg, center forward, Tommy Taylor, and Irish inside forward, Liam Whelan, all lost their lives, while right winger, Johnny Berry and Northern Irish inside forward, Jackie Blanchflower, were too badly injured ever to play again.

 Roger, Eddie, Mark, Duncan, and Tommy had been members of the team that had drawn, 3-3, with Red Star Belgrade, with a goal from Dennis Viollet after 2 minutes, and Bobby getting two more in the 30th and 31st minutes, 3-0, at half-time in the away leg of the European Champions’ Cup quarter final, Yugoslavia (Serbia), to secure a semi final against Spain's Real Madrid, who were on their way to five successive triumphs in the competition since winning it in 1955-56. United wouldn’t recover sufficiently to win until 1968, 4-1, a.e.t., against Portugal's Benfica at Wembley.

 Beckenbauer, born in the post-WWII ruins of Munich, Giesing district, would be aware of the tragedy befalling Charlton, before joining Bayern’s youth team in 1959. Following defeat to England in the 1966 World Cup Final, he was in the Bayern side that defeated Scots’ club Rangers in the 1967 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final, 1-0, Städtisches Stadion, Nuremberg, and in the German team that lost ‘the game of the century’ to Italy, 3-4, in the 1970 World Cup semi final at Estadio Azteca, Mexico City, before captaining Germany to World Cup triumph at Olympiastadion, Munich, 2-1, against Holland in 1974. The European Cup was won three times in succession when he was captain of Bayern. In 1974, 1-1, and 4-0, after a replay against Spain's Atlético Madrid at Heysel Stadium, Brussels, Belgium. Retained in 1975, 2-0 against England's Leeds United, Parc des Princes, Paris, France, and defended once more in 1976, 1-0 against France’s Saint-Étienne, at Scotland’s Hampden Park, Glasgow.

 Italy’s catenaccio, ‘door-bolt’ system , offers broad protection for younger players, in terms of their physical, mental, and technical development, and probably helped French generalissimo, Paul Pogba, for example, 2011 F.A. Youth Cup Final winner, 6-3 on aggregate against Sheffield United, before agreeing to join Juventus of Turin, where he won four successive Serie A titles; 2012-13, and Supercoppa Italiana, 2013-14, 2014-15, and Coppa Italia, and Supercoppa Italiana, and 2015-16, and Coppa Italia.

 Belgium’s left footed playmaker, Adnan Januzaj, 15 starts and 12 appearances for 4 goals in 2013-14, receiving more protection there, flourished in Europe, after leaving the ‘sink or swim' English game of uncompromising center backs, and central midfield hard men. Though perceived as defensive, the libero has his advantages, which Dutch manager, Louis van Gaal, experimenting with three center backs, after being appointed to succeed David Moyes for 2014-15, sought to introduce. Despite criticism, being replaced by Portuguese manager for 2016-17, José Mourinho, after winning the F.A. Cup Final in 2016, Gaal’s three at the back had some influential impact on the coaching side.

 Traditionally United had two in midfield. A holding ball winner allied to a creative playmaker; feeding twin strikers, and complimenting left and right wingers. As the idea of a ball-playing centrocampista had disappeared with the half back line, there was no sense of a gap in the center of the pitch. The symmetry of two full backs, two center backs, a left and right wing half in midfield, left and right wingers, and twin strikers, created a spectacle the terraced ranks paid to watch.

 However, the desirability of taking hold of the center was demonstrated admirably by Danish ‘keeper, Peter Schmeichel, famous for going up to the halfway line, as an additional midfielder, if United needed a goal, and even into the opponent’s penalty area, scoring a goal, with a header, as he did in the 89th minute, 2-2, against Russia’s Rotor Volgogrod, in the UEFA Cup Round 1 at ‘the theater of Dreams’, on September 26th, 1995.

 That’s where Peter was when England’s center forward, Teddy Sheringham, equalizing right inside forward Mario Basler’s 6th minute free-kick, left, bent right footed around the United wall, low, and inside the right post, 1-0, scored the 91st minute equalizer, 1-1, steering Wales’ left winger Ryan Giggs’ shot into the net against Bayern in the 1999 European Cup Final, won, 2-1, with a strike from Norwegian center forward, Solskjaer, with only the ball to beat, after Sheringham nodded on England right winger David Beckham's corner in the 93rd minute, at FC Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium, Spain.

 Spain’s Ander Herrera, bought by Gaal for 2014-15 for €36m from Athletic Bilbao, was utilized by Mourinho as a central playmaker, behind a lone striker, and inside forwards, nominally labeled left wingers, ahead of a midfield two, essentially right and left wing halves, with Paul Pogba, returning for €105m from Juvé, center left. Ousting Spain’s left footed Juan Mata, who thereafter had the role of outside left, inside left, or inverted outside and inside right, Pogba, at the Friends Arena venue, Solna, Stockholm, Sweden, got the first, 1-0, in the 2017 Europa Cup Final defeat of Dutch club, Ajax, Amsterdam, with a low left foot shot on 18 minutes, looping over Cameroon ‘keeper, André Onana, deflected off Columbian center back, Davinson Sánchez. Pogba was deployed alongside England’s Michael Carrick, center right, and later Nemanja Matić, £40m from Chelsea from 2017-18. While Armenian captain and right footed winger, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, bought for 2016-17 from German club Borussia Dortmund for £27m, scoring the second, with his right foot, 2-0, an overhead kick on 48 minutes, deployed as an inverted left wing.

 Herrera later played behind the midfield two, as a hard tackling half back, or the stamina of box-to-box Belgian, Marouane Fellaini, brought by Moyes with him from Everton for £27.5m, after his appointment to replace retiring Alex Ferguson for 2013-14, and Fellaini was there in the ‘diamond’ for the 2017 Europa Cup Final. Behind the three up front, Marouane, known for his heading ability in support of the forward line, demonstrated the influence of the ‘free’ central player of European soccer strategy and tactics.

 With 4-3-3 the centrocampista is ultimately defensive, as those nominally in front of the diamond aren’t necessarily forwards, that is, 4-1-2-3, 4-2-1-3, and 4-3-1-2, etc., are centrocampista versions of 4-4-2, and although 4-2-4 means wingers, in the absence of a recognizable sweeper, while the inclusion of a libero still remains an option, the devolution of the diamond is 4-1-4-1, that is, a midfielder in front of the back four, and behind the rest of the midfield, with a lone striker up front, which though protective of the indisputably valuable playmaker, the forecast is not enough goals to look like reign.

 When Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, effectively replacing Mourinho from December 19th, 2019, bought playmaker, Bruno Fernandes, from Portugal’s Sporting CP of Lisbon on January 30th, 2020, for €80m, the fans anticipations were higher than four semi-final defeats, and defeat in the Europa Cup Final of 2021, 10-11, a.e.t., against Spain’s Villarreal on penalties, with the full-time score, 1-1, after a 55th minute equalizing strike from Uruguayan center forward, Edinson Cavani, after a 20 yard shot from Rashford, blocked, fell favorably to his right boot inside Villarreal ‘keeper Onana's penalty area. The Final was notable for emphasizing a trend. Both wide players were center forwards, essentially functioning in the role of inverted inside forwards, that is, Mason Greenwood on the right, as an inverted left footed right winger, and Marcus Rashford on the left as an inverted right footed left winger.

 Cavani had taken Zlatan Ibrahimović’s mantle of Paris Saint-Germain’s all-time top scorer, before following the Swede to Old Trafford for season 2020-21, like ‘Ibra’, as a free agent. Doubts about Zlatan’s fitness before Cavani’s arrival led to his departure on March 23rd, 2018, for US’ Major League Soccer club, LA Galaxy, and United never had the two forwards striking together. Zlatan had sustained a ligament injury on April 20th and was substituted by France center forward, right winger, and sometime inverted left winger, Anthony Martial, in the 90th minute of the second home leg of the 2017 Europa Cup quarter final defeat of Belgium’s Anderlecht, 1-0, on 10 minutes through a low, right footed strike, center and left of Spanish ‘keeper, Rubén Iván Martínez, from Mkhitaryan, in the midfield diamond role, found with a pass by Rashford, inside left, cancelled out, 1-1, by Algeria’s attacking midfielder, Sofiane Hanni, right footed on 32 minutes, low from a rebound, when right central midfielder Youri Tielmans’ left foot shot, deflected, hit the bar, but 2-1, a.e.t., after an aerial knock down from Fellaini. Rashford, in the inverted left winger role, with his right instep dragged the ball around and behind his left leg, allowing it to roll into a position where he struck left footed, in the 107th minute.

 Solskjaer reached the semi final of League Cup, F.A. Cup, and Europa Cup in 2020, before reaching the League Cup semi final in 2021, as well as losing the 2021 Europa Cup Final, replaced for 2022-23 by Dutch manager of Eredivisie Ajax, Amsterdam, Erik ten Hag, after former Leipzig manager, German Ralf Rangnick, on November 29th was appointed as interim boss until the end of 2021-22. Ten Hag moved quickly to bring, for £82m from Ajax, Brazilian inverted right winger, left footed Antony, to play on the right. Complimenting right footed, inverted left winger, Rashford, United won the 2023 League Cup Final, 2-0, against Newcastle United, with go-getting right midfield, Brazilian Casemiro, bought for the start of the term by ten Hag from Real Madrid for £60m, getting the first, with a header from left back Luke Shaw’s free kick on 33 minutes, and Rashford the second, after being put through by on loan Burnley center forward, Netherlands’ Wout Weghorst, his shot deflected in off defender, Sven Botman, on 39 minutes.

 Beaten at Wembley, 1-2, by Manchester City, eventual winners of the 2022-23 treble of league, F.A. Cup, and European Cup, 1-0 against Italy’s Internazionale of Milan at Atatürk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul, Turkey, with inverted left winger, bought by Solskjaer for 2021-22 from Germany’s Borussia Dortmund for £73m, right footed, Jadon Sancho, Rashford was at center forward. Ten Hag’s deploying of Portuguese right footed right back, Diogo Dalot, bought by Mourinho from FC Porto for £19m for 2018-19, as an inverted left back, for left footed socceroos, on the left side of the line up, was mene tekel upharsin, while buying left footed Danish striker, Rasmus Højlund, for 2023-24 from Italy’s Atalanta for £64m, to be the latest cutting edge of Bruno Fernandes’ diamond, 2 goals in 13 starts and 3 appearances, before United’s 4th Round F.A. Cup tie at Newport, on January 28th, 2024, that is, the club’s last realistic chance of silverware for that campaign's trophy cabinet, bluntly showed that an eagle with its wings on backwards might deceive for a time, but it won’t fly well enough to prey with the others.